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Crimes, punishment, tragedy and farce

Last updated on: March 25, 2013 14:05 IST

In India crimes matter less than exactly who commits them. Shubhashis Gangopadhyay examines

Two recent events and the various reactions they generated are worth introspection.

The first one was a tragedy of sorts. The court sentenced a famous actor to a five-year jail term for having a sophisticated, but totally illegal, cache of arms -- arms for which no licences are ever given to any civilian in India.

The second one ended up as a farce; the politician son of a southern political leader was raided by officials of the Central Bureau of Investigation for apparently possessing an imported luxury car on which customs duties were allegedly not paid. 

The jail term was pronounced on something that was detected and brought to court 20 years ago. The raid was carried out a day after the party of the politician in question withdrew support from the ruling coalition at the Centre. Both were heavily discussed events in all forms of the media. Both the events and the discussions that followed are worth analysing.

The actor’s father was himself a politician and a famous actor. The actor is a darling of the film industry for his large-heartedness and a favourite of the people for his box-office hits.

The 20-year-old charges against him were that he had received arms from a terror suspect and kept for himself one of the weapons. He has claimed that he kept the gun to protect his family from terror attacks. Since the arms and his sources have been linked to the Mumbai blasts that killed 257 innocent people, the charges were grave indeed. 

However, many have claimed that he was a different person then. Since he was first arrested in 1993, he is said to have changed into a good citizen, married, become a father, appeared in many commercially successful movies and endeared himself to large sections of the population and the whole of the film industry.

So, people have come out in support of him.

In particular, two types of arguments are being made. One, he is now a good man, so why send him to jail for something horribly wrong that he did 20 years ago?

Two, given that we have not yet caught the mastermind of the Mumbai blasts, why are we punishing the actor?

One basic thing in crime and punishment is to prevent crimes. This makes sense only if the act is more significant than the person committing the act. If one focuses on the act, and not on the person committing the act, it is easier for legal institutions to justify their claim that everyone is equal before the law.

Recall what the US judge said while sentencing Rajat Gupta -- many bad things are done by very good people. Similarly, I would presume, many good things are done by people who also do bad things. The moment we start looking at the person and weighing all the acts committed by her, we run the risk of making the person -- which will now have to include everything else she has done -- and not the committed act the relevant issue.

This will destroy the whole concept of everyone being equal before the law. And, worse, it will also destroy the use of punishment as a deterrent. So, I can go up to you and kill you, do some wonderfully good things in the next 20 years it takes our system to decide on my guilt, and the court -- having set a precedent by forgiving the convicted actor -- will forgive me too! And I, knowing this, will not be prevented from killing you. 

We would also be making an error in judgement if we were to argue that when someone else has stolen and not been caught, I should not be punished for stealing. Not all reported thefts are solved. So, at any point in time, there will always be unsolved thefts. If I now steal and get caught, would you allow me to get away because there are other thieves who have not been caught? I guess not. The sad thing is that it took 20 years of living on the edge before the actor was convicted. We need to sit with Annaji to speed up court cases.

It was quite amusing to see the convulsions that various members of the ruling coalition went through to claim that the raid on the southern politician’s son was not politically motivated. In fact, they went a step further and publicly announced that the raid should not have been done. Could anyone please tell me why? Were the ministers a part of the investigation? How do they know whether it should not have been done? If the raid was uncalled for, do we not have an institutional process by which CBI investigators are taken to task for false accusations and harassment? Or, is the only way out of such harassment is to get high-level ministers to stop the raid? 

Marx was right. It is a tragedy if the government interferes in investigations.

By creating a history of repeated interferences, the government has, indeed, made CBI raids on politicians a farce. If the southern politician’s son has not paid customs duty on an imported car, he should be prosecuted regardless of whether or not his party supports the ruling coalition.

And it does not matter how many days have elapsed since his party started, or stopped, supporting the ruling coalition. But what did our esteemed rulers do when people started clamouring that the raid was politically motivated? They called off the raid.

To prove that the raid was not a result of the government’s interference with how the CBI runs an investigation, the government intervened to stop what the CBI claims is a valid search-and-seizure operation. And thereby hangs a farce.

The writer is research director at IDF and director of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at SNU