The Sanjay Dutt Saga

A response to Justice Katju 

The Chairman of the Press Council of India (PCI) Justice Markandey Katju has penned a letter to the Maharashtra governor requesting that Sanjay Dutt be pardoned for his recent conviction by the Supreme Court in the 1993 Bombay blasts case. Justice Katju believes that Dutt should not be sent back to the prison—a point he has reiterated in multiple TV debates. So let’s look at the letter.

For example in the case of Commander Nanavati who was held guilty of murder, the Governor gave him pardon although the minimum sentence for murder is life sentence.

In the case of Sanjay Dutt, the Supreme Court has not found him guilty for the 1993 bomb blasts, but only found him guilty of having in his possession a prohibited weapon without license. Surely, this is a lesser offence than murder. When the Governor of Maharashtra granted pardon to Nanavati, surely he can grant pardon to Sanjay.

This is a terrible argument. Without discussing the Nanavati case—a job best left to people with specialized legal training—-it can still be said that Katju’s argument is frankly unbecoming of someone who has had the honor of serving in the higest court of the land. Simply put, if his logic is accepted then anyone who has been convicted of a crime other than murder can cite the same precedent and demand that he be automatically pardoned. There must be a lot of people in Maharashtra jails serving time for crimes ranging from dacoity to molestation; should they be allowed to go scot-free because of the Nanavati case? If not, what exactly is so special about Sanjay Dutt?

According to Justice Katju there are six extenuating circumstances in Sanjay Dutt’s case.

The event happen in 1993 i.e. 20 years ago. During this period Sanjay suffered a lot, and had a cloud hovering over his head throughout. He had to undergo various tribulations and indignities during this period. He had to go to Court often, he had to take the permission of the Court for foreign shootings, he could not get bank loans, etc.

Well, so has every other person whose conviction has been upheld by the Supreme Court. Indeed, one could argue that they have ‘suffered’ more because some of  them were never granted bail and have continued to remain in the jail continuously for the last two decades.

On the other hand, Sanjay Dutt has been accepted with open arms by the film community and has acted in scores of movies over the last two decades. Certainly, the cloud hanging over his head has had no perceptible impact on his film career. And is it Katju’s argument that a Dutt—a person of considerable means—has been negatively affected because he was apparently denied access to bank loans?! Well, it didn’t seem to have any effect on his ability to produce movies which do require a substantial financial investment.

And again, if the argument is that attending court occasionally is an onerous burden, then every convict in India deserves mercy if not clemency.

Sanjay Dutt has already undergone 18 months in jail.

And the minimum sentence under the Arms act is five years which is exactly what the Supreme Court has awarded him. So what is the point again? Perhaps, Katju is interested in establishing a new legal rule under which anyone who has served any jail time should automatically be freedom upon conviction!

Sanjay Dutt has got married, and they have two small children.

Surely, there are a lot of convicts in India who are married and have small kids?. Unless Katju is demanding that all of them should be released, what’s the point here?

He has not been held to be a terrorist, and had no hand in the bomb blasts.

Most certainly, the Supreme Court has held him guilty only under the Arms Act. Of course, there are some questions on whether Dutt has benefited from his family name—for instance, why did CBI not appeal his TADA letoff? There are other questions on whether Sanjay Dutt’s role in the Mumbai blast case was as minimal as some of his most passionate supporters would like us to believe.

But let’s leave that debate aside. To be scrupulously fair, the Supreme Court in its wisdom has settled that argument.  Even if Sanjay Dutt is not a terrorist, surely people can be convicted for other offenses? And that is precisely what has happened in this case. Or is it Katju’s argument that anyone who is not convicted under terror laws deserves a pardon?

 His parents Sunil Dutt and Nargis worked for the good of society and the nation. Sunil Dutt and Nargis often went to border areas to give moral support to our brave jawans and did other social work for society.

Sunil Dutt was a fairly successful Bollywood star and by all accounts conducted his politics with rare dignity. It is no one’s contention that he was involved in his son’s shenanigans and the help he extended to Sanjay Dutt can be justly explained by fatherly concern.

But Sunil Dutt is not on trial here. Or think of it this way: If Sunil Dutt was a convicted criminal, it would have been ridiculous to argue that his son deserved a higher punishment because of his father’s mistakes. The same argument cuts both ways.

Considering Sanjay Dutt’s privileged upbringing, even the usual arguments about poverty or other extenuating circumstances are not applicable here. If anything, Dutt deserves no mercy because of his pedigree. As former Mumbai Police Commissioner M. N Singh has pointed out, as a son of a ruling party MP, Sanjay Dutt could have easily asked for police protection if he feared for his life. Instead, he chose to seek protection—if that’s all he did—from the likes of Dawood Ibrahim.

Sanjay in this period of 20 years has through his film revived the memory of Mahatma Gandhi and the message of Gandhiji, the father of the nation.

This argument is so ridiculous that it does not even merit a response.

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Final points. First, it is only in India that a rich celebrity like Sanjay Dutt who belongs to a powerful political family can be presented as a victim. The Indian justice system has myriad structural weaknesses and works at a glacial pace. But it would require convoluted mental gymnastics to argue that it is somehow ‘unfair’ to people like Sanjay Dutt (Or other celebrities like Salman Khan). As Shekhar Gupta persuasively argues in the Indian Express, sympathy for Sanjay Dutt is merely the elite looking out for one of its own. That the Bollywood brigade has demanded ‘justice’ for Dutt is perhaps even understandable; that this quixotic quest has been joined by the likes of Katju and some powerful political figures is deeply troubling.

Second, the political class is often blamed for protecting its own. Witness the latest fracas in Maharashtra where legislators belonging to different parties thrashed a police officer who had the temerity to fine an independent MLA for a traffic violation. But how is it different from the Bollywood elite who are marching to the same tune and expressing heartfelt sympathy for Dutt? Or from lawyers who lecture all and sundry about the legal system but utter nary a squeak when fellow practitioners indulge in mindless violence. The same argument can be extended to different groups from journalists to elite physicians. The politicians are singled out mostly because in a democracy they are the ones who are the most visible  and dominate media headlines.  But when it comes to protecting its own, the Indian elite shows a truly remarkable unity.

Finally, the very fact that a person as well known as Sanjay Dutt was convicted is a powerful argument for the fundamental fairness of the Indian legal system. The faith of the aam aadmi in India’s institutions is already shaky and needs to be nurtured and protected. A pardon for Sanjay Dutt would not only be a travesty , it would affirm that justice in India can be short-circuited by the rich and powerful. That is a dangerous message in an era of all round cyncism and the Indian establishment should think carefully about its own credibility and the urgent need to maintain trust in the system.

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