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Two cases, four thoughts

columns Updated: Apr 02, 2008 16:06 IST
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It has been a week of trials and sentences; of Sanjay Dutt going to jail and of Dr Haneef walking free; of terrorist charges and concern about terrorism in India.

I’m always uneasy writing about Sanjay Dutt largely because Sunil Dutt was an old friend of my father’s and I fear that the relationship either prejudices my judgment or makes me too hesitant to say what I really believe.

So this week’s Counterpoint is about Sanjay — and it isn’t about Sanjay. It’s more about the issues that emerge from the Sanjay and Haneef cases.

l I think we’ve missed the point of Sanjay’s sentence, at least in terms of what it tells us about India.

Sanjay Dutt is one of the country’s most popular movie stars. He had access to the best legal representation that money can buy. The public and the media were sympathetic to him. His father was a Congress MP of long standing and a minister till his death. His sister is a sitting Congress MP. The Congress is in power at the Centre and in Maharashtra, the state where the trial was held.

In any other Third World country — and in many First World nations— these factors would have been enough to have got Sanjay off. But not only did the legal and judicial processes work freely and fairly in his case, nobody even doubted that Judge Kode would be allowed to function unimpeded.

When the judgment and the sentence were delivered, nobody said “Wow! What a gutsy judge to take on the political establishment!” Nor are Judge Kode or the prosecutors who argued for the harshest possible sentence under any kind of threat or risk any setback to their careers.

Take a look at what is happening in our own backyard — where the courts either function at the behest of politicians and generals, or judges risk their jobs — and think about the commercialisation of the judicial process in the West — would OJ Simpson have got off if he was a nobody?— and consider the slow but largely free workings of the Indian judicial system.

It is to India’s credit that neither political nor commercial pressures were brought to bear on the men who prosecuted and tried this case.

And as sorry as I am for Sanjay, I am proud of India’s success as a liberal democracy which can deliver justice fairly — most of the times.

l Some of the public response to the Sanjay Dutt sentence should cause us to wonder about the internal consistency of our own standards.

Every time a rich or vaguely influential person is acquitted (in the BMW case, in the Jessica Lall murder etc), we cry ourselves hoarse about the need for exemplary punishment for the affluent and powerful and join SMS campaigns for retrials.

But when the system does work as it is supposed to — as it did in the Sanjay Dutt case — we go to the other extreme, forget everything we’ve said about rich and well-connected accused persons in other cases and claim that his sentence was too harsh and even hope that the verdict can be reversed.

The truth is: we can’t have it both ways. Yes, Sanjay was young and not a hardened criminal when the offence look place a decade-and-a-half ago. But exactly the same defence is available to Sanjeev Nanda, the accused in the BMW case.

You cannot take the line — as many of us seem to — that the law must come down heavily on the rich sons of influential families… unless of course, they happen to be movie stars whose films we enjoy.

l When I saw the TV channels focusing on the grief of Sanjay’s family and the sadness of his fans and I read the Page 3 papers with their roll call of minor filmstars who said how devastated they were, I thought back to the controversy that had followed a casual remark made by Dr Manmohan Singh at a tea party.

Asked about the Indians accused of involvement in the London/Glasgow bomb blasts, the Prime Minister made a sensitive but self-evident point: he was moved by the sorrow on the faces of the relatives of the accused as they waited to hear how the cases would progress. Manmohan Singh did not say one word in defence of the alleged bombers; rather he focused on the human tragedy and the sorrow of their elderly mothers and their families.

Within a day, the critics were out in force, heckling, jeering and making the traditional crass objections: “What about the sorrow of the families of the victims?” “Why should you feel sorry for the relatives of terrorists?” etc etc.

The Prime Minister held his ground and did not retract a word of what he had said. But ask yourself this: why is it okay to feel sorry for Sanjay’s daughter or to be moved by the sorrow of his sisters without ever thinking of those who lost their lives in the Bombay blasts, which were partly organised by Hanif and Samir (the people who gave Sanjay his assault rifle) and some of Sanjay’s other pals?

Or: why, after having jeered at Manmohan Singh’s sensitive remarks, did the whole country rise up to welcome Dr Haneef when he was released by Australia? Only a fortnight before, we had been treating him and his family with suspicion, derision and hostility.

The short answer is that while you can possibly argue that criminals and terrorists deserve no sympathy, it is a) foolish to come to any conclusions till all the facts have been discovered, and b) entirely wrong to transfer their guilt (once it is established) to their families. The sister of a convict is not the convict herself; she is entitled to human feelings. The mother of a terrorist is not a terrorist; she is, first and foremost, a mother. And as a mother, she has every right to maternal emotions about her son. And it is stupid to attack somebody for empathising with those emotions.

l And finally, I don’t think we’ve focused enough on the basic difference between the Bombay blasts and the aborted English bombings. Yes, Indians were the bombers in both cases but there is an important distinction.

The Indians who participated in the British plot last month believed that they were part of some global Pan-Islamic movement conducting a jehad against the evil West. That they were Indians was incidental; it was their Pan-Islamic identity that dominated.

The Indians who bombed Bombay had never heard of Al-Qaeda or Osama bin Laden. They had no interest in a global jehad against the West.

Instead, they had a single-point agenda. They wanted to avenge the Muslims who had been massacred in the Bombay riots while the administrations of Narasimha Rao and Sudhakarrao Naik stood idly by, and a communalised police force sided with the murderers.

Thousands of words have been wasted on anguished analyses about the British bombers: why are Indian Muslims turning to terrorism? How come the bombers were well-educated? (Easy: that’s the pattern in Pan-Islamic terrorism all over the world). Does this mean that Indian secularism is now failing? Etc etc.

The analysts and commentators have missed the obvious point. If Muslims all over the world begin to adopt a Pan-Islamic identity and believe that they must participate in a global jehad, then it is naïve to expect that all Indian Muslims will be exempt from this trend. We have the world’s second-largest Muslim population so it is inevitable that some Muslims will sign up for global jehad. But there is nothing in the statistics to indicate that 99.9 per cent of Indian Muslims belong to this category and I don’t think we should lose too much sleep over the few thousand who do adopt a global jehadi identity.

As for Indian Muslims and terror, well that happened 14 years ago. Fortunately for us, the Bombay blasts did not mark the beginning of a trend (though there have been isolated cases ever since) but, frankly, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have if you look at global precedents.

No Muslim family who lost everything in those riots received anything like justice, let alone compensation. The murderers, unrepentant to the end, were elected to high office and the policemen who facilitated the massacres were promoted. Official inquiries into the riots (such as the Srikrishna Report) were ignored. And then, after the blasts, TADA was used indiscriminately against honest and blameless Muslims.

So let’s not waste our time worrying about Indian Muslims and Al-Qaeda. Let’s stick to our own riots and our own terrorist reprisals. The Bombay blasts case shows that the bombers have been (fairly) punished. But the rioters still run free, and the victims of those massacres have found no justice.

Rather than be concerned about a few inept doctors and a couple of failed car bombs in a faraway country, let’s think about our own blasts and our own system of justice. And let’s pause to consider whether the next time a bomb goes off in Bombay we should blame Osama bin Laden or whether we should consider our own failure to provide justice to those whose families, homes and lives were destroyed in the Bombay riots.