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Mainstream, VOL L No 12, March 10, 2012

West Bengal: The Mukherji Commission Report on Sainbari Murders Revisited

Tuesday 13 March 2012, by D. Bandyopadhyay

The Government of West Bengal constituted a Commission of Inquiry into the Sainbari Murder Affairs under Justice (Retd) T.P. Mukherji on April 28, 1970. The Mukherji Commission submitted its report on July 27, 1970. The government, by a notification dated July 25, 1972, published the Report for general information. The Report is, therefore, in the public domain.

The reason for revisiting the Mukherji Commi-ssion Report is that the present Govern-ment of West Bengal has constituted another Commission of Inquiry into the same affairs under Justice (Retd) Ghosh. Without in anyway trying to influence the proposed action of the Second Sainbari Murder Commission, certain issues, that had cropped up following the Mukherji Commission Report and remained unanswered, require to be highlighted for the benefit of the witnesses and lawyers who would be assisting the Second Sainbari Commission.

The first point that arises is that the Mukherji Commission held the then District Magistrate and Superintendent of Police of Burdwan guilty of dereliction of duty in not anticipating the possible breakdown of law and order on March 17, 1970 when the CPI-M called for a “bandh” and in
failing to take appropriate preventive action, the Commission states: “The dereliction of duty in view of my findings above refers to the D.M. and S.P. who failed to take proper preventive measures to meet the untoward situation in the district town where the CPI-M party had admittedly a substantial following and who further failed to take steps to keep themselves in touch with the events, when they found the telephone service was disrupted. Negligence of duty refers to the Additional S.P. who failed to assess the situation when prior messages of trouble at Shibtala were received by him and in failing to requisition reinforcement from the police lines before leaving the P.S. The dereliction of duty must also refer to the S.D.O. who being in charge of the situation from the Kalitala junction failed to declare the unlawful assembly as such and further failed to direct the police force to take necessary action.”

There could not have been a more damaging and devastating condemnation of the failure of the DM, SP, Additional SP and SDO to act properly in accordance with the law as the situation demanded to prevent the holocaust at the Sainbari.
The riddle that remains unsolved is: why were not the DM and SP punished for their grave dereliction of duty and gross negligence to act as per the law? From 1972 to 1977, Shri Siddhartha Shankar Ray of the Indian National Congress was the Chief Minister of West Bengal. He was himself a well-known lawyer and yet he did not take disciplinary action against these two delinquent senior officers belonging to the IAS and IPS as required under the service rules. Both these officers went on climbing the promotion ladders to reach their respective summits. One retired as the Chief Secretary of the State and the other retired as the Director General of Police. With these two judicially condemned and tainted officers leading the State administration how could one expect political neutrality from the civil and police service officers of the State? They had a great deal to contribute to the utter degeneration of the services under the CPI-M rule between 1977 and 2001.

The second puzzle is regarding the motivation of this gross dereliction of duty. The Commission posed the issue as follows; “The question now is whether the dereliction of duty and negligence of duty were motivated.” The Commission gathered sufficient evidence to indicate that the DM did display partisanship in favour of the CPI-M in relation to other matters. Than suddenly the Commission dismissed such evidence as “all puerile talk and does not deserve serious consideration”. From the evidence collected this conclusion appears to be arbitrary and unreaso-nable. Here, perhaps, comes the preconceived notion of the judge regarding the integrity and sense of fairplay that one expected of the member of the highest civil service of the country. That there could be an aberration and fall from the expected standard of behaviour, did not occur to the judge. But this stand of the judge went against his own findings relating to the grant of a licence and sale of a revolver from the DM’s Malkhana at Rs 200 to Subodh Chaudhury, the Secretary of the district CPI-M. The Commission concluded: “The issue of a revolver licence to Shri Subodh Chaudhury was in the circumstances indiscreet and irregular and the DM went out of his way in granting the licence and in approving of the proposal for sale of one particular weapon out of so many lying in the Malkhana. The sale was going to be held obviously to accommodate Shri Chaudhury.”

Incidentally, Shri Suboth Chaudhury was the Secretary of the District Committee of the CPI-M in Burdwan and to ingratiate himself to the party boss the then DM showed him this indiscreet and improper favour.

