Class Clout in the Courtroom
The rich and the powerful rally around each other and work the system to their benefit even as thousands of others languish in jail without even a fair hearing, writes Pradyot Lal
An unparalleled bout of judicial largesse, a kind of trapeze act, brought reprieve to a few high-profile people caught in a legal storm and showed up the system in all its manifestations, warts and all, before the nation last fortnight. A topflight politician, a famously controversial film star and certain corporate honchos and bigwigs found themselves breathing substantially easier, even as the reaction to their fate alternated between mild shock to definite outrage.
♦ In what has been described as the ‘Amma’ of all verdicts, Jayaram Jayalalithaa was exonerated in a disproportionate assets case by the Karnataka High Court amid utter chaos bordering on shocking callousness among those seeking to prosecute her
♦ On the other end of the spectrum, the solidarity and support that poured in for Bollywood star Salman Khan after he was found guilty of killing a man in a case of drunken driving astounded many. They marvelled at the ease with which the star managed to get bail in double-quick time, which showed how insensitive some people can be to the plight of the underprivileged
♦ Satyam Computers founder B Ramalinga Raju got bail even after he and others had been sentenced to seven years imprisonment just a month ago for the biggest accounting fraud in India’s IT industry
While all the cases followed each other in an amazing pattern, the whole question of judicial accountability resurfaced amid fresh questions about how historically the rash, brash pack with loads of cash has been subverting the system with impunity. “It is obvious that the judiciary has been unable to withstand the onslaught of vested interests and the powerful who circumvent laws at will and benefit themselves with ease,” Delhi University law graduate Samir Ghosh said in apparent disgust. Writing in a financial daily, columnist Reshmi R Dasgupta came out strongly against what she called the “strange, singular disregard for the law” by the rich and famous rallying around Salman Khan.
Meanwhile, the element of surprise around Jayalalithaa’s acquittal was also considerably diluted by the open season overtures being made by the saffron party to woo her so that she could provide crucial support to it at a time when parliamentary standoffs loom on the horizon. There were suggestions that the lady on her comeback trail will prove to be of providential help for the Modi government that finds its lack of numerical support galling in the Rajya Sabha. Here the AIADMK with its 11 MPs could prove to be particularly useful.
There is no dearth of evidence showing that the powerful — those who have the ability to exercise their will over others in political, corporate, social and professional terms — have always manipulated the way the law takes its course and it is not easy to pin down the fount of power in every case.
In many cases, political patronage is key to helping hardened criminals breathe easy. Even the media chips in by conferring on outlaws a halo they seldom deserve. It went to great lengths to lionised dacoits such as Malkhan Singh and Phoolan Devi. The most notorious have generated the maximum interest.
This is in marked contrast to the trend in the West where the powerful may have their backers but once their crime was proved, they were treated like ordinary folk. For all his fame as an Academy Award winning director, Roman Polanski was under an unwavering scanner after Sharon Tate’s murder. However, Oscar Pistorious, the South African ‘blade runner’ and amputee track star had both supporters and opponents in the national and international media when his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp was found murdered. The fear in some circles that his iconic status might prevent the South African legal system from proceeding against him turned out to be largely unfounded. It has been reported that if he is released on parole, the ‘blade runner’ would do charity for children.
Salman Khan, on the other hand, can be seen to have manipulated the prosecution and the way he got interim bail within hours after his conviction by the Bombay High Court for running over five pavement dwellers, one of whom was killed, raised a lot of hackles. The remarkable swiftness shown in his case contrasts vividly with the fate of thousands of undertrials who languish without a hearing for years on end.
The manner in which Salman’s Bollywood colleague Sanjay Dutt got extended medical paroles during his detention has caused a lot of concern and is a direct reflection of how the rich and the famous are able to breathe easy even after being convicted. Like Salman, there was a lot of apparent support and sympathy for Sanjay, with people quite intriguingly mentioning his famous parents to suggest that the law should be lenient in his case, even when he had admitted to procuring an AK-56 in the immediate aftermath of the 1992 Bombay riots. In short, this show of support and solidarity for even fallen stars reflects the way the dice is rolled and how the rich and the famous often manage to get away with murder, and sometimes literally so.
