August 1, 2007Public PolicySecurity

The value of sending Sanjay Dutt to jail

…has much declined between 1993 and 2007

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

Editorials in major newspapers are unanimous—that Sanjay Dutt’s celebrity status should not come in the way of justice, and hence the jail term handed out to him for possession of illegal arms in 1993 was well-deserved. That they had to make such an obvious point reflects an age where the lower judiciary has lost credibility in public eyes, not least due to some high-profile cases where the rich and the powerful have gotten away with murder.

But in focusing on everyone is equal before the law’ editorialists have ignored another, equally important issue. It too comes in a convenient cliche—justice delayed is justice denied. There is absolutely no doubt that the Sanjay Dutt of 1993 engaged in a criminal act for which he deserved punishment. But the Sanjay Dutt of 2007 is a very different person. No, not merely a better actor (we know that sons and daughters of film stars take time to become good actors, at the viewers’ expense), but also a decent individual and a role model for many. What judge P D Kode’s judgement ignores is the change in Sanjay Dutt in the years since his first arrest.

What purpose does a criminal justice system serve? Deterrence, reformation and perhaps, vengeance. How does the Sanjay Dutt case fare against these measures?

Deterrence is most effective if punishment immediately follows the crime. So a long period between arrest and punishment is unlikely to deter potential criminals. The number of criminals going about their business, both inside and outside parliament, supports this argument.

As for the goal of reforming the criminal into a productive member of the society, it is more than reasonable to say that Sanjay Dutt reformed even before he was punished. So punishing him just for this purpose is superfluous.

That leaves vengeance. It’s never too late for society to extract its revenge from a person who wronged it. Dutt’s punishment, therefore, serves this end rather well. Vengeance, however, would have been justified if Dutt had remained unrepentent, recalcitrant or repeated his offence. But what of the Dutt’s positive contributions since 1993? Surely, in a country which takes its movies very seriously, good acting should count. If not, why is the government in the business of handing out Padma & Dadasaheb Phalke awards to film stars, of running academies and honouring artists in general?

No, this is not an argument against the verdict. The judge delivered the correct judgement. The question is what should one make of the behaviour of the under-trial during the long period of delay. This blogger would have not batted an eyelid if Dutt were to have been punished soon after being charged. But fourteen years on, with so much water under the bridge, the morality of the verdict appears questionable. Just as questionable as the morality of leaving die-hard terrorists unpunished. The Sanjay Dutt case highlights how important it is for India to ensure that justice is delivered swiftly.

Related Links: Nita feels sorry for Dutt, while Sakshi Juneja thinks he got off rather lightly.

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