The Sanjay Dutt saga proved a point: pretending readers and viewers want that, the media was excessively obsessed with trivialities, dishing out trivia and drivel. They took sides because a celebrity was involved in wrong-doing. For 12 years of the Mumbai blasts case, the media stalked Dutt and meticulously recorded everything about him. When sentenced to six years’ RI, the media lost its head and told us about Chicken Sanju Baba, the “Gandhian gangster’s” recipe.
Sanjay Dutt being shipped to Yerawada was a huge concern for the media's bleeding hearts. How would he interact with his lawyers? Would he be allowed to smoke? In Arthur Road Jail, he had to do without sheets, pillow, fan and mosquito repellent. He had to share a toilet. Oh, the travails of being jailed. This saga marked the emergence of the Indian paparazzi at its worst; it chased the police van to Yerawada.
Sanjay was special because he was a celebrity and those acres of newsprint and hours of airtime were spent on him by a media, which cannot do enough hard work on more relevant aspects of life, including life in jail for the ordinary convict. All right, Dutt makes news but to this extent that the media should miss the wood for the trees to ignore that others too who were convicted had spent months and years in jail during the trial?
Dutt’s travails are no different from that of any other convict and the media failed to get the broader, terrible picture. It is strange that the media, which reports various crime cases from the courts and sees prisoners brought in handcuffs contrary to the stipulations of the Supreme Court do not bat an eyelid at the gross violations of their rights? Is it that what happens with the great Indian unwashed masses is not their concern?
Their misfortune, alas, is that they are not Sanjay Dutts but ordinary people who just committed a crime or were proven to have committed one and incarcerated in hellish conditions. The police and jail staff can behave rough with these faceless people. After all, that is how the system works, right?
Ask any cynical journalist with middleclass upbringing — most of us in the media have that pedigree — and he would sagely nod. Everything is Dutt-specific, not using him to illustrate a point about the criminal justice system.
The lives of the undertrials are governed less by the jail authorities; the jail mafia, with the connivance of the jail staff rule the roost. Bribery is the other major factor that they have to reckon with. Palms have to be greased to meet an undertrial kin or deliver home cooked food. An officially approved interview can be peremptorily cut short at the whim of the guy in khaki. Even the use of the toilet is governed by either the timetable set or the hierarchy determined and enforced by the other ruffians.
I suggest that a media which becomes energetic, only when the Dutts of the world are jailed, pick up Gregory David Robert’s Shantaram for its blood chilling account of an inhuman side of an insensitive system of jails. He describes the conditions in the Colaba Police Station's lock-up and the Arthur Road Jail. One has to wade in ankle-deep excreta to reach the toilet in the police station. Once I asked the Inspector there about this; he denied it but declined to show me the toilet.
Instead, I should have asked the South African judge who was held there on rape charges; he would have told me Nelson Mandela's jail term was a breeze. Shantaram brings out the rigours of facing the brutality of other inmates, egged on by sadistic and avaricious men in uniform in jail. But the state and the media have not batted an eyelid at these revelations. Shantaram tells us that we are in the medieval times.
The consideration due to the poorer, less fortunate is denied because they are just that and voiceless, caught up in illegalities and forced to suffer the indignities common to police stations and jails. But being a celebrity helps. They can avoid the police lock-ups by pretending illness; they'd do anything to escape those places. Even take the media’s help unwittingly or even mindlessly given. But the poor cannot.
If Shantaram is too heavy for a trivia-chasing media and Tom, Dick and Harry are infra dig for interviewing, then it could at least talk to the several VIPs and big names the media consorts with. These numerous worthies are surprisingly silent and the media could goad them to speak out, unless of course, they had bribed their way to comforts. What tumbles out could embarrass the Home Ministry. Who knows, there could be some reforms?
My suspicion is that the undertrial population far outstrips the jail capacity not simply because the courts are slow but because there is a vested interest in keeping them there in large numbers.
For the jail staff and the police, they are the geese that lay the golden eggs. More undertrials on long spells in jails, more the visitors and more the scope for money changing hands at the security gates between the relatives and the jail personnel.
Mahesh Vijapurkar is a senior journalist.