When Sanjay Dutt was first arrested, over a decade ago, I wrote several articles to the effect that he had been victimised and should be set free. My reasons were straightforward enough. I had known Sunil Dutt for a long time, and recognised that his enemies were using his son to settle scores with him. I knew Sanjay a little. And there was no doubt in my mind that he was no terrorist.
Over the last few years, however, I have been silent on the subject. My problem is not that my views on Sanjay have altered; it is that I did not believe a key element of Sanjay’s case.
When Sanjay was first arrested, he admitted to possessing a weapon. He said, quite reasonably , that he had acquired the gun because times were tense and because his father and sisters were receiving threats. Anybody who lived through the Bombay riots will remember those times. Mobs roamed the streets, burning homes, setting fire to cars and killing people at will. The police force completely collapsed and there was no hope of receiving any protection at all from the cops.
In such circumstances, it was not unreasonable for Sanjay to feel that it was up to him to protect his family. And so, I entirely understood why he had acquired the gun.
It spoke badly of the Bombay police, I thought, that, having failed to protect the city, they were now arresting those who were forced to make their own arrangements. Worse still, they now claimed that Sanjay was a terrorist and tried to link him to the serial blasts. Rather than make out a case against him only under the Arms Act, they were vindictive enough to arrest him under TADA and to insist that he spend 18 months in jail — even though nobody seriously believed that he would flee before the trial.
My problem was with Sanjay’s defence strategy Somewhere . along the line, his lawyers told him that he needed to disown his earlier confession and to claim that he had never possessed a gun to begin with. This may have made some tactical legal sense, but I thought it was a lie. And so, I steered clear of writing about the case and I refused to interview him. I still believed that Sanjay deserved to be acquitted. But I disagreed with the basis of his case.
Now that the judgement is in, it does look as though that lie was pointless. The judge has acquitted Sanjay on the terrorism charges. But he has accepted the police’s contention that there was a gun and convicted him under the Arms Act.
Something about the way people reacted to the case got me thinking. I think it’s fair to say that virtually the entire country was united in hoping that Sanjay would not be convicted on the terrorism charges. When the BJP tried to make political capital out of the case — Gopinath Munde’s boast that he was the one who had demanded the filing of charges against Sanjay, for instance — the public response was so negative that this approach was quickly abandoned.
And yet, if you look at the other cases that have been in the news recently, this reaction is completely at odds with our stat ed position on celebrity crimes. In the Jessica Lal case, we believe that Manu Sharma (who also spent months in jail) should be convicted to demonstrate that the rich sons of government ministers do not get special treatment. In the Nitish Katara case, we take the same line: we want Vikas Yadav to be locked up so that his politician father’s money and influence are shown to be irrelevant in the eyes of the law.
A cynic could claim that, in some ways, the Sanjay Dutt case is not so different. His father was a minister. His sister is a member of Parliament. The party they belong to is in power at the Centre and in the state. Sanjay is rich, and you could even argue that the Dutts are wealthier and more influential than the Yadavs and the Sharmas. Plus, Sanjay is clearly guilty of a crime (possessing a weapon, not of being a terrorist) and his lawyers have lied about the guilt. (This is not just my view. Even the court agrees.)
As for the equality-under-thelaw argument, the Dutt case also involves special treatment for the rich and famous. Sanjay has been able to get his life back and star in hit films. But there are many other accused against whom the evidence is roughly on par with the case against Sanjay (some of them have actually been charged on the basis of evidence that is even flimsier), who have spent years in jail, and have seen their lives and families being destroyed. Yet, we don’t really care what happens to them. We don’t know their names. No TV cameras cover their entrances into the courtroom. And whether they are convicted or acquitted, they will still be anonymous broken men.
So, why do we feel so differently about Sanjay Dutt?
Is it because he is a popular movie star? Is it because he is a public figure whose pain we can identify with — unlike Manu Sharma and Vikas Yadav who remain merely names in newspapers? Are we so shallow that we take the line that popularity is more important than justice?
These are significant questions for two separate reasons. The first is that Indian society is currently passing through a phase where the middle class believes that justice is manipulated by the rich and powerful. So it is important to understand why we make an exception for Sanjay Dutt. The second is that movie stars routinely claim that they are victimised; that they are needlessly picked on in cases of drunken driving or deer-hunting.
The second reason is, I think, easy to dispose of. It is true that movie stars attract a disproportionate amount of media coverage when they are accused of crimes. But it is as true that they get away with pretty much everything. I can’t think of a single film star whose career has suffered because of brushes with the law. Once the headlines fade, it is back to business as usual. We are so in love with our film stars that after an initial burst of anger, we are prepared to forgive them anything.
The first reason is more complicated. A knee-jerk response would be to argue that when there is a conflict between our desire to punish the powerful and our love for our movie stars, love always wins over punishment. And that Sanjay Dutt has had the nation praying for him only because he is a movie idol.
Perhaps. But my instinct is that we should be wary of drawing any general conclusions from the Sanjay Dutt case. Yes, his status as a movie star does help. Many people do confuse the rough-but-basically-good-hearted Munnabhai character with the real Sanjay. And some of the sympathy he has attracted comes from fans who would support him no matter what he did.
The real reason why most of us wanted Sanjay to be acquitted, however, is because we genuinely believed that he was falsely accused. We are prepared to accept that he can be naïve, hotheaded, reckless, foolish, even. And if he had been charged simply with possession of a weapon, we would have supported the case against him — even if we thought that there were extenuating circumstances.
But the Bombay police behaved with unacceptable vindictiveness. To allege that Sanjay Dutt is some kind of terrorist mastermind, that he conspired to place bombs all over Bombay and to kill hundreds of innocent citizens, is to insult the intelligence of the Indian people. We have seen enough of Sanjay — and much more of his father — to know that he is no terrorist.
The moment the police overplayed their hand, they lost the support of the public. At an intuitive level, we recognised that some kind of vendetta was being played out. And when they put Sanjay in jail for 18 months for no good reason, they confirmed our worst suspicions. By the time the verdict was delivered, we were less concerned with the possession of a weapon and more concerned that these absurd charges should be thrown out.
The parallels with Vikas Yadav and Manu Sharma are purely superficial. Yes, they are also the rich sons of powerful parents. But at no stage have we ever felt that they were being victimised. Nor has there been any doubt in the public mind that they are guilty of the crimes with which they are charged.
In Sanjay’s case, his father’s status as a Congress MP actually went against him. Till the day he died, Sunil Dutt was convinced that Sanjay was sent to jail only because of the vendettas that dominated Maharashtra politics. In the cases of both Vikas Yadav and Manu Sharma, there is reason to believe that their fathers’ influence was used to shield them, to nobble witnesses and to subvert justice.
So, at the end, some broad conclusions. Yes, we will forgive our movie stars anything. But that’s not the only reason why Sanjay Dutt has so much support. And yes, there are incongruities in our approach to the sons of the powerful when they are accused of crimes. But, as long as we are convinced that the fathers do not misuse their power to help their sons, we are prepared to be fair.
And finally, let’s not forget that the real reason why India prayed for Sanjay was because the Bombay police chose to accuse him of being something that he was clearly not: a terrorist.
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