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Witness the spineless

Shyan Munshi's conduct stinks of the indiscretions of privilege that allow rich, drunk brats to run down the poor and get away because they have the bucks to buy freedom.

india Updated: May 01, 2006 00:07 IST

I have to hand it to you, Shyan Munshi: you got nerve. But maybe someone should turn you around to check if you got a spine. Seven years ago, on April 29, 1999, Jessica Lall was shot dead in the same room as you. In the First Information Report, I believe you attested that Manu Sharma was responsible. Your statement, if you’d stuck to it, could have resulted in the conviction of one very dangerous man. Instead, you turned a hostile witness. And Manu Sharma walked free.

I can imagine your pressures: the gory threats, the bribes offered, the thuggish politicians on the line. It couldn’t have been easy for you. But then it isn’t easy for any of us. When I met Erin Brockovich a few years ago, I was struck by her fiercely blue eyes, her almost visceral radiance of pluck (Julia Roberts, who essayed Brockovich in the Oscar Award-winning film of the same name, was unable to fully translate this bravado on screen). “It wasn’t easy,” Brockovich told me. “I have been alone. I have sat in a corner and wept. I have struggled with what the ‘right thing’ is.” But why did she rally on against the big guns? “When you look into the eyes of a dying child, you know you can’t give up.” And she didn’t. An unemployed single mother of three sued PG&E for contamination of water and, in a historic settlement of over $ 300 million, proved that one person could take on the system-- and win.

It wasn’t easy, I’m sure, for Teesta Seetalvad when she went to the Supreme Court to petition the Best Bakery case to be transferred to the Maharashtra courts. “I was threatened,” she told an interviewer. “But one has to carry on.” Thanks to her staying power, Seetalvad affected a retrial in the Best Bakery case-- in spite of goons in the Narendra Modi government watching over her every move.

Closer at hand, in your orbit, when Preity Zinta tackled the dons of Karachi, she stood by her FIR; it took a woman to show what being a man was all about. Recently I bumped into Shabana Azmi and we touched upon the contracts between celebrity and social responsibility. The clearest echo of our conversation, however, was the gritty, gorgeous beauty of her face, a fearlessness resident in her brow, the sort of woman who’ll take on hate-mongering zealots to placate communal tensions. Do you think it’s easy for any of these women? But they went right on, they stood their guns.

When I read that you, Shyan, asked for a witness protection programme, it occurred to me there should also be a Protect The Witness from Bribes Programme. Of course, this is not to insinuate that you went back on your statement simply because you might have been offered a crore of rupees. Your move to Mumbai is not to get away from the scene of the crime but, ostensibly, to work in Bollywood. Perhaps all producers should know you don’t speak any Hindi, which was also why you backed out on your FIR. Outside of fluent Hindi, producers may insist on some level of integrity from you, not because morality and Bollywood go hand in hand but because without integrity of being, there can be no integrity in art.

Your conduct stinks of India’s obscene celebrity culture that allows Salman Khan to walk out on bail and then do a disgusting look-ma-no-ganji jiggy for his idiotic supporters. Your conduct stinks of the indiscretions of privilege that allow rich, drunk brats to run down the poor and get away because they have the bucks to buy freedom. You make me ashamed to be a part of the same generation that holds India’s future in their hands. We can do a rah-rah act for the new economy but until we don’t root out the Manu Sharmas out of the system, our ship is sunk.

Morality is a philosophy, and consequently, nebulously defined. The practice of morals, on the other hand, is a science: ethics. Morals make me nervous; their definition has been taken hostage by politicians, most of whom wouldn’t know a moral from a car accident. Ethics, however, are less amenable to interpretation. When you go back on your word it is an ethical failure; when a judge refuses to probe further into a case that suggests a conspiracy between the police and politicians, it is a moral lapse. Perhaps the Jessica Lall case illuminates an odd dichotomy in India: we have high public morals (Jessica Lall’s killer should be brought to justice) but low personal ethics (But what can we do about it?) In the grey space between the two, the voice of impunity vanishes.

Heinrich Zimmer, in Philosophies of India, defines satyagraha as “holding (agraha) to the truth (satya)”. But not every satyagraha need be a mass movement; some are deeply personal enterprises that lend to community rescue. Gandhi’s single act of truth-- what Maya Angelou might call “a brave and startling truth”-- could eradicate the Empire; truth, the Bible says, shall set you free. But the truth is also a solemnly binding principle, in that it is beholden to your humanity and its responsibilities. What distinguishes you, Shyan, from others who compromised truth-- the forensics experts, the Delhi cops-- is that you treated the resultant hype as a career move. Like a poodle you pirouette down the ramp; you gape at us from the front pages of newspapers.

But this is not Delhi. This is Mumbai. And here we don’t think much of folks who score publicity points by dancing on someone’s grave: that’s not just tacky, that’s plain cruel. You can write off this piece as a character assassination but you need to get some character before we can assassinate it.

The writer is the author of The Last Song of Dusk