Probing the probe: on HC remarks on Jayalalithaa death probe panel

HC remarks on Jayalalithaa death probe panel are a needed caution against a roving inquiry

April 06, 2019 12:20 am | Updated November 28, 2021 10:10 am IST

It is quite apposite that the Madras High Court has cautioned the Justice A. Arumughaswamy Commission of Inquiry , which is probing the circumstances leading up to the hospitalisation and demise of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, against exceeding its brief. The commission, through its counsel’s questions and averments, has been unusually proactive in attributing motives to or casting aspersions on doctors who treated her at a corporate hospital for 75 days in 2016. Although the court concluded that the commission’s functioning has not been vitiated by bias, it has voiced apprehension about some aspects. For instance, it questioned the “strange” procedure adopted by the commission in having its own advocate file applications and counter-statements, when it could have passed suo motu any order necessary in relation to the proceedings. It described as “unnecessary and unwarranted”, even “disturbing”, some of the averments made by the commission’s counsel in applications and replies. The Division Bench did not go so far as to invalidate the proceedings, as nearly all of the work has been done, but it questioned the need for the fact-finding body to attribute “collusion”, “conspiracy” and “fraud” to the hospital, or anyone else. The hospital had argued that the commission was biased against it, citing denial of adjournments on its doctors’ request, posing of questions and suggestions casting aspersions on their testimony and credentials, and other forms of “harassment”. The court found no merit in any of these accusations.

The appointment of the commission of inquiry itself was a political move. It is true that there was speculation about the nature of Jayalalithaa’s illness and some public misgivings about the adequacy of the treatment given to her. A shadow was cast on the role of her close aide, V.K. Sasikala, who is now serving a prison term in Bengaluru. However, it is doubtful if such speculation provided the material basis needed to order a probe, especially a fishing expedition into anything that can be fitted into the term “circumstances surrounding” a leader’s death. The Tamil Nadu government ordered the inquiry as part of a political compromise under which a judicial probe was made a pre-condition for the merger of two factions of the ruling AIADMK. Given this background, it was inevitable that the commission’s functioning would come under scrutiny. Its credibility and image would have gone up had the court agreed to the constitution of a medical board, comprising doctors drawn from various specialties, to assist it. Instead, it has chosen to reject the request by citing the deputation of some government doctors to go through the case records. Now that the court has found that there is nothing to suggest bias or malice on the commission’s part, it has a duty to complete its fact-finding mission without giving further room for speculation that it is moving towards any pre-determined conclusion.

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