In honor of the release of Sanju today, I am reposting my entire series on Sanjay Dutt. If you can’t wait for the reposts, you can find the original posts in the index here.
Usual Disclaimer: I have no particular knowledge of these people, this is just the commonly accepted version of what happened along with my interpretation of it.
(I debated a lot how to write this section. I could have just given the basic facts of Sanjay’s case, and what happened to his family, and so on. But if we are going to talk about Sanjay, I can’t just talk about him in isolation. What happened to him didn’t happen in isolation and there is no fair or honest way to discuss it without discussing the greater context.)
The Terrorism and Disruptive Activities act was passed in India in 1985 in the wake of the Sikh insurgency in the Punjab. According to this act, anyone suspected of terrorist activity is legally presumed guilty until proven innocent. There is no legal appeal to a higher court. Trials can be held in secret. And the accused can be detained for up to a year with no trial or charges. And terrorism, as defined by the Act, can be something as loose as “to adversely affect the harmony amongst different sections of the people”.
In 1993, 8 years after the act, the oldest Mosque in India was destroyed by a mob, riled up by Hindutva sentiments. In response, various riots took place through out India. The most shocking of these were the Bombay riots. Shocking not just because of the unimaginable violence, but because Bombay had always been seen as a haven of harmony between the various religious communities.
(Hindutva mob waving the saffron flag as they take over the mosque)
When it was over, there were 900 officially declared dead, 575 Muslims, 275 Hindus, and 50 others. The majority were killed by police firing, the remainder primarily by stabbing. There were 3 convictions after the riots, one elected Shiv Sena official and 2 party workers. They were sentenced to one year in prison. The elected official was let out on bail and never served a sentence.
After the riots were over, in what was largely seen as an act of vengeance, Dawood Ibrahim’s gang the D-Company set off a series of bomb blasts through out the city. 257 people died, and 100 people were charged under TADA. And one of those people was Sanjay Dutt.
I give you this background not to excuse what Sanjay did, or the bombings. But to remind us that if we are angry at those 257 deaths, we should be that much angrier at the 900. That if we want 100 people to be arrested and held without trial and punished for the rest of their life for 257 deaths, we should want 400 to be held for 900 deaths. That if Sanjay Dutt is guilty, then so are those unknown people who stabbed their friends and neighbors merely for their religion. Too often the anger at the bomb blasts seems to dwarf and overwhelm any memory of the riots. The two things both happened, within months of each other, and both of them were tragedies that should not have happened.
Now, what did Sanjay actually do? Let me give some background on the purpose of the bombings. According to Suketu Mehta, who spent a year investigating for his book Maximum City, the goal was for the bombings to be but the start of an citywide uprising. The D-Company seeded guns and other weapons through out their followers, humble dock workers to movie stars. And what Mehta found was that many of these men took the weapons with some reluctance. They had no interest in an uprising, but they were afraid of the mob, they were being pressured to accept the weapons. And then the bombs went off, and nothing happened. That’s the real miracle, all over the city were people with weapons who chose to do nothing, to leave them buried in the backyard or under the bed, to quietly be destroyed later.
Sanjay Dutt was supposed to be one of those people. He was given “guitars” (guns) and “ping-pong balls” (grenades) to hold for his gangster friends. But the next day he had a change of heart, and asked to give them all back, all but one gun. The gangster who made the delivery and the offer was arrested as part of the inquiry into the bomb blasts, and named names. Including Sanjay. And so Sanjay, for having in his possession several guns and grenades overnight, then giving all but one gun back, was arrested under TADA, guilty until proved innocent.
Sanjay, and his family, never claimed his total innocence. Sanjay was filming out of the country when his name first came up in the inquiry, he reached out to the police himself and offered to turn himself in. He was arrested when he landed at the airport and taken in for questioning. And he confessed everything, in that very first interview. He knew the gangsters, he had the guns, he returned the guns. And when asked why, he said “Because I have Muslim blood in my veins. I could not bear what was happening in the city.”
Sanjay was released, and had a change of heart. He called a friend to find the one remaining gun in his room, and take it to a machine shop to be melted down and destroyed. The police searched his room later, and were able to find one part that could not be melted down and proved possession of the gun. And Sanjay was arrested again, and this time there would be no bail.
Sanjay also changed his story, left behind the “Muslim blood” line, and switched to talking about his fears for his family. During the riots, Sunil and Priya had gone into riot hit neighborhoods carrying white flags and delivering supplies. Their house was a supply depot and a refuge. And in return, Sanjay was left to answer the phone and listen to threats against his father, his sisters, told that they would be tortured and killed for betraying their country. This is a story Sanjay told to excuse his actions, but it is also a story I believe. Because it is the same thing many other people told of that time, death threats over the telephone and police who had no interest in helping them. And so, Sanjay claimed, he was afraid for the safety of his family and therefore accepted illegal arms.
This is not the best argument, simply because Sanjay already had plenty of legal weapons in his home. Including a handgun, a far more sensible weapon than the machine gun he was hiding. But maybe it is an argument that made sense to Sanjay.
Sanjay was naive, he was gullible, his closest friends didn’t claim him to be very bright. People he trusted, who he knew through work, had introduced him to these men. His family was being threatened and no one seemed to do anything about it, and here were people to offer a solution. It only took one night’s thought for him to realize this was wrong and have regrets and give all but one gun back. And as for the one he kept, well, Sanjay had always been gun mad and everyone knew it. Maybe he just wanted the gun to have it.
