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HindustanTimes Fri,19 Dec 2014
Our unequal democracy
Smruti Koppikar
March 29, 2013
First Published: 11:27 IST(29/3/2013)
Last Updated: 17:39 IST(29/3/2013)
Sanjay Dutt gestures during a press conference outside his Bandra residence in Mumbai. HT Photo

Mumbai Police sub-inspector, Sachin Suryavanshi, has spent a rough week. He stopped Member of Legislative Assembly Kshitij Thakur's car for speeding; perhaps used the arrogance of his khaki to say some rude words; was called to the hallowed legislature of Maharashtra; was beaten and pummelled there by Thakur and his MLA colleagues; and later suspended.

Ergo, he has a black mark in his annual confidential report for actually doing his duty. Except a few retired police officers, few others expressed sympathy for him.

Film star and Arms Act convict, Sanjay Dutt, spent a rough week as well. The Supreme Court, while delivering its verdict on the Mumbai 1993 blasts case, rejected his appeal and sentenced him to five years in prison. His youthful misdemeanours included calling men of shady character for help, accepting prohibited assault rifles and ammunition from them, and storing the illegal booty on his residential premises (where he lived at the time shared with his father, and then Member of Parliament, Sunil Dutt). The star drew sympathy from a cross section of society, including those holding public office; they asked the Maharashtra governor to pardon him.

Suryavanshi and Dutt are not linked in any apparent way, yet their stories, which ran on parallel courses over the past several days, epitomise a phenomenon that's now the hallmark of our democracy: two categories of citizens. One lays claim to privileges that at the best of times are misplaced honours and favours; and, at the worst, a mockery of the rule of law.

Over time, the privileges and concessions granted to them become the new norm. Dutt, and others like him, evidently belong to the second. Sure, Dutt is not the only one here. His case - of possessing prohibited weapons and ammunition in a proscribed zone of the city in March 1993 - is strikingly similar to that of the late Madhukar Sarpotdar. In January that year, as communal violence burned Bombay, the Shiv Sena leader was caught by the Army as he moved around in his vehicle loaded with AK-56s, ammunition, and other weapons. Sarpotdar escaped the Arms Act as a saffron-sympathetic police looked the other way.

Ironically, he replaced Sunil Dutt in the 1996 general election; he retained the seat again in 1998. Call this a peculiar pecking order in the category of citizens who claim - and get - privileges. Sarpotdar was clearly more privileged than Dutt has been. And, Dutt who broke the law, irrespective of his defence, is more advantaged today than Suryavanshi who attempted to uphold the law. Thakur, who violated the law, claimed privileges that are, of course, statutorily bestowed on him as a MLA.

Indeed, Dutt, Thakur, and Sarpotdar belong to a special class. Incidentally, those who seek pardon for Dutt, those who support Thakur, are also members of this class defined by their wealth, power, social standing, influence, or all of these. Suryavanshi is not.

Media theorist Walter Lippmann, writing in his seminal Public Opinion in 1921, had proposed that a capitalist democratic society, despite talk of equality, can be delineated into two distinct categories: the specialised class and the bewildered herd. This earned him considerable criticism in 20th century United States. It's agonisingly true of India's 21st century democracy.

(The views expressed are personal.)


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