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The (not so) sorry lot

Indians seem content to extend 'diplomatic immunity' to their tainted celebrities, writes Seema Goswami.

india Updated: Dec 11, 2006 03:19 IST

Sidhu is taking on a somewhat surreal turn. And the way it is unfolding says volumes about both the Indian public and the celebrities it likes to worship so much.

The facts are as follows. In 1988, Sidhu and his friend, Rupinder Singh Sandhu, got into an altercation in a parking lot in Patiala with an older man, Gurnam Singh, whom they then proceeded to beat up. Gurnam Singh was taken to hospital, where he was declared brought dead.

The case went to court and Sidhu was acquitted. The family and the prosecution appealed the verdict, and the High Court of Punjab and  Haryana found Sidhu guilty of culpable homicide not amounting to murder and sentenced him to three years of imprisonment.

By then Sidhu had gone from cricketer to commentator, from player to politician. He was on television practically every night, giving us the benefit of his wisdom on everything from Sourav Ganguly to Mamata Banerjee, seamlessly switching between cricket and politics, tie and turban always perfectly coordinated.

Once the judgment came in, that immaculate image was somewhat besmirched. You can’t really claim to be a man of the people if you have — even inadvertently — killed one of them. But well, everyone makes mistakes, especially in the heat of the moment, and this did happen 18 years ago when Sidhu was still in his 20s. So, perhaps it was best to forgive and forget and let him move on with his life.

There was just one problem with this scenario. Sidhu was not looking for forgiveness. Worse, he didn’t even appear to think that he had anything to ask forgiveness for.

Instead of saying sorry for the moment of madness that resulted in the death of a fellow human, he was intent on clambering on to the moral high ground — on the shoulders of a pliant BJP leadership — to announce that he was adhering to the strictest moral standards by resigning as Lok Sabha MP. Rather than apologise to the family of the victim who lost a loved one because of his actions, he was busy spouting bad poetry to prove that he had, in fact, won the day.

You know something is very wrong with the world when a man with blood on his hands can hold himself up as a moral exemplar. Whatever the legal phraseology may be, there is no getting around the fact that a man died because of something Sidhu did. And yet, the monarch of the mixed metaphor shows no repentance, exhibits no remorse. And nobody seems to find this the least bit odd or even offensive.

But then, in this country, we have become used to celebrities brazening their way out of the stickiest of spots without suffering the slightest dent in their popularity. In the West, anybody in the limelight who is guilty of the slightest misdemeanour has to do public penance before they can crawl back into the good graces of the people.

Whether it is Winona Ryder who was found guilty of shoplifting, Hugh Grant who was caught with his pants down with a prostitute, Martha Stewart who was jailed on charges of insider trading, or Mel Gibson who spouted anti-Semitic abuse at a cop when he was pulled over for drunk driving, everyone has to show contrition and beg forgiveness before they can reclaim their place in public life. And not everyone gets a second chance, either. OJ Simpson is still a social pariah even though he was acquitted of the charge of double murder.

In India, celebrities have an easier time. Here, Navjot Singh Sidhu is found guilty of culpable homicide, but instead of hanging his head in shame, there he is on TV, reciting shairi, laughing uproariously at his own bad jokes, spouting witticisms ('if my aunt had a moustache she would have been my uncle’ — whatever that means). If anyone dares to ask him how he feels about the fact that a man has died, or questions him about the facts of the case, he raises his voice indignantly to announce that all this is in the past and he is only interested in the future.

What about his victim, the man whose future he obliterated 18 years ago? Is it too much to ask that Sidhu spend a few minutes thinking about this man, mourning his loss, and lamenting his role in this entire sorry affair? But no, he’s too busy scoring political points and declaring that despite everything, he will still be the BJP’s star campaigner in the forthcoming assembly elections in Punjab.

It is not anybody’s case that Sidhu is some sort of hardened criminal. Or even that he actually set out to kill Gurnam Singh on that fateful day. It is quite possible that he was provoked into doing what he did. Whatever you may think about his ready wit, there is no denying that he is quick to anger. You only have to see him in a television discussion to know how easily he loses his temper — and control. In fact, sometimes

the only thing that seems to save the nervously grinning Ajay Jadeja from actual bodily harm is that he is separated from Sidhu by a satellite link.

So, it’s not hard to see how he may have been provoked to violence in that parking lot. But when you make such a colossal mistake, when things go so spectacularly wrong with such disastrous consequences, surely the least you can do is say sorry — and act as if you mean it.

But no, Sidhu continues to smirk his way through prime time. And nobody finds this worthy of comment, let alone opprobrium.

Compare this to the treatment meted out to another MP accused of causing the death of a man: Shibu Soren. Everyone lines up to denounce him as someone who exemplifies all that is wrong with our political system. And they are not wrong to do so. But surely, the same standards must apply to Sidhu as well, whatever his past contributions to cricket or public life. The fact that his suits are so sharply-cut, his beard so perfectly trimmed and his command of the English language ever so perfect, shouldn’t make a blind bit of difference to how we judge him.