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Fathers and sons: Why a modern Dhritarashtra is a failed citizen

Once there was a fond father. A fond father blinded by the love for his son, blind to his son’s failings. The fond father moved heaven and earth, even broke the law to save his son from the law. But in spite of his efforts, the fond father failed to protect his son and instead became a model of failed parenthood. The son’s life was ruined by an excess of love, the father’s own life came undone. His actions raised the questions: should parental love seek to bend the law, does an adult accused of a criminal offence continue to be papa’s "raja beta".

I have written earlier about the Dhritarashtra syndrome in politics. Like the blind king Dhritarashtra who stayed silent when Draupadi was disrobed in public and failed to uphold his moral duty to act against his own offspring, Karunanidhi’s dark glasses have always rendered him sightless to the antics of his sons and Mulayam Singh Yadav at the moment appears blind to his son’s total inability to perform as Uttar Pradesh chief minister.

Sanjay Dutt. AFP

Sanjay Dutt. AFP

Apart from politics, the Dhritarashtra syndrome exists in civil society too. In the quivering tremulous world of Indian parenthood, Sunil Dutt, BB Mohanty even a Venod Sharma (father of Manu Sharma) or a Suresh Nanda (father of BMW hit and run convict Sanjeev Nanda), embody a tragedy. A tragedy of citizenship, a tragedy of love, a tragedy of a father, like the blind Dhritarashtra, who simply cannot see the wrongs committed by his son. The blind loving fathers of India, the father who shields a criminal offspring from the law, are obstacles towards the democratisation of society, they are fundamental obstacles to the rule of law and one of the reasons why we are still not a law abiding country.

Is democracy only about elections and voting for a ruling regime? Or is democracy also about recognising our role as citizens, recognising our roles as agents of change in a society where constitutional values, rule of law and accountability are still distant dreams. A feudal society seeks to protect the clan above all else. Based on client- patron relations in the family and in the wider kinship system, feudalism upholds notions of "honour", "family pride" and "family name".

A democratic society, on the other hand recognises the primacy of society above family, recognises the rule of law as the primary individual responsibility of citizens and recognises the role that each of us must play as upholders of the law in even within the family. But our modern Dhritarashtras remain blind—and feudal—when it comes to their sons.

In the case of businessman Sanjeev Nanda implicated in the BMW hit and run case of 1999, the suspicion was that his businessman father Suresh Nanda, once a Lt Commander in the navy had actually helped the bloodied BMW being washed of all evidence, after it had mowed down six people on the early morning of 10 January 1999. In 1996 Santosh Kumar Singh, son of senior police officer JP Singh, followed, stalked raped and murdered Delhi University student Priyadarshini Mattoo. Once again apparently because of his father’s influence—JP Singh was Joint Commissioner, Delhi Police during Santosh’s trial. Santosh was initially acquitted by the trial court.

DP Yadav, the "mafia don" of western Uttar Pradesh, can hardly be called a Dhritarashtra. Yet as father of Vikas Yadav, the convicted murderer of Nitish Katara, Yadav continues his reign of terror against Neelam Katara, Nitish’s valiant mother, who fought to bring the murderer to justice. When Manu Sharma shot Jessica Lal, father Venod Sharma, Congress politician and former minister, remained adamant on his son’s innocence, refusing to bring Manu befor the law. Rich and privileged stalkers, rapists and murderers seem to have staunch allies in their fathers. Commit any crime and daddy will get you off is probably the worst lesson a parent can convey to a child.

Covering Nitish Kumar’s campaign in 2010 in Bihar, the chief minister gave me some words of wisdom. How did you manage to restore law and order in Bihar, I asked him. He replied, in the old days criminals would come to the chief minister’s house and ask to be protected from the law. Today if a criminal comes to my house they know that the chief minister will turn them over to the police.

When a child commits a criminal offence, how many Indian parents will turn them over to the law? Or will many of us instead use every means at our disposal to shield a criminal from justice simply because he happens to our very own a spoilt brat, cocooned by his parents’ money and privilege?

Let us examine the case of another modern day Dhritarashtra: Bidya Bhushan Mohanty, father of Bitti Mohanty, accused of rape and now in custody. An upright and admired Odisha police officer, BB Mohanty as IG Prisons brought in a slew of reforms including the rehabilitation of children of under-trials. But BB’s long record as an upright policeman was destroyed when that same blind love for his son came in the way of upholding the law. Using his contacts in the Rajasthan police, BB Mohanty was accused of not only helping Bitti jump parole, but also aiding him in his creating a fake identity in Kerala. Should a policeman father help his son run from the law? Or (if he believed his son was innocent) should he not encourage him to fight his case lawfully, in the court, and clear his name?

BB Mohanty, the upright police officer himself became a fugitive from the law, and today his face reveals a broken spirit. He could not save his son from the law, and could not save his own good name. Senior police officers have been quoted as saying: "Bitti might have come out of prison by now and started life afresh. But thanks to a father who made mincemeat of the law, the son now faces a dark future." The Dhritarashtra syndrome takes a heavy toll on both father and son.

Perhaps the most tragic modern Dhritarashtra is Sunil Dutt, father of Sanjay Dutt. Sunil Dutt was the much loved and respected five time member of Parliament from Mumbai, a Padma Shri, an acclaimed actor and known for his social commitment. When Sanjay was first arrested in April 1993, Dutt senior cried out that he now lived only with one hope: to hear the courts declare that his son was not a terrorist.

Year after year, after Sunjay’s arrest Sunil Dutt lobbied with governments, first the Congress then the BJP-Shiv Sena, even making his peace with arch enemy Bal Thackeray to try and secure legal relief for his son.

In October 1994 Sunil Dutt traded in all the goodwill he had acquired to get Sanjay out of jail. His decision not to contest the 1996 Lok Sabha elections is seen as the pound of flesh Sunil Dutt had to pay for Sanjay’s release. The father’s blind love may have slowed down the process of justice but in the end Sunil Dutt’s “Sunju baba” would probably have been better off, had he been tried, convicted and allowed to serve his sentence then and there, instead of a grinding 20 year legal ordeal and a prison sentence at the age of 53, when his father is no longer here to help him or to beg politicians for reprieve.

The Dhritarashtra syndrome begs the question: is it better to try and evade the law, delay the law, circumvent the law for the sake of raja beta? Or is it better to let raja beta face the law, take responsibility for his actions, serve his time and get a chance to begin a new life afresh? Both BB Mohanty and Sunil Dutt, delayed the law for their sons, but in the end their loving efforts hurt rather than helped. In the end both Mohanty and Sunil Dutt surrendered their democratic citizenship at the altar of blind paternal love.

What lesson can we draw from the Dhritarashtras of our times? The lesson is a hard one, but in a sense Sanjay Dutt’s fate should become a moment of inflexion for every parent. Is it worth it to try and shield your child from the law for as long as you possibly can, blinded by love? Or, if there are criminal charges, should every parent not let the law take its course and accept their child’s wrongdoing, however heart-wrenching that acceptance may be.

The blindness of Dhritarashtra may exist in myth, reality demands that every parent in today’s times shed the blindness, open their eyes wide and teach their children that even a father’s love cannot save you if you break the law.

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