Sympathy for Sanjay Dutt, but he must pay the price



Now that Sanjay Dutt has said that he does not want a pardon, let’s end this debate once and for all. If Sanjay is willing to pay his debt to society, having exhausted all his legal options, then we should not stand in his way.

But first, a few clarifications. Much of the debate has centered on the deaths that occurred during the Bombay bombings. People have spoken in emotive terms about those killed in that tragedy and sought to link Sanjay’s conviction to their deaths. “How can we forget the martyrs of Bombay?” is a common refrain. And of course, the objection would be valid if Sanjay had any connection with the bombings. But according to the Supreme Court, he was not involved in the bomb blasts conspiracy at all. So yes, we must never forget those who lost so much during the bombings. But it is not fair to Sanjay to blame him for that tragedy.

According to the Supreme Court, Sanjay’s crime was this. He acquired assault rifles in an effort to protect his family which he perceived was under threat after the Bombay riots of 1992/3. The court says it understands his motives but the law is the law. His possession of these weapons is a crime under the Arms Act and the minimum sentence is five years. Therefore, said the court, it had no choice but to sentence him to five years in jail.

The language of the judgment suggests that the court was not unsympathetic to Sanjay. Not only did it not regard him as a terrorist, it also cleared him of any involvement in the actual blasts case. As for the judgment and the sentence, it simply had no choice given the overwhelming evidence that proves that Sanjay possessed the weapon.

Those who argue for a pardon for Sanjay usually frame their appeal in terms of his complete lack of involvement in the blasts conspiracy.

This is fair and true. But the Supreme Court already knew this when it passed its judgment. So let’s forget, for a moment, about the blasts. All that Sanjay has been found guilty of is possessing a weapon. And that is a crime no matter which way you look at it.

The other defence offered by Sanjay’s supporters is that he needed the weapon to protect himself. But once you use this argument, you go down a slippery slope. Sanjay was a big-time movie star. He lived in luxury in Pali Hill. He had the money to hire private security guards. Now, contrast his situation with the poor Muslims who lived in slums and tenements, who had their homes ransacked, their daughters raped and their relatives killed during the riots. If any one of these people had called up a gangster and asked for an assault rifle, would we have seriously disputed their convictions or sentences? We would have taken the line that it is a dangerous precedent for citizens to start turning to the underworld to procure assault rifles for use on the streets of Bombay.

And indeed, many of the convictions in terrorism cases are based on no more than the possession of deadly weapons. As a society that tries to live by the law, we simply cannot accept a situation in which citizens start arming themselves and turning to the underworld for protection. Once we do that, we might as well kiss the rule of law goodbye.

The only difference between Sanjay Dutt’s case and that of the many others who have been arrested for carrying dangerous weapons is not that Sanjay was under greater threat. It is that he is a movie star. If we are so unwilling to show any mercy to those poor slum-dwellers who armed themselves and consorted with gangsters because they felt under threat during communal riots then how on earth can we justify using a different yardstick for Sanjay Dutt?

That leaves the so-called humanitarian objection. I do not deny that Dutt has suffered. When he was arrested, I was one of his most vocal supporters. I believed that he was the victim of politics and that he had been targeted by opponents of his father, Sunil Dutt, who was then an MP. Nor did I have much respect for the Bombay Police’s investigation into the bomb blast case. (Here I have to declare an interest: I was a friend of Sunil Dutt’s and still feel very warmly towards his family at a personal level. Sanjay’s sister, Priya, for example, has my admiration for her work as an MP.)

But it is one thing to argue that a man who has been convicted of no crime and is hardly a terrorist should be treated humanely. And it is quite another to argue that a man who has been convicted of a crime by the highest court in the land should be let off because he is a movie star or because we feel warmly towards his family.

As for Sanjay’s sufferings, as he himself admits, he has fared much better than the other accused in the blasts case. All of them have had their lives destroyed. Even those who were acquitted of any involvement in the conspiracy have had their worlds shattered and can never resume a normal existence again. So, let’s not talk of suffering. If we were to use those grounds, then there are many people much more deserving of a pardon than Sanjay Dutt.

So, what should Sanjay do? Personally, I think he has done the right thing by saying that he does not want a pardon. He should go to jail for the three and a half years or so that remain of his sentence. My guess is that he will probably get out earlier for good behaviour, etc. By the time he is released, he will have won our hearts with his willingness to take his punishment like a man not like some weeping brat. He made a mistake by consorting with gangsters and acquiring arms. He did so with the best possible intentions. But he broke the law. And now he must pay the price.

When he is released, those of us who already feel warmly towards him – people like myself – will respect him more for having had the courage to accept incarceration. There is more bravery involved in admitting that you have made a mistake than there is in calling up your gangster pals and asking them to send over a couple of Kalashnikovs.

I doubt if his career will suffer. He has been through much worse before and emerged unscathed. This time around, when he walks out of jail, he will have not just our sympathy but also our respect. And respect trumps sympathy every time.

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