Politicians in power similarly manage to steer clear of legal hassles. The way Maya Kodnani and Babu Bajrangi have been able to stave off punishment even after being convicted for their role in the 2002 Gujarat carnage is yet another example of how proximity to powerful political patrons can help change the legal script.
Considerable controversy followed in the wake of RSS pracharak Swami Aseemanand getting bailed out in the Samjhauta Express blast case. He had also been accused in the Ajmer Sharif and Mecca Masjid blasts cases. His associate Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur is still behind bars for alleged involvement in the Malegaon bomb blasts case. However, with the BJP in power at the Centre and in several key states, many Sangh Parivar activists who have been involved in acts of terror and communal violence are hopeful of being given a long rope.
In stark contrast to the kid-glove treatment reserved for Hindutva activists accused of violence, for people such as GN Saibaba, a Delhi University professor who was put behind bars for his alleged proximity to Maoists, even a sympathetic press does not help much. This suggests that one’s fate before the law is decided largely by the power one wields in society. “The case of celebrity crooks getting away after committing serious crimes can be understood only when we look at the clear class bias that works even in the courts,” says Ish Mishra, who teaches political science at Hindu College, New Delhi.
There are thus two different kinds of legal treatment meted out to two different sets of accused: one for those who stride through the corridors of power and another for those who do not belong there. Politicians such as former minister A Raja of the DMK and his party colleague Kanimozhi, who were jailed for involvement in the 2G spectrum scam, are obvious exceptions as power and authority are usually enough to stave off possible legal action.
After 13 long years, Bollywood superstar Salman Khan was sentenced to five years in jail in a 2002 hit-and-run case only to have his sentence suspended and be granted bail. Abha Singh, a lawyer and a petitioner in the case, tells Varun Bidhuri in an email interview that Salman used his celebrity status to escape the law.
The ease with which powerful politicians, corporate honchos and Bollywood celebrities manage to get bail stands in stark contrast with the denial of bail to the majority of others. That should, however, not be seen as an argument against granting bail. “Rather, the law must be consistent in handing out bail. Thousands of the poor are languishing in jails across the country, but they cannot get bail because they cannot find anyone to stand surety for them. The State, including the judiciary, may not be averse to bailing them out but cannot help because of the undertrials’ indigent circumstances,” says law graduate Samir Ghosh.
Because of an abiding failure to conclude cases in time, the number of undertrials in prison has kept mounting. Recent developments starkly highlight the sheer inability of the courts to be consistent in the granting of bail. The media, too, leaves much to be desired. Witness the way most media organisations failed to ask the most relevant question after Salman’s conviction: why did it take 13 years for the court to give its verdict?
Former chief justice of India Justice (retd) VN Khare believes that manipulation is at work from investigation to judicial pronouncements and, more often than not, justice is not seen to be done. In the Salman Khan case, not much was written about how witnesses and others were sought to be manipulated. The tragic story of Salman’s bodyguard, constable Ravindra Patil, was not reported for a long time after it happened. Further, the fact that it took the highest-paid lawyer in the land to help the actor get bail in next to no time holds out the lesson that you can manage to get relief only if you have the means to seek quick remedies. But undertrials who have no powerful patrons awaiting them are condemned to forever languish in jail.
In her memoir My Years in an Indian Prison (1977), Britain-born former Naxalite Mary Tyler writes about undertrials in Indian jails, especially women prisoners and how their children, too, were forced to live in rotten conditions. She cites the case of a 55-year-old Gulabi: “Together with four other labourers she had been harvesting paddy on a landlord’s field, unaware that the ownership of that particular land was disputed by his cousin who promptly had all the labourers, and the man who had employed them, arrested for stealing his paddy. Ironically, the two landowners settled their quarrel and Gulabi’s employer was released from jail, while the labourers remained behind bars. Gulabi had been in prison for nearly three years… without once seeing the magistrate.”
