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Association of Retired Senior IPS Officers (ARSIPSO)

This is with reference to my letter No. ARSIPSO/GS-BSD-4/2023 dated. 10/08/2023 on the 4th B.S. Das Memorial Lecture, which had to be rescheduled for unavoidable reasons.

The 4th B.S.Das Memorial Lecture to be delivered by Shri Anil Kumar Sinha, IAS (Retd.), on the subject Disaster Management: Creating Safer Communities, has now been rescheduled for October 14, 2023 as per the following:

Conference Room No. 2, India International Centre, Max Mueller Marg, New Delhi, October 14, 2023 (Saturday)

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“Sunlight is the best disinfectant” was one of the frequent sayings of Justice M.N. Venkatachaliah, former Chief Justice of India and former Chairperson of National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). He was the second Chairperson of NHRC under Justice Ranganath Misra, the first Chairperson the Commission had a flying start. It made its presence felt and expanded its activities in diverse directions. It could also live down the criticisms of many in civil society that it was a “Sarkari Commission” created by the government to whitewash its omissions and commissions in the field of human rights.

Venkatachaliah was an eminent jurist and a man of great learning. His areas of interest encompassed law, religion, history and philosophy. But he was just not a dry and detached scholar, but a warm and friendly soul with passionate concern for human rights. Misra gave a dynamic thrust to the multi-pronged activities of the Commission, Venkatachaliah tried to systematize and streamline its functioning. He was a great believer in methods and systems and often used to say “God is in details”.

He enhanced the stature of the Commission by instilling into it a high moral authority and integrity. He used to tell me that the investigation division of the Commission, which I was heading at that time, must relentlessly expose misconduct and violation of human rights by the police and other government agencies, but the work and conduct of the investigating officers must be scrupulously fair and above board. Policing the police has to be done in a fair and transparent manner and rights of the police officers cannot be trampled on. As head of the investigation wing, my responsibility was to lead by example. He appreciated some successful investigation of custodial torture and redressal of grievances of the victims by our officers. He insisted on surprise visits to prisons and lockups to preclude scope for cover ups and window dressing. When the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) wanted to visit prisons and detention centres of Jammu and Kashmir, the Union Home Ministry expressed reservations and feared that these visits might turn out to be intrusive and expose the country to international scrutiny and opprobrium. The NHRC, however, was able to persuade the government to permit these visits. Indeed, this transparent approach helped ICRC to visit prisons and detention centre in Jammu and Kashmir. This furthered the cause of human rights and silenced unsubstantiated criticisms.

Justice Venkatchelliah robustly upheld the independence and integrity of the Commission. NHRC was repeatedly urging the government to accede to the UN Convention against Torture, 1987. The Ministry of Home Affairs informed the Commission that the question of India becoming a signatory to the Convention was discussed in Chief Ministers’ conference in 1995 and majority of the Chief Ministers were found not in favour of India’s accession to the Convention. In a powerful and well-argued memorandum to the government, Venkatachaliah argued that acceding to the Convention “would signify to the world that we intend to conduct ourselves in a manner that we have decided ourselves to be in keeping with our most cherished values. This great country does not need to crouch behind the high wall of national sovereignty on the great issue of human rights”. India signed the Convention in June, 1997 but it had not ratified the convention .Before taking a decision to accede to the Convention the then Prime Minister Deva Gowda was keen to meet the Chairman NHRC, but Venkatachaliah made it clear that it would not be in keeping with his position to go to the Prime Minister’s office to meet him. They could either meet in the office of the Commission or any other convenient place. The meeting could not take place.

Venkatachaliah made fast disposal of complaints a priority area of concern. At his instance, the internationally well-known McKinsey and Company examined the problems affecting the grievance redressal function of the Commission. In a report titled “Preparation for a Fresh Start,” made a number of bold and innovative recommendations for quicker methods of disposal. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons the measures recommended by the McKinsey group to jumpstart the process could not be implemented. Increasing backlog of cases continues to haunt the Commission.

He strongly felt that the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993, needs amendment. In order to enhance NHRC’s administrative autonomy and credibility, he set up a seven-member advisory committee headed by the former Chief Justice of India A.H. Ahmedi to review the Act and suggest amendments. The Committee received notes and memoranda from the Chief Justices of various High Courts, Chairpersons of State Human Rights Commissions, Chiefs of Army, Navy and Air Force and various non-governmental organizations giving their views and suggestions to amend the Act. The Committee finalized its recommendations after an exhaustive deliberative process and gave it to the Commission in the form of a draft Amendment Bill to amend the main Act. However, the government, true to form, dragged its feet. The Amendment Act of 2006 ignored the salient recommendations of the Committee to improve Commission’s administrative autonomy, operational efficiency and institutional legitimacy.

Venkatachaliah was also a man of unblemished integrity. He set exemplary standards of probity and incorruptibility before his subordinates. Today, conduct of some of the judges and even Chief Justices of higher courts has sullied the image of the judiciary and shaken public confidence. Justice Venkatachaliah was a like a knight “sans peur et sans reproche”. In my long years of government service I have never seen a person so keen to ensure that government funds are not misused or wasted. Any instance of careless extravagance would irk him beyond measure. When he joined as the Chairman of NHRC, he spurned proposals made by the establishment to renovate the office room and purchase slick office furniture and made clear that well designed sturdy furniture could be obtained from the CPWD on payment of nominal hire charges. By his personal conduct he typified the maxim “Noblesse Oblige” rank imposes obligations. Unfailing courtesy and humility was another hallmark of his character. Whenever we visited him in his house, he would treat us with utmost civility and walk up to the gate to see us off. Will Durant has defined a gentleman as one “who is perpetually considerate”. He was a gentleman to his fingertips. I think of his grace and courtesy whenever I accost bureaucrats and judges behaving with a stiff upper lip.

Many in the Commission used to complain that he was somewhat slow in taking decisions. He would pause, ponder and analyze before arriving at any conclusion. Sometimes this delayed and stalled decision and slowed down the processes in the Commission, but because of his judicial background he felt that a decision taken in haste could turn out to be unfair and unjust.

Even more than a decade after leaving NHRC, whenever I go to Bangalore I meet the grand old man and draw inspirations from his ideas and ideals. I see him in his sunset glory. Like Wordsworth's “Skylark”, he remains “true to the kindred points of heaven and home”.

The views and facts stated above are entirely the responsibility of the author and do not reflect the views of this Association in any manner.

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