Why Pardon Sanjay Dutt?
“Sentencing Sanjay Dutt for illegal arms may be just, but charging him in 1993 blasts case, as if conspirator, was unjust.” I tweeted this on March 22nd, two days after Sanjay Dutt had been sentenced to 5 years rigorous imprisonment by the Supreme Court. After all, he was unquestionably guilty of possessing illegal arms, and the court had given him the minimum sentence mandated by law. So the verdict was just.
But that’s not the whole story. For 20 years of his life Sanjay Dutt lived with the fear of being convicted, as a leading paper put it -- even after the verdict -- “for his role in the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts that killed 257 people”. Guilt by association has been the widespread perception among people who don’t dwell on the fine print. Let’s be clear on two facts: Sanjay was acquitted of any role in the murderous conspiracy that savaged Mumbai. He was only found guilty of possessing arms illegally. True, he had been befriended by notorious gangsters long before that, who also sent him the arms he’d asked for. Sadly, that was deemed enough to include him in the Blasts Case against terrorists. So he lived with the stigma of presumed guilt, for two long decades, for a horrendous carnage he never committed. One can only imagine what he must have suffered while being tried alongside traitors to the nation
Is that reason enough to pardon Sanjay Dutt? There are those who say that the matter ends with the Supreme Court’s judgement of guilt, that he should do his time like everyone else, and, even more pointedly, being a celebrity doesn’t merit any favours. The law must be the same for all, followed to the letter. By the same token, say his supporters, the law also allows for convicts being pardoned on appeal. No precedent would be set, enough pardons exist on record for deserving cases. So the real question is whether Sanjay Dutt deserves to be pardoned, or not. Even if he says he won’t ask for a pardon, others can still appeal to the Governor or the President to do so.
When considering a pardon, the State is bound to look at the wider picture. Not just the crime itself, but why it was committed. Not just the case, but the circumstances surrounding it. Not just the verdict, but whether justice is best served by enforcing it. All of which raise important questions.
Why did Sanjay Dutt amass illegal arms? His defence is that wide-spread riots and deaths had recently occurred in Mumbai, and if attacked his family would have been defenceless without armed protection. A judge may not excuse that in court, bound by the letter of the law, but on appeal the State can consider all extenuating circumstances. Even among those who dismiss Sanjay’s argument of self-defence, only the most fanatical would believe that he planned to go on a shooting spree against the citizens of the city he has loved since childhood. Though he broke the law, say his supporters, there was clearly no evil intent. Laws are made for the protection of society. If a man’s illegal act did not endanger anyone, that should be a mitigating factor.
What is the purpose of justice? The letter of the law cannot be greater than it’s purpose: punishment, repentance and reformation. As constitutional expert Rajeev Dhavan says “We know only punish and don’t punish. We do nothing to reform prisoners, or take note of those already reformed.” Sanjay’s supporters say he has been punished enough. He’s already spent 18 months in jail. His career was ruined for over 5 years after his release. More importantly, 20 years of humiliation, under false charges of conspiracy, was a terrible punishment too. Imprisoning him for another three and a half years would be overkill. Even the judge had accepted his defence, but had to give him the minimum sentence mandated by law. Only the State can pardon him, as it has done in many deserving cases.
Sanjay Dutt is a good guy who made a stupid mistake. He’s contributed lot to society, and he’s suffered greatly. And, let’s not forget, he committed a victimless crime.
On the balance, there are enough reasons to pardon him. What kind of pardon could Sanjay Dutt be given? Which would be the best option: 1) outright forgiveness of his remaining sentence, 2) a partial remission, 3) a fair period of meaningful community service for the good of society? The last option, in my view, would more than meet the needs of justice.
Kabir Bedi is an international actor, commentator, columnist, and India's leading presenter of events. Twitter: @iKabirBedi
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