In the Mumbai serial blasts case, the focus shifts from the punishment for the main culprits to the alleged leniency shown to Sanjay Dutt.
WHEN Judge P.D Kode of the specially designated Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) court in Mumbai began delivering his verdict in August last year on those accused of causing the 1993 serial bomb blasts in Mumbai, it was believed that the 13-year trial, one of the country's longest, had finally reached its last stage and would end soon.
More than six months later, while the verdict has been delivered, the sentences for those convicted have yet to be decided. Not only is the trial dragging on but the focus also seems to have shifted from punishing the main perpetrators to finding a solution to Hindi film superstar Sanjay Dutt's case. Dutt is among the 138 people who were accused of involvement in the bomb blasts. On November 28, the Judge declared Dutt "not a terrorist". However, he did find him guilty under the Indian Arms Act for the possession of an AK-56 rifle and a 9 mm pistol. For this, Dutt faces imprisonment between five and 10 years.
Murmurs of too much leniency and preferential treatment being given to the star have started becoming louder. Those convicted believe it is unfair that Dutt is being let off, while others with less severe charges are being punished. Investigators and lawyers following the case say the actor was aware of the gravity of the crime of keeping such weapons and must not be allowed to get away this easily.
Dutt was arrested in 1993, and he spent 15 months in jail. He has been out on bail from 1995. Dutt was granted bail by Judge Kode after he delivered his verdict. The bail period expired four times in these past months. Each time the actor appears in court the Judge grants him more time to surrender.
In an effort to get him the minimum punishment possible, the actor's lawyers have been aggressively appealing that he be granted probation under Section 4 of the Probation Offenders Act, 1958 (POA). This Act allows the court to release a person guilty of a lesser offence if it is satisfied that his conduct has been good and that he can be reformed.
In February, the Judge admitted Dutt's plea seeking relief under the POA but has reserved judgment on whether the actor will get the benefit of the Act. It is not clear what will happen next, but lawyers speculate that the Judge will deliver his verdict along with the quantum of sentence.
Understandably, Public Prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam is not pleased with the arguments. "Sanjay Dutt knows the difference between a firearm for hunting and one for mass destruction," argued Nikam. "If he gets the benefit of probation, someone will have an anti-aircraft gun on their terrace saying that he apprehended some enemy aircraft [was going] to bombard his house."
Furthermore, one cannot ignore his documented meetings with Dawood Ibrahim, Iqbal Mirchi and Chota Rajan. A person's character can be judged by the company he keeps, said Nikam. Dutt's mingling with the underworld is a reflection of his character, and he is therefore not fit for probation, he argued.
Also frustrated with the proceedings on Dutt, a group of 150 protesters, which included families of those convicted in the blasts case, staged a demonstration at the court gates on February 6. They shouted anti-Dutt slogans and accused the authorities of showing partiality to a well-known personality.
"It is extremely unfair that Sanjay Dutt is out free while our brothers are in custody for the same crime," said a sister of one of the men who is charged with storing some of the ammunition used in the blasts. "Always the powerful and famous get off easily."
The leniency of Dutt's judgment should be analysed against Zaibunnisa Kazi's case. The 64-year-old woman made the mistake of looking into a bag that her nephew (an accused in the case) had left in her house. It contained weapons that were to be used on the day of the blast. For this she has been convicted under TADA. Dutt, on the other hand, secured weapons from a consignment that was linked to the case.
Meanwhile, 69 of the 100 found guilty filed an application with the court seeking `parity' with Dutt. Judge Kode accepted the application and asked the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to respond to it.
"It's unclear by what yardstick Dutt's verdict has been arrived at," says a lawyer following the case. Although Dutt says the weapon was for his family's protection as they were being threatened during the riots, technically he had a weapon that was part of a consignment meant to be used during the blasts. According to investigators, along with the serial bombs, there was a plan to kill some political leaders.
A police officer involved in the investigation told Frontline that it was much too soft a judgment. He said Dutt should have been convicted under Section 5 (5) of TADA, which deals with the illegal possession of weapons in a notified area. Dutt was keeping the rifle and the pistol. Furthermore, there is evidence, as Nikam has repeatedly pointed out, that the actor was in touch with members of the underworld. Dawood's brother Anees Ibrahim, in fact, met Dutt several times. He even visited him on a film set, says the police officer. Dawood, Tiger Memon and their associates have been held responsible for masterminding the blasts.
