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Commentary / Vir Sanghvi

The middle class wants to see politicians in jail and doesn't
care whether they've been convicted of a crime or not

Sukh Ram Forgive me for being the pooper who spoils the party but I cannot share in the middle class delight at the spectacle of Indian's politicians being packed off to jail without trial. Of course, I accept that corruption has reached staggering levels, that many of those who are jailed may well be crooks and that the law should be applied to all equally.

But my reservations have nothing to do with the individuals involved; I'm more concerned about the principle. Ultimately, the Narasimha Raos, Kalpnath Rais, et al will be forgotten but the precededents that strike me as being dangerous.

It is tempting to draw a parallel beteween the rationalisation offered for encounter deaths and the explanations offered for the denial of bail to prominent persons in cases where bail would normally have been granted.

An encounter death - in which a police officer cold-bloodedly murders a suspected terrorist or a criminal - goes against every principle of natural justice and against the provisions of the Constitution. Yet, it is a widely-accepted practice in areas where there is a terrorist problem - Punjab for instance - or a crime wave - as in Bombay.

Most middle-class people agree with the police view that it is better to shoot a terrorist or a criminal dead than to go through the hassle of dragging him through the courts.. To secure a conviction, the police would have to provide evidence that it is not always available and even if they did so, the case would take five years to try.

Nobody seriously disputes that K P S Gill's police force killed hundreds of terrorists in Punjab in such encounters. Equally, it is widely accepted that the Bombay police prefer to shoot gangsters than to arrest them.

Despite protests from human rights organisations, the great Indian middle class remains broadly supportive of these killings. (When opinions are sharply divided over Gill's behaviour, it is eve-teasing that is on the agenda, not murder). It admits that the practice is not exactly desirable but argues that the state of the courts is such that the police have no alternative. There is simply no other way.

Consider now, the justifications offered for the glee with which the jailing of assorted politicians has been greeted.

Most of us know that bail is not a privilege granted by generous judges to those accused of crime. It is the right of every citizen. If you are not convicted of a crime, you are innocent and do not deserve to go to jail. Period.

If however, the judge feels that there is a possibility of flight or a danger that the accused might tamper with the evidence, then he may refuse bail. If none of these condidtions exist then it is almost unprecedented for a judge to refuse bail particularly in a case of white-collar crime.

Given all of this, it is hard to see how most of the charge-sheeted politicians can be refused bail. It is unlikely that Narasimha Rao or L K Advani could hoodwink an immigration officer and slip out of the country undetected. Moreover, in many cases, the offence hass occurred over five years ago and there is no evidence let for the accused to tamper with.

P V Narasimha Rao What, for instance, could L K Advani have done if he was refused bail? Broken into CBI headquarters and burnt the Jain diary? What could Narasimha Rao do? Hold a knife to Lakhubhai Pathak's throat and force him to retract his statment? He's had eight years to threaten Lakhubhai and several months have clapsed since the pickle king arrived in India and was within Rao's grasp.

Nevertheless, the middle class still hopes that they will all be denied bail. It wants to see politicians in jail and it doesn't care whether they've been convicted of a crime or not.

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