None of this excuses what he did. Sanjay knowingly accepted illegal weapons from gangsters, he must have known they were part of some larger action of violence. And he had imbibed the eye-for-an-eye attitude that the D-Company was peddling about retribution for the riots. But the issue is larger than Sanjay. For myself, it’s not a matter of excusing him because he is a movie star. It’s a matter of excusing all the men who were arrested under TADA in similarly weak cases. Over 76,000 people were arrested under TADA during the 10 years before it was allowed to lapse, and only 2% were eventually convicted. According to a report from Amnesty International, some of those arrested include protesters of high milk prices, farmers campaigning for lower electrical bills, and of course political workers opposed to the ruling party of whatever state they lived in. Gujurat was the state with the largest number of arrests despite having, at the time, no major terrorist activity. The majority of those arrested were bootleggers (Gujurat being the only dry state in India).
I understand that the police are struggling in India, that the courts are slow, that sometimes you know who did a crime but for whatever reason can’t punish them. And I realize that it must have been tempting to use TADA in those cases, the near limitless powers it allows the investigators can streamline the justice system down to one man making a decision. But that doesn’t make any of this right. If it is hard to prove a crime, perhaps that is because there is at least a possibility that the person you have arrested is innocent of the crime and should be let go. If the courts are slow, then that needs to be improved, not worked around. If the laws don’t punish people enough for certain behaviors, then try to change the laws, don’t lie about what you are punishing them for so you can apply a different law. Most of all, there is a reason for checks and balances, for an investigating officer to have a restraint on his power. Petty feuds, personal prejudices, none of this should be allowed into the justice system, and removing checks and balances almost guarantees that will happen. And the 98% of those arrested under TADA who were released without conviction indicates that 74,480 people at least were arrested for those petty reasons and not for anything that would stand up in a court of law.
The possession of arms had already been an issue raised in terms of the application of TADA. TADA could be applied to possessing arms used in a terrorist attack, or intended to be used in one. An Indian supreme court judge in a dissenting opinion pointed out the flaws in this argument, the challenge is how to prove the intended use of the weapons, the only difference between TADA and a regular weapons charge is intent. For example, the Adivasis in the south traditionally carried weapons, most of them illegal, for hunting. And they were regularly arrested under TADA rather than a weapons charge, although there was no indication that the weapons in their possession were intended for anything more than hunting.
(Moaist rebels or hunters? How can you tell?)
Sanjay’s case fell exactly within that grey area. Yes, he possessed illegal weapons, there was no doubt of that. But could it be proved that those weapons were intended to be part of a terrorist attack? And that Sanjay knew that? The ultimate Supreme court decision in the case mentioned above was that it was not necessary to prove intent or awareness, IF the weapons were found in a “notified area”. But Sanjay’s house was in Pali Hill, Bandra. Not in the middle of urban unrest, not anywhere near a blast site.
And of course the exact charge didn’t matter since TADA also allowed for lengthy stays in jail without trial, or even formal charges brought. Technically it allowed for one year, but prisoners routinely were held for 3 years or more, in at least one case a full 9 years. And often never brought to trial at the end of it, no charges filed and no case, merely years spent in jail on the whim of an investigating officer.
Sanjay had been arrested before, on an arms charge for firing a weapon outside his home while in a drugged up stupor. But that was a matter of going to jail, getting bail, going to trial, being fined. TADA was something else entirely, terrible and terrifying and deadly (there were also a high number of custody deaths of TADA prisoners, partly because the phrasing of the law encouraged torture in order to gain confessions).
To my eyes, Sanjay didn’t necessarily get special treatment, good or bad, thanks to his fame and who his parents were. He was treated terribly, but so were many others arrested under TADA. If he had been any other associate of D Company reported to have received arms and then returned them, he would also have been arrested under TADA and held indefinitely on little evidence.
But Sanjay’s is a story we know, a story that happened to a little boy who had grown up in the public eye. So let’s look at it as a reminder of all the complicated situations that can lead to illegal activity, and all the people that can be hurt when proper justice is not served.
Sanjay was arrested, and his family learned he would be charged under TADA, which was like a physical blow. It wasn’t just the desperate fear for their loved one, it was also the public shame. Sunil Dutt was a good peaceful man. He had held his head up high for years, a proud member of the film community and his political party. After the 1993 riots, he had been vocal in his criticism of Congress for not doing enough, not caring enough for its constituents. His party began to turn its back on him. And when his son was arrested, his film community abandoned him as well. Sunil, who used to be one of the most respected and beloved men in the city, found himself sitting in waiting rooms for hours on end, begging for just a word with someone who might be able to help his son.
Sunil could have turned his back on Sanjay, written him off for making a foolish decision, for trying to hide his crimes, for bringing this shame on the family. But that wasn’t the kind of man he was, or the kind of father he was. He hadn’t abandoned Sanjay when he was addicted to drugs, or when his wife got sick, he wasn’t going to let him go now. Sunil spent his days going office to office, trying to find anyone who could tell him what was happening with his son. And at night he would drive to the road outside the jail and park his car outside the wall and sleep there. He couldn’t see his son, but he could at least be close to him, try to send his strength to him through the bricks and mortar that separated them.
The few times Sunil was allowed to meet Sanjay, the toll was clear. Sanjay slowly went down to skin and bones. He had been bounced from solitary to the general population with the hardest criminals. That was the biggest benefit of his fame, those hardened criminals adopted him as “Sanju Baba”, the movie star they already loved from his onscreen appearances. Sanjay spent his time reading the Bhagavad Gita and trying to gather strength, but it was hard. His young nieces, Kumar Gaurav and Namrata’s daughters, were brought to visit him and were traumatized to the point that it was years before they were able to look their uncle in the eye again. Every time they met, Sanjay would ask Sunil when he could come home, and Sunil would tell him “soon, it will be soon”. But they both knew he was lying.
And through out India, there were 76,000 other fathers and sons having the same conversation as they waited for a justice that was painfully slow in coming.