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.
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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.