India’s Convenient ‘’Collective Conscience’’

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In the past couple of weeks, Indian judiciary has created a flutter by delivering controversial verdicts in a few high profile cases. First, it was the Bollywood star Salman Khan who was convicted by a lower court in Mumbai to serve a five jail term for killing a pavement dweller and injuring a few others by running over his SUV over them and then running away from the crime scene in 2002. The case had taken 13 long years to come to the conviction stage. But all optimism among people who hailed this delayed decision as a victory for rule of law and justice in India was short lived, since the actor got bail from the Bombay High Court, on the same day, within a matter of few hours.

On Monday, May 11, it was yet another high profile case that hogged the limelight. That day the Hon’ble Karnataka High Court was to deliver its verdict in the disproportionate assets case against former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and AIADMK leader J Jayalalitha. She was convicted by a lower court in Karnataka in Sep 2014 and was sentenced to four years simple imprisonment under the Prevention of Corruption Act and imposed a fine of ?100 crores, which would be adjusted against the properties already confiscated. The sentence resulted in Jayalalitha getting disqualified as an MLA and the Chief Minister of the state. She would also not be able to contest elections for 10 years. But the Hon’ble High Court of Karnataka acquitted her of all charges of corruption.

In all the cacophony and media interest around these two high profile cases, another high profile case involving the founder of Hyderabad headquartered Satyam Computers, Ramalingam Raju, was almost completely overlooked. The business tycoon, in a dramatic letter released to the Bombay and the National Stock Exchanges in January 2009 had confessed to financial embezzlement of Rs 7000 crore in the company. On May 11, the same day Jayalalitha was acquitted, a Metropolitan Sessions court in Hyderabad granted bail to Raju and nine others involved in the multi crore scandal. The Court also suspended their seven year rigorous imprisonment.

All these three cases were not only similar in that they involved high profile, rich and the powerful but also took long years to come to the conviction stage.  While Salman Kahn’s hit and run case took 13 years to come to the conviction stage, it took 18 years in case of Jayalalitha for the verdict to be pronounced last September. In case of Raju also, it took six years. Interestingly Salman Khan got his bail within a few hours of the conviction while in case of Jayalalitha it was just eight months from her conviction to her acquittal. The verdicts have raised question marks about the working of Indian Judiciary. The first question mark is about the long drawn out legal process, where the victims, who happened to be poor pavement dwellers in case of Salman Khan, are not in a position to fight their legal battles against the high and the mighty that can get the best of legal minds to fight their cases. There is an ugly asymmetry at work here, where one side, from among India’s poorest and the weakest, with no access to any legal service is fighting against a person who represents another extreme of Indian society: Rich, brash, boisterous, arrogant, powerful, politically well connected, media savvy and a heartthrob of millions.  Unlike a movie, these real life victims did not get justice.  For them, justice remained merely a fairy.

Both the cases involving Salman Khan and the Jayalalitha took a painfully long time to come to the conviction stage in the lower courts. But it took the higher courts either just a few hours or a few months to debunk these verdicts which is a serious indictment on the working of both the lower and the higher judiciary in India. The delivery of justice has become elusive and the high and the mighty are often treated with kid gloves.

The ease of access to the best legal minds makes the life of the high profile people involved in such cases, easier and chances of a verdict highly likely in their favour. Jayalalitha was represented by Fali Nariman. Salman Khan, who was convicted for five years, got his bail without going to jail even for one hour. His lawyers were ready with the appeal for his bail even before the judgement in his case was delivered. These verdicts also imply that the judgements seem to be influenced by media discourse, public opinion, power equations and of course access to legal representation.

The moment Salman Khan was pronounced guilty by the lower court and was handed a five year imprisonment, both the mainstream and social media was abuzz with this news. Bollywood, which often works like a cabal in such cases, came out in full strength expressing its ‘’shock’’ and ‘’dismay’’ at the verdict.  Salman Khan’s fans also expressed their displeasure over the verdict. Ironically, a large number of these fans belong to the same social strata as that of his victims.  Salman Khan’s lawyers highlighted the actors ‘’charitable’’ work as a defence argument in the court. So did his fraternity, his fans and many people in the media come out and tried to defend him for ‘’Being Human’’. Without getting into the subjectivity of whether his charitable activities are genuine or merely a PR exercise, they should not have become a legal defence in his case. Fortunately the lower court did not consider this line of argument as valid and delivered its verdict.

In the US, the former Director of Goldman Sachs Rajat Gupta was sentenced to two years imprisonment for insider trading. He too had a history of philanthropy, and even had letters from Bill Gates and Kofi Anan pleading for leniency in his case. But the judge still went ahead, pronounced him guilty and handed him a two year imprisonment sentence. Using charitable and philanthropic activities as a PR stunt and seeking leniency in punishment on that basis, looks cheap and utterly despicable even in the age of televised charity.

That delivery of justice to the victims is a long drawn and often evasive process in India is well known. Be it the victims of the 1984 riots in Delhi or those of the carnage in Mumbai in Jan 1993, justice has not only eluded the victims, but the perpetrators have gone scot free and held public offices. In case of the 2002 Gujarat massacre, in which more than 2000 people were killed, a majority of them Muslims, many perpetrators have been convicted and given jail sentences. But even here, the high profile ones like Babu Bajrangi and Maya Kodnani, both given life imprisonment, are out on bail. The former is a member of Bajrang Dal, a Hindu Nationalist organisation and the latter was a minister in the Gujarat Govt. Both were convicted for their role in the Naroda Patiya massacre in which 97 Muslims were killed. The massacred included 36 women and 35 children.

The public opinion regarding these verdicts in India has largely remained muted. It would be in place to mention that public opinion in India these days is largely driven by its media which is boisterous, self righteous and often a mouthpiece of the corporate interests and the State. The ‘’collective conscience’’ of India, which is often invoked in legal judgements relating to ‘’national interest’’ and takes over  every other sensible argument in such matters,  seems to be in deep slumber, perhaps dead,  when it comes to speaking up for justice and taking the side of the hapless, poor and  powerless victims.

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