The commission of inquiry Act was passed by the Indian parliament in 1952. It lays down rules and procedures for setting up Inquiry commissions to investigate charges of corruption against people in high places it thus seeks to discourage corrupt practices on the part of those in power, to ensure honesty and integrity in public life, as also to provide protection against baseless and frivolous charges. It is, therefore, both in the interest of the people, and the rulers and leaders of the country. Under the provisions of this Act, the conduct of even the most highly placed persons can be probed and prosecution in courts of law launched against them on the basis of the findings of the commission.
Since 1952, commissions of inquiry have been set up from time to time, and such commissions have done much useful work. However, it was after the coming of Janta government into power in March, 1977, that much interest was aroused in the provisions of this Act, and its utility and significance hotly debated. This was so because the congress governments, both at centre and in the states, were branded as corrupt, and congress men were accused of many excesses during the nineteen month of emergency.
A number of commissions were appointed to probe into these excesses and the conduct of the concerned ministers and officers. All these commissions aroused considerable public interest. The greatest public interest was aroused by the shah commission, for it was to probe into the emergency excesses of all sorts, and more particularly into the conduct of such eminent people as late Mrs. Indri Gandhi, and her son, Late Shri Sanjay Gandhi.
The shah commission functioned till the end of September 1978, and in the course of its long tenure it examined hundreds of witnesses and recorded their evidences. Many startling facts were brought to light, and there was the sorry spectacle of the previous rulers and highly placed government officials accusing each other and in this way trying to escape their own responsibility. Such inquiries are bound to have a deterrent effect, and so are conducive to much public good. They can thus serve as watch-dogs in a democracy, and thus ensure a clean and healthy administration. To this extent they are to be welcomed.
But there is another side, too, of the picture. They can also be misused and so become the instrument of political revenge and vendetta. This aspect of the matter was clearly brought out by the functioning of the shah commission. Late Mrs. Indira Gandhi, in her letter to the commission, pointed out a number of weaknesses of the commission’s style of functioning. First, she pointed out that justice shah was not impartial, as he cottage industry versus large scale industry had frequently spoken in public against the emergency and the prime minister herself.
This was borne out by his conduct during the proceedings of the commission. He himself subjected the various witness to grueling cross examination and frequently made satirical comments. Secondly, as day-to-day proceeding were broadcast and published in the newspapers, the reputation of eminent people suffered, as they could not defend themselves at that very time. It all had a touch of political vendetta. The desire seemed to be not to find out the truth but to malign and defame the political opponents of the government.
Thirdly, the procedure followed was wrong, for those against whom the inquiry was being conducted were required to give evidence against themselves. It was pointed out that the procedure which is followed in a criminal court ought to have been followed, for the witnesses were witnesses merely in name. In reality they were being treated as criminals. A criminal proceeding has to be launched against them. In this way the commission was put to ridicule, and it was said that it was a mere drama, of no practical use at all.
The conduct of the Shah commission highlighted the fact that drastic changes must be made in the commission of Inquiry Act. As it stands at present, it can be misused and be made either an instrument of oppression, or totally ineffective. Above all, the impartiality of the presiding judge must be above doubt. By his conduct, he should impress even his critics with his honesty, fair play and impartiality. Only then will a commission be able to achieve the ends for which it has established.