A group of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) activists protested, in December 2013, outside the gates of the imposing Bandra building where actor and convict Sanjay Dutt lives with his family. Their grouse was that he had been granted parole for a month, barely two months after enjoying an extended one-month long furlough from his prison sentence. Most of the 15 were detained by the local police.
The day he came out of Pune’s Yerwada jail, on parole, activists of the Republican Party of India (RPI) protested outside the jail premises and threatened that they would "fill up the jail" if Dutt walked out. The local police dealt with them as they usually do with pesky protestors--detain, threaten, arrest, slap some inconsequential charges before letting them go.
Both the groups of protestors went to the wrong addresses. They should have headed to the office and/or home of the state home minister RR Patil instead. Dutt was handed down a five-year prison sentence for possessing prohibited weapons during the March 1993 blasts. He had spent 18 months as under-trial; serving the remaining term, he has already spent three months of this year in the cosy comfort of his home.
In the brouhaha over Dutt’s parole and its extensions, a small detail gets glossed over: Dutt can apply for parole within the ambit of what the law allows him to, but he cannot get it unless the mandatory police reports advise/support it. Low-ranking officers may have filed the reports that enabled furlough, extension of furlough, parole, then extensions of parole; the reports were either wrong or were under direction from the very top. Either way, the buck stops at Patil.
Ask Shagufta Kazi, daughter of another convict Zaibunnisa Kazi (70), how difficult and tedious it is to get parole; it took her eight months and endless trips between the police, lawyers and the jail. That parole extensions have been so easily granted to Dutt has surprised even jailers and policemen. Somehow, Dutt and his legal team seem to breeze through the hurdles in the process.
If Dutt is only availing what the law and jail manual allow, then other convicts like Kazi, Yusuf Nullwala, Sharif Parkar among others in the same 1993 blasts case should have been out on parole too, and easily so. There must be hundreds of other convicts in other cases who are eligible for parole, apply for it but do not see the application turn into prison-free time.
There’s no denying that Dutt got away lightly with a conviction under the Arms Act when everyone who helped him buy and store the prohibited weapons were convicted under TADA. Now, Patil seems to be helping him breathe fresh air. The union home ministry has asked for an explanation, the Bombay high court questioned the grounds for discretion in granting repeated parole. Patil will have to offer substantial answers; he may have been easily convinced that poor Dutt had to tend to his ill wife but it may take more than that to persuade the court.
At the heart of this is the use of discretionary powers vested in the home minister. Discretion has never been a strong quality during either of Patil’s tenures as home minister in successive coalition governments of the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party.
Indeed, given his poor track record in the department and his questionable decisions, it’s a source of unending speculation about why he has continued as the state home minister for more than eight of the coalition’s nine plus years in power.
There have been theories and speculations. The one that refuses to be dusted away is that Patil is flexible and un-savvy enough for his party chief Sharad Pawar to indulge in back-seat driving on the big issues, including key police appointments.
Dutt's parole case may not have much to do with Pawar, but it’s another example of Patil's indiscriminate use of discretionary powers. Patil has used, rather misused, these powers in the past; his moral policing of Mumbai stands out for its dumbness as do his crass remarks about terrorism and women’s safety in the city. His competence has been under a cloud for years, yet he continues to occupy the sensitive position that he does. Only the likes of Dutt can be grateful, I guess.