National Interest: Our poor little Sanju

Honestly, I hardly know Sanjay Dutt well enough to form an opinion on him. I won't be able to say whether he was an innocent, gullible but decent and truly unfortunate boy with a heart of gold, or a fatally flawed superstar who routinely played with his own life and the law and mostly got away, thanks to his and his parents' fame and connections, and has now run out of luck. Not being a regular movie watcher, I am not even particularly qualified to speak of him as an actor. My personal and professional acquaintance with him is limited to a one-hour conversation for a Walk the Talk interview on NDTV 24x7 on May 20, 2007 (http://goo.gl/vlq35). I had found him gentle, even vulnerable, surprisingly honest and humble in talking about his past, his mistakes, even his tryst with drugs and his fightback. What had obviously helped was a phone conversation with his sister Priya on the way to their Pali Hill home. You could see how his younger sisters mothered and protected him. Priya had called to counsel him to be kind and open with me, and Namrata was in attendance on the sidelines along with her most adorable poodle.

So this is what we have: talented, vulnerable, gentle, well behaved, blessed with comic timing, a sometimes obedient older brother to two doting sisters, and now we have it on good authority, even on Justice Markandey Katju's, a good husband and father of three children. But here is the question that matters: does all that absolve him of the charges for which he was convicted in a verdict now confirmed by the Supreme Court? The answer, regrettably, can only be no. Because justice 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.

The clamour of support for Sanjay on these lines has come from Hindi heartland politicians (mainly of the Samajwadi Party, which he campaigned for sometimes) and all kinds of cinema personalities, ranging from Madhuri Dixit to Rani Mukherji, Kunal Kohli to Mahesh Bhatt. And now, never to be left behind, Justice Katju also jumps on the bandwagon. Not one of them says that he was innocent and framed, that the judicial verdict is flawed, that the evidence against him was dodgy. Kunal Kohli, a wonderfully talented young filmmaker and one of a handful of my acquaintances in Hindi cinema, asks what is the point of these convictions while the main perpetrators are safe in Pakistan. Now how does that logic work? And if it does, then why are so many others to spend much of the rest of their lives in jail or Yakub Memon to hang, while his more malevolent brother Tiger and alleged mentor-in-chief Dawood Ibrahim live happily in Pakistan?

Should we then suspend all these sentences until the government is able to get the Pakistanis to deliver these masterminds? Of course not. These guys are guilty. They wrecked Bombay. They were part of one of the most diabolical terror plots ever to destroy India frankly more dangerous in its ambition and possibilities, if clumsier in execution, than 26/11 a decade and a half later they must be punished. And you will add, most likely, why has the Supreme Court been so generous in reducing the death sentence earlier given to 10 of them to life? How can you be so kind to such bad guys? This is, therefore, not an argument for liberalism, nor for sparing the foot-soldiers while the generals live in their ISI-funded comfort in Pakistan. It is an argument about having two kinds of law, one for people like them who look, feel and sound so guilty. And the other about a nice guy like us, who was merely a victim of circumstances, insecure, being half-Muslim and thus brainwashed into arming himself for self-defence, and so what if it was with an AK-56 assault rifle. Mind you, this was relatively innocent 1993. And AKs were not weapons you almost ever saw outside some militant districts in Punjab and Kashmir.

Two decades make a story a generation old. So it is also necessary to remember what these bombings were all about. They came within two months of the horrible post-Babri riots in Bombay, when somebody in Pakistan saw a new possibility. The plotters thought bombings like these in sensitive places would most certainly invite reprisals from Hindus, particularly Shiv Sainiks, helped along by a police that had looked mostly one-sided in its sympathies in the riots two months earlier. That is why hand-grenades and AK series assault rifles were given to Muslims in "sensitive" localities. When the reprisal squads "inevitably" came, they were to be counter-attacked with weapons of lethality unknown in India yet. And once a few thousand Sainiks and policemen were killed, there would be no saving Bombay, or even India.

You might still say that your favourite star was innocent to all this. He was just a silly, insecure, maybe even scared, dumb and stupid young fellow, what did he know about all this. Two questions, then, follow. One, how do you know, or certainly, how do you know better than the courts? And second, if so, why is the same test not applied to all the others convicted, or frankly, many more who rotted for more than a decade in jails as undertrials? That so many of them were later declared innocent and acquitted only compounds the injustice done to them. The prime of their lives taken away, their families devastated and their children reduced to a furious talent pool for groups like the Indian Mujahideen. Why did none of these influential voices speak out for them? Why don't they do so now? Only because these are poor, ordinary Muslims? They are not just guilty because they have been pronounced so by the courts, but they also "look and sound" guilty. That's the way bad guys look, that's where they come from. They are only getting what they deserve. But from where we come, given what we look like, how we dress, who we have for our friends and family, we can only be nice guys. And if one of us gets into an occasional mess, you must show a little more understanding. No one cried for Kersi Adjania, now 83, who served a two-year jail term for allowing his foundry to be used to destroy Dutt's gun.

All the mitigating circumstances being quoted for Sanjay Dutt, sadly, are exclusive gifts of our elite privilege. Who else amongst the other convicts would have had the wherewithal to collect brownie points by working for AIDS charities, being on the board of Save the Children? Who else would have a father with such enormous love and goodwill among crores of Indians and across the political spectrum, one who could charm equally Indian soldiers on the borders and Balasaheb Thackeray, to whom he took a successful mercy mission? Let's flag, in particular, one of Justice Katju's arguments in defence of Sanjay: that he has, through his films, revived the memory of Mahatma Gandhi. Firstly, it is a bit rich coming from somebody who is always mocking popular culture, films as well as cricket that we so adore "while farmers are committing suicide". But then, since all are supposed to be equal before law, were the other convicts given the same opportunity to revive the legacy of the Mahatma, or maybe a founding father of their choice? Justice Katju should have, on the other hand, chided the media, his supposed charge, for not having the courage to ask the most obvious question: why was the CBI so kind to Dutt as to not appeal against the special court verdict relieving him of charges under TADA? A usual filmi-type dude talking the them-and-us type of language is understandable: after all, many of the same people who sought sympathy and understanding for Shiney Ahuja also demanded instant and public lynching of the Delhi gangrape accused. Their alleged crimes may have been similar, but one looked and sounded like us, an innocent, even an unwitting victim, and the others, so utterly guilty.

And finally, and I am conscious this is about an old friend whose political and secular commitment I have admired, without agreeing with him all the time. Mahesh Bhatt can afford to talk with such passion in defence of Sanjay, or of the system being unfair to him. He should, instead, be grateful to the same blessed system and the media for how lightly his own son, Rahul, got away over the evenings he spent with one David Coleman Headley. If he hadn't been his son, or frankly, if he too had been from what we so contemptuously dismiss as the great unwashed, or if only he had a Muslim name, the same Bombay police would have got him to do a lot more explaining. And if I may add, much less politely.

sg@expressindia.com

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