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February 4, 1999


E-Mail this column to a friend Varsha Bhosle

Purchase of absolution

Every once in a while, I thank God for small mercies. Like yesterday, when I thanked Her for effecting the electoral wipe-out of Nina Pillai, widow of Rajan Pillai. In The Indian Express, the twit writes: "As the mother of a teenager, I have always told my son he must trust and confide in me and that I would do everything in my power to help him if he's ever in trouble. Yet, how helpless I would feel if it were my son, instead of Sanjeev Nanda, in Tihar today! My heart goes out to the young man... As a 21-year-old (he spent his 21st birthday in Tihar), was he supposed to have the kind of maturity that more seasoned road-users have?... Having a degree in psychology, I can assert with authority that the young man is severely traumatised... with screams and other horrible mental images of the accident."

Etcetera, etcetera. Then, she went on to recount the sorry circumstances of her husband's incarceration and subsequent demise in Tihar. And that backdrop is the putative justification for her plea to keep the supposedly naive hit-'n-run driver out of prison...

Young Master Sanjeev, son of international arms-dealer Suresh Nanda and grandson of former Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Nanda, had expressly been forbidden to drive after attending a party (parents know their progeny best). Unfortunately for his victims, he did. Sanjeev mowed down seven people (including two cops) in the early hours of January 10 in Delhi's Lodhi Colony: Five were instantly crushed to death under his BMW, one died later in hospital, and one was critically injured.

After which, the severely-traumatised lad chose to speed away to the Golf Links bungalow of his friend and co-accused Siddharth Gupta -- whose financier father Rajiv Gupta, and his staff, washed off from the bumpers and bonnet of the car the blood and vestiges of the victims. Normally, that's called destroying material evidence.

Inspector Jagdish Pandey traced the BMW by trailing the oil leak from the accident-spot to Rajiv Gupta's garage: The brand-new car, with foreign number plates, hadn't been registered in India. When brought to the police station, Sanjeev was still drunk from his nocturnal binge.

Sanjeev's passport and driving licence, the car keys, and clothes could not be recovered. And since he was in India on holiday from pursuing a Masters in business management in Philadelphia, and co-accused Manik Kapoor was vacationing from his studies in London, the police moved an application for an immediate remand: It was a reasonable demand in order to prevent their flight from the country. Like the one from the scene of the slaughter.

But what happens when our civilised legal system takes over? As we all know, the rich and powerful can indeed purchase the law -- especially easily if it's at the cost of the common man. And the noble legal profession toils day and night to find loopholes for their benefit:

After a battalion of lawyers, including senior advocates Dinesh Mathur, Ramesh Gupta and S K Mehra, took charge of the case, the bouncing 21-year-old suddenly developed chest pains and had to be hospitalised.

On January 13, the legal eagles argued that the accused should be granted bail under Section 304A of the Indian Penal Code as he was liable for only "a case of accident caused by rash and negligent driving." Mathur said that the police had wrongly registered the case under Section 304 IPC: Fatal accidents are usually charged u/s 304A -- causing death by negligence -- a bailable offence entailing two years' imprisonment, or fine, or both. The police had lodged the Nanda case as a "culpable homicide not amounting to murder" -- a non-bailable offence evoking imprisonment for life, or ten years, and a fine. As it happened, the metropolitan magistrate granted bail to Siddharth and Manik, and remanded Sanjeev to judicial custody.

On January 19, when Link Magistrate Renu Bhatnagar went to Tihar for Sanjeev's identification parade, he refused. The lad who is not supposed to have the kind of maturity that more seasoned road-users have, contended that since his photographs had been published in newspapers, the witness would recognise him. So, the prosecution moved for an identification by a second witness, Manoj -- the only survivor of the accident -- after he was declared fit.

Preliminary investigations had indicated that the speed of the BMW would probably have been around 140 km/h when it hit the pedestrians and police patrol: Inspector Pandey confirmed that the corpses were strewn over such a vast area that he had initially assumed that the impacting body could only have been a heavy vehicle...

Enter, senior advocate R K Anand for the defence: "Simply driving a car at 100 km per hour at a time when no one is expected to be on the road, does not amount to murder or culpable homicide. In such a situation, even knowledge that the car may kill or injure someone fatally cannot be imputed." I say, screw the literal -- look at the shorthand: It is not a crime to reach 100 km/h on Delhi's roads, but it may be one to loiter on pavements at a time when brats would be speeding. If any pedestrian should die, hey, the driver can't be held responsible...

