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Ram and Manusmriti

Ram Jethmalani's decision to defend Manu Sharma ? a craven killer who has crouched behind political patronage ? is just too hard to understand, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Nov 04, 2006 00:39 IST

Two things happened this week: the man who murdered 22-year-old Priyadarshini Mattoo got the death sentence, and the man who shot 26-year-old Jessica Lall in full gaze of a swinging Delhi party got himself a new lawyer.

Ram Jethmalani is one of the country’s finest legal minds; to me, he is also a friend. It is impossible not to admire his razor-sharp mind, his boundless energy and his enthusiasm for taking on the Establishment. But his decision to defend Manu Sharma — a craven killer who has crouched behind political patronage — is just too hard to understand.

It is one thing to have the courage to hold your own against conventional wisdom, quite another to be contrarian for the sake of it.

I concede that the willingness to be unpopular is often the mark of a brave man. So, a few years ago, when Jethmalani intervened in the Parliament attack case, I could only applaud. India and Pakistan were on the brink of war; an angry country demanded that the attack be avenged and no one was really in any mood to debate the finer points of justice. It’s because Jethmalani was ready to risk the hostility of an entire nation that Professor SAR Geelani is even alive today. It turned out that the professor had been incorrectly bundled together with the other accused on the basis of a few telephone records that were entirely unconnected to the attack.

Jethmalani’s passionate defence compelled the court to decide that Geelani was innocent, and his death sentence transformed magically into an acquittal.

This time, too, the legendary lawyer has rolled up his sleeves and is ready for the fight. So how and why do I feel differently about his latest lone-ranger act? And in any case, doesn’t everyone have the right to the best defence they can get? Yes, the theoretical justifications are obvious. Even so, it’s the difference between sticking up for the small, shy boy in class and the lumbering, shameless school bully.

It’s the difference between defending the underdog and bailing out the rich guy who expects to walk free anyway. Most importantly, it’s the difference between innocence and guilt.

Take a look at the facts. One man was a Kashmiri Muslim who taught Arabic in a city college. In the scarred, divided society we live in, those facts alone would have been enough for most people to believe that he was a terrorist. Moreover, Geelani had neither money nor muscle; his would have remained a silent voice on the margins had Jethmalani not turned an eloquent spokesperson for him. The professor’s politics on Kashmir may not be the same as yours and mine, but that doesn’t make him a criminal.

Now, turn your attention to the Jessica Lall case. Ram Jethmalani has spoken in court of a media witch-hunt against his client. But can anyone picture this portly son of a powerful politician as a victim? Manu Sharma belongs to the classic club of VIP brats: their defining characteristic is their sense of entitlement; they believe their privileged positions should give them automatic access to anything they want. No wonder then that just the fact that he was refused a drink was reason enough for Manu Sharma to pull out a gun on that fateful night seven years ago.

Remember those pictures of Manu Sharma in court: smiling as he swaggered out in his spotlessly white kurta-pajama? He clearly believed in his own invincibility. In the years of the trial, he spent all his time expanding the family’s hotel empire, adding a discotheque to the long list of properties used to oil the wheels of the political caravan in Chandigarh. Not once did he display the fear of someone who thought he might end up in jail; after all Daddy’s money had already been used to bribe witnesses and get them to turn their stories around.

He was convinced he was going to walk free. And he was right.

Manu Sharma’s initial acquittal earlier this year confirmed the ordinary Indian’s worst fears about the country’s criminal and judicial system. He would have been celebrating in his new pub (and, this time, no one would have dared refuse him a drink) had it not been for what Ram Jethmalani calls a media ‘witch-hunt’.

There is also the not-so-minor matter of Manu Sharma’s own confession in which he concedes he killed Jessica. Normally, police confessions, induced as they are under torture, don’t always have the highest credibility. But this is a case where the police have already been charged with going slow and soft; where some police officers are accused of tampering with evidence; where the son of a former Congress Minister is involved. It is extremely unlikely that an obsequious police would have coerced an admission out of a man they had reason to be scared of.

Much is being made of whether media trials have substituted or, at the very least, weakened the judicial process. I disagree.

India’s middle-class is, for the most part, notoriously apathetic and self-serving. The fact that it has risen from slumber into activism — however selective — is something to embrace with pride and relief. I admit that we may care more about Jessica and Priyadarshini because, in some ways, this is Everyman’s story — we can imagine this happening to us, or to someone we love. But that doesn’t undermine the justness of the fight.

And I don’t buy the argument that mob passions and vigilante justice will now determine verdicts. There’s no better example than Ram Jethmalani’s own deft handling of the Parliament attack case to prove that an enlightened argument will always score over simplistic sentiments.

In the winter of a glorious career, Ram Jethmalani has often said that he’s earned more fame and money than he needs or wants. Now all he cares about, he likes to say, are issues of national interest. For the first timein many years, Indians like you and me have begun to believe in our own power to change the system. Is he going to strip us of our hope by choosing procedure over principle and contrariness over conscience?

I hope not.

Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV

First Published: Nov 04, 2006 00:36 IST