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|August 6, 2002||
The tape goes round and round
It's been so many years that I can't quite remember where I saw the sign. It was at a cinema on Lamington Road in the heart of Mumbai, that I know. But was it Naaz or Novelty or Imperial or Apsara or Minerva? All the way back in May of 1993, one of these old city institutions had the sign out in front. It announced that showings of Khalnayak -- the Sanjay Dutt film that had just been released -- had been resumed, with the 'kind permission of Shri Balasaheb Thackeray.'
You see, Sanjay Dutt had been arrested a few weeks earlier on suspicion of being involved in the bomb blasts of March 12, 1993. Without any kind of trial, Thackeray and the Shiv Sena decided he was guilty. His films, including the unfortunately named Khalnayak, were 'banned' by Thackeray. Sainiks disrupted shows, and also spent their free time ripping up or simply defacing posters for the film. The producer of Khalnayak, whoever it was and to his eternal shame, agreed to various cuts. After which the film could be seen again. By the 'kind permission of Shri Balasaheb Thackeray.'
The notion that Shri Balasaheb Thackeray should 'ban' something, then hand out 'kind permission' to do something else, did not seem to strike the owners of the theatre as in any way odd.
But within months, Thackeray changed his tune on Dutt. In early 1995, still without any kind of trial, he decided that Sanjay was actually innocent and must be freed from prison. He railed against the CBI for keeping Sanjay behind bars for so long. The authorities, he said, should not turn 'vindictive' towards this 'innocent' young man. Everybody in the Dutt family, he said, was a patriotic Indian. He was also deeply worried, he said, by the huge loss Sanjay's incarceration had caused the film industry.
200 million rupees, he said.
That is, in less than two years, Sanjay Dutt went from being everyone's Khalnayak to being the innocent patriot who had been greatly wronged. Which wrong, just by the way, was causing huge losses to the industry. What might have caused Thackeray's change of heart? Who knows? Though there had been frantic visits by members of the Dutt family to Thackeray's home. In fact, when Sanjay was eventually released on bail, he went straight there, before returning to his home.
The charm of those visits, apparently, has worn off over the years. Now there has been another change of heart. Thackeray has once again decided that Sanjay is guilty. This time, it is because of the publication of extensive transcripts of Sanjay's phone conversations with the mobster Chhota Shakeel. This time, Thackeray is 'of the view that Sanjay Dutt should not be defended at any cost' (The Sunday Times of India, August 4).
With the tapes, it's deja vu all over again. Our news is filled with shots of 'activists' ripping up or simply defacing posters of Sanjay's just released film, Yeh Hai Jalwa.
Don't ask me for an explanation of all these tortuous goings-on: whether of Sanjay's crimes and conversations or of Thackeray and his confederates' views on them. I'm just sitting here watching these wheels go round and round. I'm just befuddled by it all.
And it is hardly just the flip-flops that befuddle me. There's much else in this whole affair that will do the job as well. Start with what Sanjay was originally arrested for, back in 1993.
About a month after the bomb blasts, Sanjay's name popped up in the investigations into the blasts. Two film producers, Samir Hingora and Hanif Kadawala, had been arrested on suspicion of being part of the conspiracy around the blasts. While being questioned, they claimed they had bought three AK-56 machine guns. They told the police that they had sold one of them to Sanjay. When this came to light, Sanjay was shooting in Mauritius. He immediately denied that he owned the gun. He owned other licensed guns, he said, but: 'How can I possibly have an AK-56? This is absolutely untrue.'
He returned from Mauritius the next day and was picked up by the police as soon as he landed at the airport. While being interrogated, he changed his mind and confessed to possessing that AK-56 after all. As his family had received several threats during the Mumbai riots two months earlier, Sanjay said, he bought the gun to protect them. Now Mumbai remained the 'notified area' it had been declared during the riots. Carrying a weapon in such an area, as Sanjay had, was an automatic offence. So he was arrested under TADA -- the anti-terrorist law then in effect. Because he had bought the gun from bomb blast suspects, he was accused of 'joining hands with anti-national elements' in the bomb blast comspiracy. It was evident, the police wrote in their application to the designated TADA court for custody, 'that Sanjay is one of the members of this wide conspiracy of smuggling and distributing firearms, ammunition and explosives brought from abroad and the occurrence of a series of bomb blasts in Bombay.'
Hold all that in your head while I take you a little further down memory lane. To the time, two months before the blasts, when another man had an encounter with the authorities.
It was the night of January 11, 1993. Rioting in Mumbai was at its fiercest and most rabid. In Nirmal Nagar, not far from Bandra, an army patrol stopped a jeep. In it was an elected member of the state legislative assembly and several friends. Also in the jeep were many weapons, including revolvers, live cartridges, choppers, cricket stumps and hockey sticks. At least one of the revolvers was unlicensed. Even though the MLA had a license for another, by simply carrying the weapon in a notified area, especially during rioting, the MLA had broken the law -- as Sanjay did, just months later. For these reasons, the army detained the occupants of the jeep and turned them over to the police.
It took three days for the Nirmal Nagar police to actually take the MLA into custody. They explained that the delay was due to a 'procedural mix-up' -- by the army, they claimed. Meanwhile, a huge mob gathered at the police station and demanded his release. So he was let off on bail. On February 6, he was arrested under TADA. He was soon out on a technicality.
Who was this illustrious gentleman? Madhukar Sarpotdar, MLA for Thackeray's Shiv Sena.
I assume no responsibility for any irony you may sense here. But wait, there are two other interesting angles to explore in this whole affair.
The first: also in the jeep that January night in Nirmal Nagar was someone called Anil Parab. At a subsequent press conference, journalists repeatedly asked the then police commissioner, S K Bapat: was this the infamous Anil Parab who was a known hitman for Dawood Ibrahim? Bapat was silent. Which probably answered the question anyway.
Riding in a jeep with Anil Parab with weapons during a riot; talking to Chhota Shakeel on the phone; do you see a difference? If so, I'd like to know what it is.
The second came during the bomb blast investigations. On April 12, 1993, The Afternoon reported: 'The Bombay police have stumbled upon the names of several film personalities [and politicians] who owned illegal arms allegedly supplied by the underworld don Dawood Ibrahim. ... Interrogation of suspects in connection with the bomb blasts has thrown up names of film personalities such as Sanjay Dutt.' This interrogation, of course, led to Sanjay's arrest.
But the Afternoon's report continued: 'The suspects have also named Shiv Sena MLA Madhukar Sarpotdar among nine politicians who acquired arms from the D-gang or its henchmen. The arms were mainly sophisticated revolvers, valued at Rs 150,000 each, according to police sources.'
A week later, Sanjay Dutt was arrested under TADA. Then chief minister Sharad Pawar broke the news of his arrest in the Maharashtra assembly. The Indian Express (April 20, 1993) quoted Pawar saying on the floor of the assembly: 'The suspect who named Sanjay had during the interrogation revealed several other names including that of Madhukar Sarpotdar.'
So as we all line up to spit at Sanjay Dutt, we might give some thought to all the murky happenings in early 1993.
On the face of it, Sarpotdar committed the same offence as Sanjay was arrested for. He was even named by the same suspects who named Sanjay, as a chief minister announced in the state's assembly. Yet while Sanjay is charged and vilified and is the focus of those befuddling flip-flops, Sarpotdar is today a free man, with no charges. Not only that, he ran for and won election as MLA once more, in February 1995. Not only that, he subsequently won two more elections (1996 and 1998), those times for Parliament.
For his murky deeds, Sanjay faces the law. For his, Sarpotdar spent years actually making our laws. Do you see a difference? This time, I do.
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