Is actor Sanjay Dutt’s sentencing to additional three-and-half years in prison the biggest tragedy of the Supreme Court (SC) verdict in the 1993 Mumbai terror blasts case in which 257 people were killed and 713 injured?
At least that is the impression that stands created by the celebrity focus of the news coverage on the SC verdict and the bleeding heart response from Bollywood.
Adding to this sentiment, rather distressingly, is former Supreme Court judge and Press Council of India chief, Justice Markandeya Katju, who has appealed to Maharashtra Governor K Sankarnarayan to pardon Dutt.
Ranging from actor-turned-politician Jayaprada’s poorly-worded comment outside Parliament: “He is innocent…” to actor-MP Jaya Bachchan’s flippant outburst: “Where was the government all these years? Suddenly you have realised he has to go to jail? This is rubbish…” the dominant voice in Bollywood went emotional. “He’s such a nice guy, why is he being sent to prison again?” was what many said.
One can understand Bollywood’s theatrics. But why should Katju—who now rides the high horse of journalism as the PCI chief—lose his sense of balance and go to the extent of seeking pardon for Dutt only because he’s a celebrity?
Katju justified his appeal by saying that Dutt had not been held guilty of terrorism but of a far lesser charge of illegal possession of weapons under the Arms Act. Also, that the blasts had happened as far back as 20 years ago and since then, Dutt had "suffered a lot and had to undergo various tribulations and indignities".
Another point that Katju made in his appeal was that Dutt had "revived the memory of Mahatma Gandhi through his films" and was thus worthy of pardon.
It is disturbing that a former Supreme Court judge should take such a comical stand in a case as grave as the 1993 Bombay blasts in which a few thousand families were devastated. Suffering day in and day out, some of the maimed survivors would, in fact, have wished that they too were dead.
Going by Katju’s logic, he should be seeking pardon not just for Dutt but for all those convicted of lesser charges like Dutt because they and their families too had suffered as much, if not more than Dutt. After all, none of the poor convicts have the celebrity status, money and influence that Dutt possesses.
Thursday’s news coverage was such that the death sentence on the mastermind and fugitive criminals Dawood Ibrahim and his associate Tiger Memon didn’t evoke as much of a reaction as Dutt’s conviction. Perhaps, because both are out of India’s reach, running their criminal empires safely and comfortably from Pakistan.
As things stand today, India neither has the capability nor the influence to go after Dawood in the way in which the US went after Osama bin Laden and hunted him down.
Thus, effectively, the five-year jail term for Dutt was the biggest highlight of the verdict. This was followed by other highlights such as confirming of the death penalty on Tiger Memon’s brother Yakub Memon who had surrendered to Indian authorities; the sentencing of 33 persons to life imprisonment for the rest of their lives and the commuting of the death sentence to life imprisonment for 10 convicts.
Understandably, Sanjay Dutt’s sister and Congress MP, Priya Dutt was in tears and at a loss for words. While Sanjay Dutt, in an elaborate statement, tried to evoke sympathy for himself by saying: "I have suffered for 20 years and been in jail for 18 months. If they want me to suffer more, I have to be strong. I am heart-broken because today along with me, my three children and my wife and family will undergo the punishment."
In Bollywood, better sense prevailed in the reactions that came in later on Thursday. Filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt acknowledged that his fraternity of filmmakers and film stars was bound to get emotional about Dutt. He then added that the convicted actor "should be man enough" to accept the verdict and face the punishment handed out to him.
Veteran journalist Bhavna Somaiya did not get carried away by Bollywood’s emotional run and said on TV that those who were rushing to Dutt’s house to offer their sympathy, were essentially people who had crores of rupees invested in or committed to films starring Sanjay Dutt. They were more worried about their investments than about the grim future that stared Dutt in the face.
The former IPS officer-turned-lawyer YP Singh had little sympathy for Dutt who, he said had clearly benefitted from the advice of professional image managers to evoke public sympathy and project himself as a victim of circumstances.
Singh noted that Dutt had in fact been let off lightly because he was convicted under the Arms Act and the charges under the Terrorists and Disruptive Activities Act (Prevention) Act (TADA) under which he was booked originally, had been withdrawn in a questionable manner. In his view, there was no reason to feel sorry for Dutt who was paying the price for his own foolishness.
Bollywood’s bleeding hearts, Sanjay Dutt’s fans and anyone feeling sorry for his plight needs to wake up and smell the coffee.
After taking into account all the imperfections of the criminal-judicial system in India and the power and influence of celebrities, politicians and bureaucrats to manipulate the system to their advantage, it is to the credit of the investigating officers and the public prosecutor that a watertight case was built against Dutt.
Many more Sanjay Dutts of India, like the convicted white collar criminals Rajat Guptas and Raj Rajratnams in the United States, need to go behind the bars to set an example before society.
Like in the case with Dutt, a similar wave of sympathy was whipped up for Gupta, with top Indian industrialists projecting his humble background and humane qualities to influence a lighter verdict.
Celebrities have the advantage of wealth, power, powerful friends and all the accompanying charm which can be used to exert considerable pressure and influence in their favour. This same advantage is non-existent for the common criminal who, with all the disadvantages of poverty, is a much more hapless victim of his circumstances than celebrities like Dutt. Once convicted, his children and family suffer far more than celebrities and their families.
For all his fine acting and pleasant nature, Dutt stands guilty of a serious crime in the context of the Bombay bomb blasts which destroyed the lives of hundreds of innocent people and their families. As the SC verdict noted, this was the first-ever terror attack in the world in which RDX was used in a big way after the Second World War.
One of the biggest regrets that investigating officials have in this case is the withdrawal of the charges under TADA against Dutt. Both, former Mumbai police commissioner MN Singh who investigated the blast case, and special public prosecutor for the Maharashtra government, Ujjwal Nikam have termed it a “mistake” that the TADA charges were dropped against Dutt.
While Singh acknowledged that he came under considerable pressure from the late actor-Congress MP Sunil Dutt to rescue his son from the mess he had landed himself into, Nikam said that the withdrawal of the TADA charges was done by the CBI which should be questioned about it.
Singh noted that it was not possible to show any favours to Dutt as that would have had serious implications and would have weakened the entire case of the prosecution itself.
While Jaya Bachchan was angry that it took it 20 years to close the case, Nikam noted that part of the blame rested with the accused themselves who changed their statements and disputed anything and everything presented by the prosecution- right down to the deaths of the people in the blasts. This is not to say that the pace of the judiciary in India is satisfactory; certainly, we need a faster system and a faster verdict.
More than anything else, it is Sanjay Dutt’s conviction that will convince Bollywood and celebrities from other fields to keep an arm’s length from the world of crime.
Even if the case has taken 20 years to come to a close and the masterminds are absconding, the common man in India would not be entirely disillusioned with the state of the law enforcement machinery in the country.