Tyler also refers to another case in which “a child was brought into our care. Her father, a widowed coal miner, had gone on hunger strike outside the colliery manager’s office after being redundant. On the fifth day he had been arrested and since there was nobody to look after his three-year-old daughter, he had been obliged to bring her to jail with him.”
The situation since then has only gone from bad to worse. More than 12 percent of the estimated 30,000 undertrials are said to be women, and their travails and privations can be easily imagined.
Amnesty International and others have drawn attention to the vagaries of justice and injustice delivered largely on the basis of the socio-economic standing and political convictions of the accused.
n November 2012, Ajmal Kasab, the lone surviving gunman from the 2008 Mumbai attacks, was hanged in the country’s first execution in more than eight years. Three months later, Afzal Guru was executed after his clemency petition was rejected by the President. Guru had been convicted in 2005 of being involved in the 2001 Parliament attack.
In another trial that many alleged to have been unfair, former Khalistani militant Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar was found guilty of planning an explosion in New Delhi that killed nine people in 1993 and sentenced to death. The Supreme Court confirmed the sentence in 2002 and Bhullar was on death row until 2014 when the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
India has carried out very few executions since the 1990s. However, the unprecedented protests that followed in the wake of the brutal gangrape of a 23-year-old woman on a private bus in New Delhi on 16 December 2012 gave a new lease of life to the clamour for death penalty.
CELEBRITY TRIALS IN THE US
Research on celebrity trials in the US reveals that far from getting preferential treatment, they are, in fact, convicted at a 12 percent higher rate than non-celebrity defendants.
According to a fascinating and thorough study conducted by Bruce A Carroll of the Department of Criminal Justice, Texas Christian University, the odds are against celebrity defendants who suddenly fall in public esteem after they get embroiled in crime. According to Carroll, contrary to popular wisdom, “celebrity defendants are found to be more guilty than non-celebrities”. Following are some of his key findings:
♦ Homicide convictions are at their highest and public order convictions lowest as far as celebrities are concerned
♦ There are five different types of celebrity notoriety. White-collar workers are the worst offenders among celebrities, followed closely by those in government jobs. But the incidence of celebrity crimes has been registering a steady increase among movie and TV stars. Sportstars comprise the lowest number among celebrity offenders
♦ White celebrity defendants are convicted at a much higher rate than non-White celebrities. A strong racist undercurrent, however, exists in projections regarding celebrity crimes
♦ However sensational the media coverage may be, errant celebrities lose credibility fast in popular perception and there is little support for them especially after they are convicted
Whether an accused is sentenced to death or not is often an arbitrary decision and depends on a number of factors ranging from the competence of his or her legal representation to the interest of the central government in a particular case and the personal predilections of the judges, say legal experts. No doubt it is often the judges’ subjective discretion that eventually decides the fate of an accused.
Moreover, confessions and witness testimonies play a more vital role in India than in many other countries, given that forensic and other scientific evidence are not so frequently brought to the table here. Most convictions are done on the basis of circumstantial evidence alone. There is also rampant use of “professionally trained witnesses” by the police to nail a suspect in court.
In India, it is largely cases where the accused belong to the poor and the downtrodden — victims of class bias — that end on death row. One hardly finds an affluent or powerful convict being sent to the gallows.
The legal process itself is stacked against the underprivileged. Its arbitrary nature was strikingly proved over the past few days of judicial intervention in several high-profile cases. Justice VR Krishna Iyer had observed decades ago how the merit of a case has no bearing on the granting of bail. Although every time someone high and mighty gets convicted and sentenced, it reaffirms people’s faith in the Indian judiciary, the preponderance of cases where the powerful are let off and the underprivileged made to bear the brunt raises serious doubts on how free, fair and fearless the legal system actually is. While on paper the criminal law sees everyone as equal, the reality is starkly different.
(Published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 12 Issue 21, Dated 23 May 2015)