The wheels of justice in the 1993 Mumbai blasts case may have taken 20 years to spin and deliver a verdict, but the wheels of "spin doctors" for superstar Sanjay Dutt have gone into overtime within minutes of the verdict to secure a pardon he doesn't deserve.
To the syrupy chorus of voices from the vacuous Bollywood fraternity, no less than the former Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju has added the weight of his opinion that Sanjay Dutt should be pardoned because he has suffered enough, the blasts happened 20 years ago, and he has a loving family. More laughably, Katju maintained, Dutt had been a brand ambassador for "Gandhigiri" in his Munnabhai series, and both he and his family had done good deeds for society.
The squawk of the chatterati has been loud enough to get the levers of government working to find ways to get Sanju baba to walk free - even though the Supreme Court had found him guilty of violation of the Arms Act and sentenced him to five years' jail. Several ministers of the UPA have come out with helpful suggestions for the precise manner in which the defenders of the indefensible can go about it.
Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari said that authorities would take cognisance of the matter "at an appropriate level." Whenever a person of the eminence of Justice Katju articulates a position on an issue, people both inside and outside the government listen to it carefully, he added.
Likewise, Law Minister Ashwani Kumar too observed that the Governor of Maharashtra had the power to pardon Dutt. "The Governor will use his discretionary power when there is an appeal to him," he noted.
Fellow film star - and Tourism Minister - Chiranjeevi too chirped in to add that "Dutt should get mercy" and in that eventuality, he - Chiranjeevi - would be the "happiest person." Chiranjeevi, it's worth adding, has a blatant conflict of interest in the matter that ought to have inhibited him from weighing in: his son is paired alongside Sanjay Dutt in films, and their commercial interests will be jeopardised in the event that Dutt is jailed.
When a vast section of the political spectrum - from the Congress to the NCP to the Samajwadi Party to even the Shiv Sena - is out batting for Sanjay Dutt, it seems near-certain that a mercy petition will gain traction, and he will walk free.
This is perverse on many counts. For a start, it validates the widely held perception that the due process of law doesn't apply to celebrities even when they have been found guilty of grave crimes by the highest court of the land in a case relating to what was arguably the biggest terrorist attack in India.
Sanjay Dutt, by his own admission, which he has been looking to retract, sought and secured deadly assault rifles, ammunition and hand-grenades - and was in active touch with the perpetrators of the terrorist attack who were acting to avenge the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 and the savage riots of January 1993 in Mumbai.
Police officers allege, to this day, that Sanjay Dutt was "actively aiding and abetting" the serial blasts. Of course, the courts have not confirmed those charges. Even if Dutt wasn't aware of the larger conspiracy to set off serial blasts, he fell for and tacitly advanced the terrorists' objective of setting off a monstrous communal conflagration in Mumbai to avenge the Shiv Sena's role in the January 1993 riots.
In his first confessional statement, made to his father and Congress MP Sunil Dutt who wanted to know why he had been stashing deadly arms, Sanjay Dutt said: "Because I have Muslim blood in my veins. I could not bear what was happening in the city."
There were a whole host of others who were disturbed by goings-on in Mumbai in those communally charged times (as Firstpost has observed here and here), but not everyone felt the need to stash deadly firearms in violation of the law. Sanjay Dutt claims he received death threats and the arms were for his self-defence, but as the son of a Congress MP he was more privileged than most others, and was in egregious violation of the Terrorists and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act and the Arms Act.
It is for those crimes that he was convicted, although as this searing expose points out, he was already the beneficiary of a "benign judicial eye" that acquitted him of charges under TADA even though others like Zaibunnisa Kadri, who acted as a conduit for the arms without express realisation of the contents of the package, were charged under the more rigorous provision. Even Sanjay Dutt's lawyer found that perverse (more here).
On the day in 2006 that he was acquitted of charges under TADA, Sanjay Dutt sported a huge tilak on his forehead and offered prayers at the Siddhi Vinayak temple in Mumbai, thereby exhibiting an amazing dexterity in playing both sides of his religious legacy as the situation warranted.
To this day, Sanjay Dutt has not expressed any remorse for his foolish action, taken at a challenging time in Mumbai's history, when Bollywood was also valorising the khalnayak phenomenon.
And yet, even after the Supreme Court sentencing, the Bollywood brigade, Katju and an array of political leaders are speaking up for his clemency. All because he's "suffered enough" (who decides that?) and is a family man who has done "good deeds" - in the way that every celebrity does as part of a PR exercise?
Justice, as Shekhar Gupta points out (here), is about laws and evidence. "It is not about what a nice guy you have been, or how kind, wonderful and successful your parents and siblings are."
Of course, the Indian jurisprudence system provides for commutation of sentences and mercy, but even that is subject to judicial review. And the instance that Katju cites - the 1959 case of KM Nanavati, whose life sentence (for the murder of his wife's paramour) was commuted - is flawed. (Even there, the conflict of interest runs too deep: Nanavati was close to the Nehru family, and the then Governor of Maharashtra, who commuted the sentence was Nehru's sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit.) In any case, it was a crime of passion, not a criminal conspiracy involving a terrorist attack.
As Gupta notes, all the mitigating circumstances being quoted in Sanjay Dutt's defence are "exclusive gifts of our elite privilege." They reek of an "us-and them" mentality where "people like us" must be let off even if they are found guilty of grave crimes related to a terrorist attack, but the "dirty unwashed" should face long terms in jail even before charge sheets have been drawn up.
The move to secure mercy for Sanjay Dutt is a perversion of the law, fraught with dangerous consequences. And yet, it appears that it has enough political and social momentum to sail through.