Was the Supreme Court right to give Sanjay Dutt four extra weeks to surrender and go to jail or was this an unjustified indulgence? The question is important because its answer could determine whether we are all equal in the eyes of the law or whether, at least initially, some are more equal than others.
Sanjay Dutt sought relief on the grounds that the Rs. 270 -odd crore invested in the films he's presently making would be lost if he is unable to complete them before going to jail. Presumably, the Supreme Court concluded this would have an adverse impact on the innocent producers and film-workers whose livelihoods might be at stake if these films are left incomplete. Possibly, the relief was intended to ensure they don't suffer though, of course, Sanjay Dutt is the immediate beneficiary.
This raises three questions. First, Dutt's producers have known, possibly for 20 years, that he could end up in jail. Should they not have factored in that risk before signing him for their films rather than seek relief after his sentencing? The Supreme Court raised this question but left it hanging in the air.
Second, in giving Sanjay Dutt relief on these grounds did the Supreme Court allow commercial considerations to weigh more heavily than fair and equal implementation of justice?
Third, if relief can be granted to Dutt on the grounds that innocent people will suffer if he goes to jail leaving behind unfinished films then, surely, that logic would also apply to others? To take one example, could this plea not be made by an entrepreneur who is jailed before a major industry he is setting up is completed? Tens of thousands of innocent investors could lose their money if he leaves behind an unfinished enterprise. For many, the entrepreneur is the raison d'etre for their investment. You could, therefore, say he's as critical to his enterprise as an actor is to a film.
Now, let's compare Sanjay Dutt's case to that of Zaibunissa Kazi who, in addition, is 72 and suffering from cancer.
A day before Dutt, she applied for permission to delay surrender till the president disposes of her pardon. The court refused on the grounds this could be a precedent for thousands to seek similar relief. Clearly the court didn't want to create such a precedent. But didn't it do something similar in Dutt's case?
The argument that Dutt was seeking time-bound relief whilst Zaibunissa Kazi's was open-ended is both misleading and irrelevant. It's misleading because, if the president chooses, he could decide her petition in a week and the relief she sought would be no more than seven days long. It's hardly her fault if he indefinitely prolongs the process. It's irrelevant because what is at issue is relief per se and not its length. This is a matter of principle, not quantum.
A day after Dutt, Kazi appealed again on health grounds. This time she and three others were granted four weeks relief. Earlier that morning three more received a similar reprieve. That's a total of seven, all after the Dutt decision.
So did the Supreme Court change its stand in the wake of Sanjay Dutt's case? Was it swayed by the outcry that it provoked? Or was it just that two different benches of the court heard the cases and reached different conclusions?
These questions may be unfair. They may also be wrong. But can you deny the Supreme Court's behaviour is the reason they're being asked?
Views expressed by the author are personal