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The presumption of innocence

The presumption of innocence
‘Justice doesn’t only mean that the people who commit crime are punished. It also means that we can never give up seeking the truth.’
- Henning Mankell, Faceless Killers


An effigy of Justice was kept hanging through the length of time it took to exonerate everyone involved in the callous sale of the GammaCell 220 Irradiator that caused a death and seven more permanently debilitated lives in a Mayapuri scrap-yard in April 2010. On 16 November 2013, this effigy was virtually burnt and buried by the Delhi University authorities who considered their work done even as many unanswered questions remained blowing in the wind. The University’s supreme Executive Council also removed the minor but irksome trace of remorse had prohibited the accused from having access to administrative positions within the system, by revoking the order of prohibition. ‘Innocent until proven guilty’ is an oft-invoked phrase when the technical bells of justice have to be rung but in this case, since the regulation enquiries failed to fix guilt, the innocence of all has to be presumed. The priceless question goes thus a-begging: if certain decisions were taken by certain people leading to fatal mishap, why did the enquiries fail to determine culpability?

For some time now, people in Delhi University have been convinced that its de facto motto is ‘ignorance is bliss.’ Inconvenient facts fail to inconvenience anybody. When sore thumbs like the alarming magnitude of ad hoc teachers and the ludicrous Foundation Courses of the FYUP are wagged at them, teachers and students carry on with quiet acquiescence and a tired sense of fait accompli. A powerful and opaque oligarchy led by the Vice Chancellor delivers rough justice and ready solutions in all matters and keeps the real cards close to its chest. The level of secrecy is such that any effort to trace back the origin of errant decisions is bound to feel like a game of Blind Hookey. It was therefore to be expected that the one-man Justice Anand Committee, set up by the Executive Council to fix responsibility in the Mayapuri Radiation Case, would submit an ‘anybody’s-guess’ verdict. Since everyone in the Chemistry Department of the University had signed on the list of scrap items to be sold, no individual may be held liable. The end-result: everybody goes scot-free!

This bizarre conclusion may not look like the cherry on the icing if one follows the trail of facts backwards. Following the public embarrassment caused to the University by preliminary police investigations, an Enquiry Committee headed by retired Nuclear Scientist Prof. S C Pancholi was set up to look at the role of people associated with the hasty auction of the deadly Irradiator. In other words, this Committee had the clear brief to put in dock the eight members of another ‘Write-off’ Committee which took the decision to sell off the Irradiator. While it was quick to find that three of those eight were not present in the fateful meeting where the decision was taken, it did precious else to go into the nature and reasons of the decision. A clouded atmosphere of oversight and hurry emerged in its findings, while the important fact that the meeting to decide on the disposal of 406 unused items and go through their reserve prices took all of half an hour to conclude was papered over. Instead of holding the Committee responsible, the Pancholi Committee shifted its focus onto the entire Chemistry Department where this Irradiator had been lying unused and apparently untampered for years. While it is true that at least four members of this Department were officially involved in taking the decision to dispose of the Irradiator, the paper also bears the signature of the then-Dean of Sciences who was familiar with radioactive substances in the course of his personal research. This man was carefully let off.

Subsequently too, when the Executive Council decided to bar the Chemistry professors from taking up administrative positions, this man remained exempt. Despite being charge-sheeted by the police, he found enough favour with the higher-ups to be nominated to the Governing Body of Hindu College. The Chemistry Department in toto was held responsible for the disposal of the Irradiator while the ‘Write-off’ Committee that actually took the decision was absolved.

It is not known whether the Pancholi Committee Report made any observations on how Delhi University had been dodging the law for years. Forced to work within a limited brief, the Pancholi Committee may have had nothing to say about the fact that despite the clear regulation in the Atomic Energy Safety Rules (2004) that Radiological Safety Officers have to be appointed by every institution that possesses radioactive substances or carries out experiments with such substances, Delhi University did not appoint one till as late as February 2011. On the other hand, making much ado about the arguably fool-proof AERB Regulations and Atomic Energy Safety Rules, the then-Minister of State for Atomic Energy Prithviraj Chavan confidently insisted in his reply to a parliamentary call-attention that the Cobalt-60 sources of radioactive leak in the Mayapuri case would have necessarily been of foreign origin. As he was proved wrong and the origin was traced back to Delhi University, nobody was put in the dock for breaking the law.

As this case proves, the work completed by the statutory committees has merely whitewashed a matter in which heads ought to have rolled. But the more intractable problem that it barely identifies is the one related to the perverse functioning of public institutions of learning like DU. The social relevance of a University is an issue that its Vice Chancellor is often found publicly sermonising on.

Yet, the Executive Council meeting convened by him last Saturday refused to square up to the truth concerning the matter. It concluded that the truth can never be known and that there is no need to seek it. Can a University afford to stay wedded to such irony?

The author teaches English at SGTB Khalsa College and is an Executive Member of the DU Teachers’ Association
Saikat Ghosh

Saikat Ghosh

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