This act of the DM clearly exposed his inclina-tion to be partisan in favour of the CPI-M. In fact the Commission corroborates this point by observing: “The entire episode involving the issue of the licence and the sale of the revolver discloses the extent to which the District Administration including the D.M. and the S.P. had been demo-ralised by political pressure.” Against this conclu-sion of his own, how could the Commission absolve the DM and SP from the charge of political partisanship?
My own interpretation of this event is that Justice Mukherji, who belonged to the upper-class Calcutta intelligentsia, could not believe his own eyes and ears. The upper-class members of Calcutta’s intellectual society had had very high opinion about the integrity of character and sense of fairplay of the members of the then “heaven born” service, the Indian Civil Service (ICS). The IAS being the direct constitutional successor of the ICS, he, perhaps, transposed the same qualities to the directly recruited members of the IAS. He cannot, perhaps, be faulted. But the ICS had its own black sheep. Very few now would remember the case of Mr Venkataraman of the ICS who lost his job for taking bribe in a case of costly Scotch Malt whiskey. Aberrations only prove the general rule or practice. Hence, with all good intention Justice Mukherji fell a victim to his preconceived notion of probity, decency, honesty and moral courage of a member of the IAS and ignored his own recorded evidence of clear partisanship of the DM and SP in handling or mishandling the Sainbari affairs on the morning of March 17, 1970. Though the Mukherji Commission Report had nothing to do with it, the subsequent advancement of career of both these officers by being known commonly as “our men” fully corroborated their early inclination to be partisan in favour of the CPI-M.

The third enigma of the Mukherji Commission Report was the finding that there was no prior conspiracy of the CPI-M to cause murder, arson, loot and other disturbances at the Sainbari on the morning of March 17, 1970.

Here the Commission contradicted its own recorded evidence rather clumsily and one could not find any reason thereof in the whole Report.

The Commission recorded clearly that there was a keen political rivalry between the Sain brothers, Malay and Pranab, on the one hand and the CPI-M on the other; the CPI-M always tried to influence the DM and SP to arrest them on various charges which were all proved to be false later on.

Pranab and Malay Sain, who had been staying away from Burdwan town, returned on the evening of March 16, 1970 on receipt of the news of the fall of the UF-II Government. The Commission observed: “It was stated in evidence that information about their arrival was sent to the police station over phone on the night of the 16th and that they were asked by the police officers to keep indoors.” The Report further states: “In the statement of the District Administration it is stated that complaints were received on the night of 16th March that Pranab and Malay were at the back of all the signs of jubilation.” Who could have complained to the DM about the alleged activities of Malay and Pranab in organising jubilation regarding the fall of the UF-II Government, except the CPI-M, because they suffered politically due to the imposition of President’s Rule resulting in Jyoti Basu losing his Deputy Chief Ministership with the Police portfolio? It is a straight inference that the CPI-M knew all about the arrival of Malay and Pranab from the police, DM or otherwise; this was proved beyond reasonable doubt by the subsequent actions of the CPI-M.

The CPI-M took out several processions protesting against President’s Rule on the morning of March 17, 1970 and strangely enough all these CPI-M processions converged at the Telmari Road. The Report comments: “The Telmari Road led through Shibtala which was a sensitive area with the supporters of Pranab and Malay and those of the CPI-M in strength there and Marxist processions were taken through that area with the deliberate object of provoking the former. Obstruction was faced by one of their processions that morning as it was proceeding by Shibtala… Words must have been sent out and supporters and workers of the party, who had already collected, started pouring in that locality and the crowd swelled and swelled and excitement ran higher and higher and burst forth with an uncontrollable fury which was directed against house of the Sain brothers and members of the family. There cannot be any question that the crowd that collected in Shibtala area was responsible for the incidents and it comprised the supporters of the CPI-M party… There could be no escape from the crowd except adequate police action, which was lacking. The ghastly tragedy was the result.”

Having said so much so far, why did Justice Mukherji refrain from saying that this incident was premeditated and preplanned by the CPI-M? Unless there was a central direction how could so many small processions congregate at Shibtala? The Report states that adivasi CPI-M supporters with their weapons crossed the Banka river and came to the Sainbari at Shibtala. Without any clear direction they could not have assembled at the exact point and exact time. There cannot be any other inference from the evidence on record that the Sainbari holocaust was a premeditated, preplanned and willful crime committed at the instance of the CPI-M party to eliminate their political rivals. The enigma is: why did his nerves fail after gathering so much of incontrovertible evidence in favour of the pre-planned murders?

These are some of the matters which ought to be brought to the notice of the Second Sainbari Commission. Excepting these three infirmities, the First Sainbari Commission did an excellent job in clearly showing the systematic failure of the district administration not only in preventing the tragedy but in effect aiding and abetting the incident.

Architect of ‘Operation Barga’ during the Left Front Government in West Bengal, the author was Secretary (Rural Development) and Secretary (Revenue) in the Union Government. Now retired, he is currently a Member of the Rajya Sabha representing the Trinamul Congress.

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