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Citizen-led fact-finding missions play a significant role in a democracy. They provide an alternative opinion on things, empower citizens on critical issues and enrich the judicial process.
- Recently, citizen-led fact-finding missions came in the news in a Delhi High Court case pertaining to the North East Delhi riots of 2020.
- The solicitor-general of India challenged five fact-finding reports conducted on the riots.
- He called such inquiries as examples of self-constituted parallel judicial systems that have no authority in the court of law.
- However, these missions have been an integral part of Indian and world polity since colonial times.
Citizen-led fact-finding missions/inquiries in Colonial India:
- The Champaran Satyagraha of 1917 started as an extensive fact-finding exercise.
- Gandhi carried out a detailed investigation with a team of volunteers to inquire into the plight of indigo planters.
- It was found that they were compelled to grow Indigo and charged with high taxes.
- This exercise forced the Lieutenant Governor of Bihar to set up a formal inquiry committee with Gandhi as one of its members.
- The Congress set up a Punjab sub-committee to inquire into the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919.
- The leaders were disappointed with the work and political motivations of the Hunter Commission that was initially set up by the government to investigate the massacre.
- A fact-finding exercise was undertaken to find out the authenticity of the Kanpur Cotton mills incident of 1924 in which 6 workers were killed and 58 injured. The inquiry exposed the collusion between the mill management and the police.
Significance of Citizen-led Fact-Finding Missions:
- Rights Advocacy: It is a tool that helps to do rights advocacy. The process highlights the denial of rights to the target group and demands justice for them.
- Enrich the Judicial Process: It complements the judicial process by presenting to it an authentic view of facts. It often lays the groundwork for prosecution if a court of law finds their evidence admissible.
- For instance, a group of lawyers from the Alternative Law Forum undertook a fact finding study on deaths of several workers in manholes in 2008.
- The group submitted a PIL and its report in Karnataka High Court. The court later instructed the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board to procure manhole cleaning machines. It also issued orders for compensation to the victims’ families.
- Breed Accountability: They help to highlight the lacunas of government institutions and personnel in fulfilling their duty.
- For instance, the Andhra Pradesh Civil Rights Committee (APCRC) conducted an enquiry of Naxalite encounters in 1977. The report of the committee induced the government to institute a judicial enquiry under Justice Vashist Bhargava.
- Alternative Opinion: They provide citizens a medium to state their side of the story. It would be dangerous if official information was the only information available in the public domain.
- For instance, people’s tribunals were set up in the wake of the 1992-93 Mumbai riots after the Babri Masjid demolition. They revealed shocking ground realities that were not recorded by the official enquiry committee.
Thus, Citizen led fact-finding missions are cost-effective, rapidly mobilised, and encourage civic participation. Due to this, there has been a surge in their numbers in the last few decades. Fact-finding reports should be verified and criticized rather than dismissing them outrightly because these are self-constituted by the citizens.