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Sceptics, once again

Manu Sharma’s conviction gave us hope. But his parole controversy shows that influential people can still twist the law for personal gains, writes Barkha Dutt.

columns Updated: Nov 13, 2009 21:45 IST

Ram Jethmalani, the venerable old warhorse of India’s legal fraternity, has a penchant for being contrarian and outrageously provocative. But even after factoring in that character trait, I was flabbergasted to hear him argue that Manu Sharma’s evening of pub-crawling while out on parole, was no more than “attending to business over a drink”. Over the years, I’m just one among hundreds of people who have unsuccessfully argued with Jethmalani over his decision to take on this case. But at least Jethmalani is Manu Sharma’s lawyer; it’s his job to defend his client whether he believes in the veracity or sincerity of his own argument or not.

What about the Delhi government? Have you heard one reasonable or consistent explanation for why Manu Sharma, a murderer, was let out of jail, against the recommendation of the city’s police? Can we be blamed for believing that the parole decision smacks of underhand politics? The timing raises some serious questions as well. Manu Sharma’s parole application was cleared in September — less than a month before the crucial Haryana assembly elections. Is it a simple coincidence that Manu Sharma’s father, Venod Sharma, happens to be a Haryana Congressman with a sprawling network of influence and wealth?
Is that why the Chandigrah police had such a different view of Manu Sharma’s parole application than the Delhi police? Incidentally, when the Hooda government was desperate to shore up numbers to make a majority, it was Sharma who is believed to have swung seven independents and five defectors from Kuldeep Bishnoi’s party, thus saving the government. Normally, I have little patience for the middle-class propensity to indulge in over-generalised politician-bashing. But, given how the dots seem to connect in this case, do you really fault the citizenry of this country for smelling a proverbial rat?

Why has the normally straight talking Chief Minister of Delhi vacillated between an aggressive assertion of “no-wrongdoing” and defensive silence? When Sheila Dikshit first insisted that she had merely followed procedure on sanctioning a murderer’s parole, she omitted to mention that her own police force had given a thumbs down to the application. Yes, she had a go-ahead from the Tihar jail authorities as well as the Chandigarh cops. But when the Delhi police said a firm “no” to manu Sharma’s appeal and argued that his “grounds for parole were not appealing”, didn’t people have a right to know?
What about the suave and bright Lieutenant Governor of Delhi? Could he not have sent the file back declining his assent? He has now asked for new guidelines to be set for parole applications. But who in the government bothered to ascertain whether the reasons Manu Sharma based his parole application on were genuine? The first reason — to perform religious rites for his grandmother — seems bizarre, considering his grandmother died in 2008. His second basis — to look after his ‘ageing’ mother — was found to be a lie; she was attending press conferences with alacrity and aplomb. And finally, his request to attend to his business, in which he is incidentally among the largest shareholders, seemed dubious as well, because, as the Delhi Police argued, the business was doing just fine on its own.

And yet, the promptness with which Manu Sharma’s file was cleared is especially controversial if you examine the statistics. This year, the Delhi government received 132 parole applications. Of these, 11 were granted, 33 were rejected and 88 are still pending. Was Manu Sharma’s really among the 11 most legitimate and deserving applications? Not just was he granted a parole; his parole was extended by 30 days, without anyone bothering to verify his behaviour while out of jail.
Finally, isn’t the opposition’s silence on the controversy curious? One would like to think it’s because the BJP is busy dousing its own forest fires. But given that they have found time and energy to respond to every other lapse of the government, how do they explain the ambiguous indifference to this? Is there a political conspiracy of silence?

The Congress has since conceded that the terms of the parole should have been investigated more rigorously. But interestingly, almost no politician or lawyer I’ve spoken to seems to have a problem with the fact that Manu Sharma, who wasn’t even allowed to be in Delhi, was busy lapping up the fun, at two different nightclubs in the capital. Jethmalani argues that the entire purpose of parole is to permit a ‘normalcy’. The Congress says whether Manu Sharma was at a pub or a prayer meet is irrelevant; the law is only concerned with whether the basis on which his parole was granted was valid or not.

But, in a case like this, can you really ignore the power of symbolism? After all, remember how Jessica Lall died? A rich young man, who believed his political connections immunised him against the law, pulled out a gun in a trendy Delhi restaurant and killed a young woman for refusing to serve him a drink after the bar had shut down. It took the collective outrage of a nation to get his preposterous acquittal turned into a conviction. To see him back on the bar circuit of Delhi, without a care in the world, seems to suggest that even years of prison life and public scrutiny haven’t dislodged the innate sense of invincibility. Isn’t that chilling?

Manu Sharma may be back in prison, ‘surrendering’ voluntarily after the controversy erupted. His conviction is often cited as a test case for how justice doesn’t always have to be trapped by the insidious circle of influence. But the dubious and untold truth surrounding his parole has made sceptics of us, all over again.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV

The views expressed by the author are personal