Thursday, January 9, 2014

Justice AK Ganguly: Let's separate the institution from the man

 FP Sandip Roy Jan 8, 2014

The long mull of Asok Kumar Ganguly has ended.
The retired Supreme Court judge has finally resigned as chairman of the West Bengal Human Rights Commission, dogged by accusations of sexual misconduct. He still insists they are “unfounded and baseless” but his protestations have found few sympathetic ears. His obstinate refusal to step down and hemming and hawing have only brought out more and more lurid details about his alleged misdeeds and tarnished his reputation.
But probably no one is happier about this than Mamata Banerjee who will get to appoint the next head in consultation with the leader of the Opposition. As soon as the allegations surfaced, Trinamool MPs were vociferous in demanding Ganguly's resignation. However that does not mean it’s because Didi is the champion of the sexual harassed and sexually molested. The family of the girl gang-raped twice in Madhyamgram has complained that Mamata has found no time for them and the police have been more interested in covering their own failings. Trinamool's satisfaction with Ganguly’s downfall has nothing to do with any new-found zero-tolerance for sexual harassment. Ganguly and his human rights commission had been a persistent thorn in the side of the government, way more pro-active than the government liked.
It had tried to trip him up over and over again raising questions about a two-day trip to Pakistan in June 2013 to attend a law seminar. It framed a charge against him for an arbitration assignment on behalf of the All India Football Federation.
“I am a victim of conspiracy,” Ganguly told The Telegraph after he tendered his resignation, accusing the government of a “hostile approach”.
But the truth is Ganguly seems to have done to himself what the state government could not manage – engineer his fall from grace.
However it’s important to separate his alleged personal failings from his professional career and not tar both with the same brush. Just as the journalism of Tehelka should be judged separately from the alleged misdeeds of Tarun Tejpal in that elevator in Goa, the record of the West Bengal Human Rights Commission under Asok Kumar Ganguly should not become collateral damage to his alleged physical and verbal overtures to an intern.
When Mamata Banerjee called the farmer Shiladitya Banerjee a Maoist at a public meeting for asking her about fertilizer prices, he was slapped with non-bailable charges and tossed into jail for 14 days. The WBHRC took up his case.
“Shiladitya Chowdhury must be compensated for the loss of dignity and social status at the instance of the honourable chief minister in an open meeting. It cannot be that just because he is a poor farmer, his status and dignity can be trifled with by slapping a wild allegation of being a Maoist/terrorist,” wrote the commission.
It asked the government to pay him a compensation of Rs 2 lakh.
After the infamous “Cartoon-gate” episode when Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mahapatra was locked up for forwarding a cartoon mocking Mamata and her minister, it was Asok Kumar Ganguly’s commission that pulled up the government and demanded it pay Rs 50,000 in compensation.
When Trinamool MP Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar made comments about the character of the Park Street rape survivor, the commission took note of it. The MP apologised. After the Kamduni rape, Mamata Banerjee described some village women who came to her with complaints as “Maoists”. The commission asked those residents to come before it and record their fears and concerns. Even Mamata’s security personnel found a sympathetic ear within the commission. When an irate Mamata once said her security officer “should be whipped” for making her wait too long for her car at the Kolkata Book Fair, a civil rights complained to the commission which had harsh words for the chief minister.
Clearly, Asok Kumar Ganguly, though appointed to the commission by Mamata Banerjee, was not the chief minister’s favourite person.
He had a reputation for uprightness as a Supreme Court judge. During the 2G spectrum case he told the CBI “You have not done anything and (Raja) continues as minister. Is this the way the government functions?” He had said the Constitution Bench decision that upheld the suspension of fundamental rights during the Emergency was “erroneous.”
But as a chairman of the Human Rights Commission he proved a little too pro-actively upright for the government. In an earlier interview with The Telegraph he certainly did not endear himself to Didi with his comments about her sonar Bangla.
“Human rights violations are quite rampant in Bengal,” he said. “There was a lot of expectation when a new party came to power in the state. I do not know how much of that has been fulfilled. But one thing is clear – the complaints are rising by the day and this reflects the state of human rights here.”
The numbers speak for themselves. In 2011-12, 5,456 complaints were filed before the commission. Between 2012-2013 that almost doubled to 9,415. However only 75 recommendations were made by the commission proving it was not exactly trigger-happy.
Ganguly had also said that the commission’s recommendations should be made more meaningful so that even if the government disregards them it should be forced “to provide adequate reasons as to why it is not following the recommendations.”
The commission’s point was simple as it spelled it out in a report. “The honourable CM is a democratically elected popular leader. Even such a leader has to abide by Constitutional norms.”
Unfortunately as Asok Kumar Ganguly is discovering to his chagrin, he too is not above the law. Like Caesar’s wife, the chairperson of a human rights commission, has to be above suspicion. When the Additional Solicitor General Indira Jaising made public the intern’s affidavit about Ganguly’s “unwelcome behaviour” she said “now the issue does not just concern her, but the integrity of the institution that Ganguly is heading.”
That is important to remember. The institution and the man are not the same though his enemies will use one to attack the other. In Ganguly’s hour of disgrace it’s worth noting that none of this means his work as the chairman of the West Bengal Human Rights Commission should also be disgraced with him. That record is worth defending even if Ganguly's personal conduct proves to be indefensible.

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