But Dutt was not always shown leniency. In 1993, when his name popped up among those involved in the blast, not many supported him. From the media to politicians, nobody spared the actor. Fundamentalist organisations, quick to take advantage of the situation, immediately branded him a terrorist and a traitor. They burnt his effigies and closed cinemas screening his films. Since his mother was a Muslim, they said, he owed allegiance to terrorists.
The Shiv Sena, through its mouthpiece Saamna, was particularly harsh. However, Dutt's father, Sunil Dutt, who was a Congress Member of Parliament, appealed to Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray to help him get his son out of jail. The story is that Sunil Dutt told Thackeray, "I am not here as a representative of any party but as a father who needs help for his son... ."
It is alleged that Thackeray then assured Sunil Dutt of his support. Although the Sena chief did what he could to help the family, Sanjay Dutt has not been able to rid himself of the terrorist tag.
It was used by Sunil Dutt's political adversaries. For instance, during the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, in spite of Thackeray's support to Sunil Dutt, the issue was dredged up by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance.
Meanwhile, the court has been hearing sentencing arguments for the 100 convicted and is expected to start delivering its verdict very soon. CBI counsel N. Natarajan is seeking the maximum sentence for the 44 people held responsible for planting the bombs.
Of course, the defence immediately argued that each case had to be treated differently. They also said that no parallels should be drawn between this case and the one relating to the 2001 attack on Parliament House, in which one of the accused, Mohammed Afzal, has been given the death sentence. Defence counsel Majid Memon argued that the 1993 bomb blast was a retaliatory action and not an attack on government. The prosecution has been relying heavily on the Supreme Court judgment on the Parliament House attack case in their arguments.
In December 1992 and January 1993, Mumbai witnessed widespread rioting after the Babri Masjid was demolished. In the violence, an estimated 1,800 people, mainly Muslims, lost their lives and thousands of families lost their homes and livelihoods.
On March 12, 1993, Mumbai once again was a victim of violence - this time in the form of 15 powerful serial bomb explosions of bombs at nodal points in the city. As many as 257 people died and 1,400 were injured. The terror attack, the first of its kind in the country's history, is believed to have been a retaliatory move by Muslim organisations from abroad in coordination with the Indian underworld.
Tiger Memon, Dawood's most trusted lieutenant, is believed to have orchestrated the blasts, which, according to the charge-sheet, were planned in Dubai, where Dawood was living. Tiger Memon, the mastermind in India, arranged for men to be trained and for the landing of arms and ammunition on the western coast and decided who would execute the planting of the bombs.
Dutt's link to the conspiracy was discovered after the police arrested Ibrahim Musa Chauhan. Musa was picked up for storing the arms and ammunition that were smuggled in, in February 1993. He told the police that part of the consignment sent by Dawood was in Dutt's house.
Dutt, who heard about the arrests, got nervous and asked his friends to destroy the weapons. They tried burning them but were not successful.
In his confession, Dutt said he had wanted to keep a weapon at home because fundamentalist groups were threatening his family during the riots. His father had been helping riot-affected Muslims and had been very vocal against those responsible for the communal violence.
After Dutt was arrested his father did everything he could to get him released. Sunil Dutt and many in the film world maintained that "Sanju baba" was not a terrorist. Eventually, not only was Dutt released after 15 months in jail but it is believed that TADA was repealed largely because of his father's aggressive lobbying.
Sanjay Dutt has had a fairly rough ride through his life. His mother, the famous film actor Nargis Dutt, died of cancer when he was hardly 20. She was his anchor, and her death shattered him.
He was the original Bollywood brat. However, in spite of his use of drugs, his abuse of alcohol and his skirt chasing, he has always been a great favourite with audiences.
In recent years he seems to have cleaned up his act and has delivered several successful performances - the best perhaps in the 2006 hit Lage Raho Munnabhai.
Opinions are divided on whether or not Dutt was shown leniency because of his stardom and political connections. However, if it were his audiences that had to deliver the judgment, he would have been freed a long time ago.