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Bandits by Law
December 14, 2002
Sessions Judge Akhtar Tahir ruled that the descriptions of the offences in the requisition papers were 'insufficient, vague and ambiguous'.
Thus did a Malaysian judge describe the case the Indian government filed to extradite businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi from that country. We want him extradited so we can question him -- just question him, mind you; not file charges -- in a case that dates back to the mid-1980s. Over a decade-and-a-half after that huge scandal rocked a nation and forever tainted a prime minister and his family, this is the total of the progress we have made. We've reached a point where a request to turn a major figure from the scandal over to us for questioning is flung out. Flung out, because a judge thinks our case is 'insufficient, vague and ambiguous'. Flung out, because he believes we have shot ourselves in the foot right from the start.
I don't know, nor even want to know, how many trips to Malaysia, Sweden and other parts of the globe Indian officials have made, at my taxpaying expense, in a supposed effort to build their case in the Bofors investigations. In fact, immediately after Judge Tahir's ruling, a two-man team from the Central Bureau of Investigation left for Malaysia, again at my taxpaying expense, to file some kind of appeal. How they would do anything any different from what they already had done all these years, which resulted in this Malaysian debacle, is opaque to me. But I must be the dope. Because they went.
Meanwhile, other law-authority teams have been burning up the air miles between India and Dubai, India and Portugal, both still at my taxpaying expense. More extraditions to be sought, of course, in those countries. One Anees Ibrahim in Dubai, one Abu Salem in Portugal. No word yet on whether their papers in those cases -- papers prepared at my taxpaying expense, as were the ones in Malaysia -- are filled with 'insufficient, vague and ambiguous' descriptions. But it's early days still. Give them time.
You think I sound cynical? Overly cynical? Let me list only three aspects of the Bofors investigations -- in which, of course, Quattrocchi was wanted for questioning -- that make me so.
One, the investigations have actually outlived at least two of the scandal's prime figures: Rajiv Gandhi and the high-flying businessman Win Chadha. Two, proceedings against the Hindujas, the other celebrated names in the mess, are just as glacial and opaque. On the same day Judge Tahir offered thoughts on our case papers in Malaysia, our own Supreme Court stayed the proceedings against the Hindujas in a special court. In doing so, as Outlook magazine reported, 'the Supreme Court amended its own earlier order ... which had allowed the trial proceedings to continue.' Three, the amount involved -- Rs 650 million -- shocked us all at the time.
Today, we would laugh at it -- because today's scams feature amounts that are larger by magnitudes. The feeling that the Bofors figure was measly is itself an indication of how the years have passed, how many years have passed.
So, given all that, you tell me what measure of seriousness I should apply to this decade-and-a-half-long Bofors case. And once you answer that, you tell me how seriously I should take the goings-on in Dubai and Portugal.
Cynical? How did you guess?
It's almost fitting that the judgment in Malaysia came only days before the latest news from a moustachioed Southern bandit, Veerappan: his latest hostage, the politician Nagappa, was found shot to death.
This tragedy came after Nagappa had been in Veerappan's hands for over 100 days. Through that time, Veerappan managed to communicate his demands via cassettes left hanging from trees outside Nagappa's home. The sixth and last such tape announced that Nagappa was free, but that he might be dead.
This man Veerappan is accused of a long list of serious crimes, ranging from sandalwood smuggling to murder. In recent years, he has seemed able to kidnap people, even prominent people, at will. Yet there are journalists who have no problem meeting him -- there are even regular photographs of him sitting chatting with them. He hangs tapes on trees -- surely not an everyday activity outside Nagappa's home or anywhere. The last tape was even accompanied by a banner saying 'Veerappan-Nagappa'. You'd think that even if the police cannot catch him, by now they would have understood the ease with which he seems to operate, meet the media, make contact with the world via tapes and banners. You'd think the police would have found ways to use this apparent ease to catch Veerappan.
But no. For over a decade now, Veerappan has evaded the clutches of two states' law machinery. Chief ministers, prime ministers, special task forces, police officers, kidnap victims -- all have come and gone, but Veerappan just goes on and on, year after year. The chief ministers of both states have announced a renewed effort, charged with redoubled determination, to catch Veerappan. I know you're snorting in derision at that: even the news reports about the abduction noted that few people have faith in such an announcement. We've heard it all before, much as we've seen all the Bofors shadow-boxing before.
They make Veerappan out to be some sort of superman criminal who hides out in impenetrable stretches of jungle. But after all these years, to me it seems the truth is somewhat more mundane. The man remains free not because the terrain he operates in is difficult, nor because he is extraordinarily brutal and clever. There is truth in all that, but over so much time, those are factors that could and should have been overcome. Instead, he is free because nobody really wants him caught. Put it another way: if he is arrested, too many powerful people will suddenly be vulnerable, given their own links to Veerappan. No, I don't have proof of such links. I am simply inferring their existence, just as the way you do: from the way he has escaped justice so easily, so long.
So let's get used to it. No major Bofors figure will ever come to justice. Neither will Veerappan. Because if they ever do have to face the law, they will take others down with them. You know it as well as I do.
Therefore we must have the charade of special task forces pursuing Veerappan through the forests of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. It fits well with the charade of CBI officials making trips to Malaysia, Portugal and Dubai in pursuit of various extraditions that never happen. All of it, at our taxpaying expense. Yes, we are supposed to watch these trips to exotic lands happen, these forces pursue shadows through the jungle, and conclude that there is actually some movement in these cases. In fact, there is: the way so many people are laughing at us for our simple faith in the rule and progress of law. Because they are, there's a reality here we will have to come to terms with some day. Forget the Veerappans and Quattrocchis: the greatest abusers of our laws are those whom we charge with making and administering them.
Justice Tahir in Malaysia might as well have put that in his judgment. I am sure he knows it.