Anand also asserted that the prosecution's charge of speeding was implausible since a 100-km/h-driven BMW would not skid if brakes were suddenly applied, but would stop 70 metres ahead. 70 metres?? That's a new one! Besides, why would only skidding have caused the accident? Too, the learned lawyer probably drew his precise conclusion from a series of tests conducted on similar roads, what with BMWs oh-so-easily obtainable in India... And of course, oil leaks have zero to do with skidding.

Defence counsel Ramesh Gupta argued that there was no evidence to prove that Sanjeev was even driving the car: "The police only have his disclosure statement, which in itself is not admissible as evidence if it does not lead to any recovery." That is, a recovery from eminences who do everything in their power, including hosing down blood and gristle, to help their children.

Advocate Gupta then asked that, since Sanjeev was alleged to be intoxicated, "how can he also be said to have 'intention and knowledge' [required for culpable homicide]?" Naturally, that Sanjeev and Manik did not stop to summon medical help for the victims, has no bearing on said knowledge or culpability. Tell you what, the next time you wanna kill someone, do it with some gin tucked under the belt. That should nullify the intent and knowledge.

Nina Pillai writes about an "extra zeal" on the part of the police since two of their tribe were killed; that no person deserves to end up in the hellhole that is Tihar; that fear makes youths in trouble take flight; that she doesn't know the Nandas but writes from a "genuine concern for a young man's well-being"; that the press is conducting an "immoral witchhunt" (sic) against Sanjay... SANJAY? Deja vu...

These were the almost-exact pleas against the confining in Tihar of then-young Sanjay Dutt. Right down to the immaturity bit. These friggin' socialites, when not flitting from galas to receptions, seem to have no other job than to solicit mercy for the indictable. And this, while holding the police or press responsible for the fate of the accused! A degree in rudimentary psycho-babble apparently gives one authority to pontificate on criminal cases without delving into the implications.

In 1994, they spoke of Dutt as being stupid and impulsive, but "with a heart of 24-carat gold." And that was taken at face-value -- even though we knew zero about the inner workings of his mind. Now we have Sanjeev -- innocent of homicide by dint of his not being "supposed to have the kind of maturity that more seasoned road-users have."

Dutt had sanctioned the use of his compound for the parking of a van laden with guns and grenades. He had claimed it was a favour to "friends." Now, Siddharth Gupta justifies his abetment by citing, "A friend in need is a friend indeed." And never mind the dead.

For Sanjay, the chattering classes got TADA scrapped; and Balasaheb, whose heart suddenly oozed with the milk of human kindness, got him released.

For Sanjeev, Advocate R K Anand is about to stand the entire Indian criminal justice system on its head: The proposal is, if his client is tried merely for negligent driving, the Nandas will adequately compensate the victims' families... A purchase of absolution with the flash of arms-stained money.

Yes, plea bargaining. A concept not applicable in India for the simple reason that we do not have a law which allows it; a process not legally admissible in our courts. But then, what's new about passing a law to benefit just one entity...? If it can be done to assuage the whims of a single community, why not for the protection of one person?

Legal luminary Indira Jaising says: "It is not right to draw a parallel with the American system. There you have a director of prosecutions who screens all cases before deciding to accept plea bargaining. In India, the prosecution work is handled by the police. To let them decide on plea bargaining is to vest too much power in them... Plea bargaining will help only the rich as they can afford to pay compensation. Even in the US, there have been instances of families of victims protesting against the reduction of charges as a result of plea bargaining."

Now picture this in the Indian context -- where political, police and bureaucratic corruption is a way of life. Where the destitute are manipulated as a matter of course...

Back to Pillai. Am I amazed by the sympathy expressed by this "thinking" socialite? Do I buy her claims of being merely an objective bystander? On both counts, No. You see, the heart-rending grief of the businesswoman does make me ask: What's in it for her? So, I'll just watch for the manifestation of any give-and-take within the elite circle, thank you.

The gruesome deaths of the sole bread-winners of six families will have anybody's blood aboil. But the sheer arrogance of money galls me even more: Sanjeev and Manik weren't naive about the consequences of their actions -- they knew enough to run and cover up. Quite simply, they believed they could get away by using their connections. A police officer says, "It does not matter where the money comes from because there is little or no regard for the law. While buying the police is passe, now even the law can be circumvented, they feel."

There's yet another angle that provokes me: What is the likelihood of Sanjeev's and Manik's speeding after drinking in Philadelphia or London? What are the chances of darkies being let off lightly in such cases in the US? Are Indians safe drivers when living overseas? Why do they revert to obnoxiousness on return? What keeps them in perfect civic line when abroad? We all know the answers, don't we...?

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