March 2013: Why are we feeling bad for Sanjay Dutt?
I was surrounded by film folk, art directing a television commercial, when news broke of Sanjay Dutt’s sentencing by the Supreme Court. Within four weeks of March 21st, Dutt has to return to jail to serve the remainder of his five-year term (reduced from six), of which he has already served 18 months.
The reactions on the set were mixed: someone called and commiserated with a director friend, whose film requires only five more days of Dutt’s time to complete (according to some reports, Bollywood has Rs 250 crores riding on him); one-time fans bemoaned the fall of a once-bright star; others said he deserved it, and that justice was finally served. My Facebook news feed has been swamped with a regurgitation of archival articles and current news about the case, and, in most cases (saving biased Twitter talk by his colleagues in Bollywood), the feeling is ‘finally!’
I do not dismiss the overwhelming sentiment: to see it in black and white, surely, Dutt broke the law and, like other citizens, deserves to be punished. At first glance, there is validation in the fact that the best lawyers, and the combined might of political clout, fame and wealth have not been able to prevent this mighty from falling, albeit not as far as he would have had the TADA case stuck. (Though the Terrorist And Destructive Activities case against him was dropped in 2006, questions linger about why he, and he alone among the others chargesheeted, escaped, especially since he is known to have famously confessed, “Because I have Muslim blood in my veins, I could not bear what was happening in the city.” Also, he’s got away with a five-year jail term, the absolute minimum the law prescribes for possessing illegal arms under the Arms Act.)
So, the fact that at least some punishment has finally come Dutt’s way should be cause for celebration. Then why this little, niggling tinge of grey sympathy? And I am not alone. Not counting Justice Foot-in-Mouth Katju’s laughable open letter appealing to the governor for Dutt’s pardon, I notice other nuanced reactions: “My heart goes out to Sanju Baba, his wife and kids—fifth jail sentence in 20 years,” is a sensitive friend’s status update.
Nothing is more telling of the passage of time than the images accompanying the news stories, contrasting the long-haired hulk being arrested in April ’93 with the ungracefully aging man Sanjay Dutt is today. He was 33 then, a brash have-it-all who did some seriously stupid and illegal things. Twenty years later, he’s almost five years into his third marriage, with toddler twins. In three and a half years, he will emerge from jail pushing 58, and it is unlikely that he will ever be able to reignite the embers of his already dying career.
Hypothetically, let’s consider what the past 20 years would have been like for Dutt, were we living in a parallel universe where the Indian justice system was swift and efficient, and one couldn’t exploit its tardiness by influence. Assuming a year-long trial from beginning to last appeal (boy, I’m optimistic, aren’t I?), plus a six-year sentence, he’d have been out in seven years from ’93, in the year 2000. At 40, it may have been easier to pick up the scraps of his life and salvage his career. Today, 13 years later, (to stretch metaphors) it would have all been water under the bridge and water would have found its level.
There is a reason Christian mythology describes the state of ‘limbo’ as almost akin to hell; in colloquial parlance, it refers to being stuck until another action happens. Twenty years is a long time to languish in debilitating limbo. Can you imagine the stressful anticipation of not knowing if or when the other shoe would drop; and then there have been courts, lawyers, police, arrests and bureaucracy to grapple with at every step of the way. My mother likens this situation to my father’s unsuccessful tryst with chemotherapy, that didn’t save his life and instead reduced its quality. “Just because you have the means to do it, doesn’t mean it’s better than the alternative,” she says. As with dad’s chemo, with 20/20 hindsight one wonders about Dutt: has his clout and wealth, that preyed on delays afforded by a flawed system hoping to eventually Goliath it, been no more than a double-edged sword, adding 20 excruciating years of punishment. Would he do it again?
‘Justice delayed is justice denied’ is most often used to illustrate a victim’s predicament, not that of the accused, especially one who has (perhaps misguidedly, in retrospect) perpetuated the protraction. While I use the phrase to extend human empathy to Dutt and his family and to criticise the judiciary, I am, nonetheless, glad that the law finally caught up.
An edited version of this column appeared in Governance Now in March 2013.