Crime & Punishment Oops! Pardon
Just last week, Peter Bleach of the Purulia Arms drop fame has been interviewed through Skype by our special correspondent. In the conversation with him, Bleach recollected the hanging of killer-rapist Dhananjoy Chatterji in Kolkatta’s Alipore Jail in 2004. Bleach had been in close touch with fellow inmate Dhananjoy while he was on death row and says that he had himself drafted a mercy petition on his behalf.
According to Bleach, he had seen the original mercy petition which had been made by Chatterji against his hanging. The mercy petition has been drafted by another prisoner, and was in Bleach’s words was a joke. He is of the opinion that a grave travesty of justice had occurred, and had the trial been conducted in a proper manner, Dhananjoy would not have been convicted, leave alone hung. He was a poor and illiterate man with no support.
Change the scenario to today and the affair ala Sanjay Dutt. His conviction for illegal possession of an assault weapon, an AK-56 rifle, is upheld by the Supreme Court. The weapon was part of a larger consignment that was used to carry out the deadliest terrorist attacks on the nation. Accused Sanjay Dutt had also met, hugged and had many phone conversations with the masterminds of the terror conspiracy. On an earlier occasion too, he had been charged for illegally possessing a pistol. The Supreme Court found him guilty along with more than a hundred other conspirators and abettors.
This is the story of a convicted criminal named Sanjay Dutt, who happens to be an actor in India’s powerful Hindi film industry called Bollywood. His aura is further strengthened by the fact that his parents, too, were in the same profession and the nation remembers them for their honesty and sincerity. His father and sister were and are Members of Parliament are secondary factors. There is a powerful political and societal lobby that sympathises with him and is pushing for his pardon, arguing that his punishment is too severe. The chorus team includes from former Justice Katju to Congress leader Digvijay Singh, actor-turned politicians Jaya Bachchan and Jayaprada as well as former SP leader Amar Singh and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, besides a clutch of Bollywood stars and media honchos.
The constitutionality of the arguments for his pardon goes against the basic tenet of our democracy, which is enshrined in Article 14, i.e, “equality before the law and the equal application of the law.” It is nauseating to see that a former Supreme Court Judge and the seasoned parliamentarians are openly campaigning for subverting the very basis of our Constitution.
Along with Sanjay Dutt, the court has also convicted 70 year-old Zebunissa Kazi whose house was purportedly used as a transit for storing weapons before transferring them to Sanjay’s house. Tragic yet interesting is the strange fact that Zebunissa has been convicted under TADA while Sanjay Dutt who was the end user of those weapons has been let off and has only been convicted under the Arms Act. Also important to note is the fact that while 30 other convicts will serve life imprisonment, the main convict, Abu Salem will walk free after 25 years of imprisonment and the main mastermind Dawood Ibrahim lives a good life in Pakistan.
Editorials in major newspapers and opinions in many channel talk shows are unanimous — that Sanjay Dutt’s celebrity status should not come in the way of justice, and the jail term handed out to him for possession of illegal arms in 1993 was well-deserved. That they had to make such an obvious point reflects an age where the lower judiciary has lost credibility in public eyes, not least due to some high-profile cases where the rich and the powerful have got away with murder. But in focusing on ‘everyone is equal before the law’ editorialists have ignored another, equally important issue. It too comes in a convenient cliché— justice delayed is justice denied.
And on what humanitarian grounds should he be pardoned? Does the page three celebrities really care when Malegaon blast accused Pragya Thakur, Lt Col Srikant Purohit and Swami Aseemanand languish in jail without their guilt being proven.
What has earned Dutt a few brownie points is that his admission before cameras that there are others who deserve pardon more them him. The high point of this whole affair was when he broke down before the press and declared that he would not appeal but surrender and serve the sentence. Today Dutt remains a prisoner of his well wishers who are doing more harm rather good to him. A few months in jail with remission or parole would serve his and the cause of Bollywood more, but the film industry is worried for its 250 crore riding on him.
For every Sanjay Dutt, there is a Zaibunniss Kazi, for every Pragya Thakur there is a Dr Binayak Sen. This instance should be used to build a movement implement judicial accountability that could benefit millions of others, mostly innocent undertrials caught in the vicious and unending cycle of litigation. As a matter of fact, this case is seen as a slap on India’s unending judicial process that often victimises victims.