Double standards in assessing celebrity crime
By Faraz Ahmad
Celebrity crime is always fascinating and a subject of public curiosity more so when the people also feel obliged by his or her acts in public interest.
The counter argument is that being a celebrity or a philanthropist is hardly an excuse to cross legal boundaries. This issue too has been beaten to death in the drawing room circles but the double standards of our chatterati deserve some introspection as well. For now it is becoming increasingly apparent that there are two sets of standards. The likes of Salman Khan, Sanjay Dutt or Lalu Prasad are to be condemned as criminals deserving strictest possible punishment whereas the likes of Akash Ambani of Ashton Martin fame, Jayalalitha and Navjot Singh Sidhu can literally get away with murder.
The moment the Bombay High Court granted bail (and merely suspended his sentence till the disposal of his appeal) to Salman Khan in a road accident case, TV channels got into an animated discussion whether the High Court was influenced by Salman’s celebrity status to grant him bail so quickly allowing Salman to circumvent the law of going to jail immediately after the trial court found him guilty in a 13-year old road accident case in Mumbai’s Bandra suburbs. Never mind that there is a Supreme Court ruling that except in exceptional cases in which there is apprehension of the accused jumping the bail and absconding, bail should be the norm.
Moreover in Salman’s case it is still debatable whether the prosecuting agencies acted fairly in applying Section 304 A (II) of the Indian Penal Code, slapping Culpable Homicide not amounting to Murder in a case where the death was caused in a road accident and where the police invokes almost every day Section 279 of the IPC . It reads, “Whoever drives any vehicle, or rides, on any public way in a manner so rash or negligent as to endanger human life, or to be likely to cause hurt or injury to any other person, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to six months, or with fine which may extend to one thousand rupees, or with both.”
In addition since one person died in that accident, Salman could be charged under Section 304 of the IPC which reads,” Whoever causes the death of any person by doing any rash or negligent act not amounting to culpable homicide, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.”
It is true that Salman ought to have been punished and penalized but for five years? The IPC provides for a maximum sentence of two years under Section 304 and six months under Section 279. In the normal course these run parallel. But nobody is bothered to question why Salman was awarded five years when this was not a case of Culpable Homicide not amounting to murder because the accused Salman Khan did not intend to kill anyone.
Culpable Homicide not amounting to murder was what former Pakistan Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto should have been tried for and not for murder under Section 302 because the complainant lawyer Ahmed Raza Kasuri (still alive and kicking) had in his complaint alleged that Bhutto had intended to get him killed and while the hitman fired at him his father accompanying him in the car got hit and died. So Kasuri actually alleged that Bhutto had no intention to kill his father and therefore by Kasuri’s contention, Bhutto was not liable to be prosecuted under Section 302. At best he could be tried under Section 301. (The Penal Codes in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, a legacy of the British era, are identical).
Of course there appears to be an element of truth in the speculation how one of the most eminent legal luminary of the current crop of lawyers Harish Salve was available at hand and immediately swung into action to move the High Court which promptly granted bail to Salman Khan. The political situation in 2002 when Salman was arraigned in this road accident was different from today. Then Salman was an outspoken person, arrogant and even slightly abrasive, would shoot his mouth off and had commented once or twice on the communal bias of the police establishment and law and order machinery which was busy arresting and torturing innocent Muslim youth as terrorists. But by January, 2014 he had mellowed down much and provided Narendra Mod, aspiring for the prime minister’s chair the much needed legitimacy by participating in his the kite flying event and praising Modi. Therefore the possibility of some nudging from the state to secure an immediate bail for Salman cannot be ruled out.
Could Modi influence the Court? It would have been unfair to accuse the court/s of being influenced by the establishment, specially when the judiciary is fighting a battle against the proposed National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) devised by Modi’s government. But when we look at the travesty of justice in Jayalalitha case, one wonders how the honourable court could give such a judgment unless it was biased. For while the court in its judgment admits to the fact that Jayalalitha did possess disproportionate assets, it still granted her acquittal. The court, seems to have made some deliberate error even in computing her assets. It also argued that the prosecution did not prove its case, ignoring the fact that there was virtually no prosecutor in this case. The complainant, a DMK leader had to move the Supreme Court to get prosecutor Bhawani Singh, appointed by Jayalalitha in her earlier avtar as chief minister of Tamil Nadu, removed for his open bias in favour of the accused. Jayalalaitha fought fiercely for retaining Bhawani Singh and even the earlier judge post his retirement. While the apex court finally did grant relief to the complainant by ordering replacement of Bhawani Singh, it had allowed the progress of trial in the intervening period and the judge delivered his judgment without the prosecution presenting its case.
Such travesty of justice was last seen in the case of Navjot Singh Sidhu where the Supreme Court did not dispute that Sidhu killed a 70 year old person through physical assault and yet did not just let him go but granted him a good conduct certificate. Compare the court’s treatment meted out to the likes of Lalu Prasad or Sanjay Dutt. In the case of Lalu Prasad the CBI SIT, monitored by the Patna High Court bench of venerable judges S J Mukhopadhyaya and S N Jha had in 2001 during the NDA regime given a list of all the assets Lalu Prasad and his family members possessed which amounted to around Rs 40 lakh. This was against the charge of the then prosecutor Ravi Shankar Prasad that Lalu had “eaten up cattle fodder worth Rs 1000 crore.” But Lalu deserved to go to jail and now stands incarcerated from the electoral process, while Jayalalitha has emerged as “pure gold” by going through the fire test (Agni Pareeksha) and is all set to return in glory as the Queen Bee.
Nobody dare ask how her MPs brought Laddus to Parliament if they did not know in advance what the judgment would be. Narendra Modi’s haste in complimenting the Empress of Poes Garden and congratulating her within minutes was also a give away. And why not, Modi needs Jayalalitha’s support particularly in the Rajya Sabha to get his crucial Bills including the Land Acquisition Bill passed. Jayalalitha being a shrewd leader was holding Modi to ransom till the last day and now only when she is ready to return as Tamil Nadu chief minister will her party be opening its cards in right earnest. Otherwise who does not known that Jayalalitha is very fond of Modi and the sentiment is returned by Modi with equal warmth.