The Ganguly effect: Questions over West Bengal human rights panel

The Ganguly effect: Questions over West Bengal human rights panel

Even as the merits of an intern's allegation of sexual harassment against retired Supreme Court judge A.K. Ganguly are being hotly debated across the country, one casualty of the controversy seems to be the West Bengal Human Rights Commission (WBHRC), which he headed with great enthusiasm till recently.

Taking over in April 2012, Ganguly stepped down as WBHRC chief Jan 6, bowing to mounting pressure following the law intern's allegations which became public a couple of months ago. With Ganguly's resignation, the WBHRC has now been reduced from a three-member to a single-member body, with another judicial member, Narayan Chandra Sil completing his term last Nov 1.

Former Director General of West Bengal Police Naparajit Mukherjee is now the only existing member, who joined the statutory body Nov 15 replacing ex state chief secretary Sourin Roy.

Mukherjee's appointment itself had led to a storm of protest, which still continues. He was selected by a three-member panel comprising Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, assembly Speaker Biman Banerjee and Leader of Opposition Surjya Kanta Mishra, with the latter giving a dissenting note.

Mishra contended that as per an earlier Supreme Court ruling, a police officer could not be made member of either the state or national human rights panel.

With Mukherjee having retired as recently as Sept 30, 2013, Mishra had argued that his presence was "not desirable" in the WBHRC, which was probing several complaints where the state police was the accused.

"Mukherjee has just retired as DG. He was at the helm during some of these cases. It is not desirable that the person against whom the accusations have been filed should investigate these cases," Mishra contended.

Civil rights body Association for Protection of Democratic Rights, which has already filed a case against his appointment, echoed Mishra.

"The majority of the cases before the commission deals with excesses or rights violations by the police. So, how can a police officer sit in judgement over it? Moreover, there was no cooling off period in Mukherjee's case," said the APDR's Ranjit Sur.

Alleging that several instances of police firing and staged shoot-outs took place during Mukherjee's tenure, the APDR had filed the petition opposing his appointment.

"With a policeman in its fold, people of the state are losing faith in the commission, which has now become non-functional. So we have also urged the governor to ensure the panel functions with its full membership," said Sur.

Under Ganguly, the WBHRC had become very active, repeatedly taking suo motu cognisance of violation of human rights, summoning top administrative and police officials, censuring the government and slapping compensation amounts on the authorities.

As several of its recommendations embarrassed the state government, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had blasted Ganguly - without naming him - during a programme in the state legislative assembly.

"I brought in a good impartial man, but the way he is functioning it seems he has no knowledge about laws and jurisdiction he thinks he is the chief justice of India," Banerjee had said.

The appointment of Mukherjee, considered very close to Banerjee during his stint as DG, was seen by rights activists as Banerjee's attempt to tame the panel.

In an interview after stepping down, Ganguly has spoken of differences with Mukherjee during the short period he worked with the former policeman. "I found his thoughts were somewhat different."

There were also speculation that the Banerjee government was planning to install Mukherjee as the acting chief of the panel.

APDR has already faxed a letter to Governor M.K. Narayanan urging that Mukherjee not be given the responsibility to chair the panel in the interim.

"It will be highly ironical if a former policeman is made the acting chair of the panel. Moreover, our petition opposing Mukherjee's appointment is pending. So, in the interest of justice, he should not be given the responsibility," said Sur.

"The government has no intention to let the human rights panel function smoothly. A former judge of the high court should head it. But they now want a former cop.

"In our state, the governor is a former police officer, several ministers are retired police personnel. The chief minister is surrounded by the police. Now, if the human rights body is also headed by a former policeman, will it be a travesty of truth to call Bengal a police state," asked Sur, tongue-in-cheek.

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