March 22: Sympathy in the government and among friends has kept afloat hopes for some form of relief for Sanjay Dutt but lawyers cautioned that the remission process is too delicate to be rushed through.
Sanjay is effectively facing imprisonment of over three years, starting four weeks from now, after the Supreme Court delivered the sentence in a Bombay blasts case yesterday.
At least three avenues are open before Sanjay to seek an outright pardon or a suspension, which involves keeping in abeyance the punishment that can be activated if an offence is committed again. (See chart)
Bollywood has been vocal in seeking clemency. But the political establishment has been more cautious while not shying away from making it clear where its sympathies lie.
An imponderable is how the courts will react if an exception is made for Sanjay by the governor or the President. In the blasts case and other cases, the Supreme Court has said that judicial reasoning should be kept in mind while exercising the remission power.
Another worry for the government is the possibility of any relief being construed as a precedent, which can open the floodgates for appeals for clemency.
The unstated mood at the Centre is in favour of showing a lenient face, especially against the backdrop of the hanging of Afzal Guru and the outrage it provoked in some quarters. The dilemma appears to revolve around the contours of the relief and its justification.
Although nobody is willing to talk about any move to pardon or reduce his jail term, former Supreme Court judge and Press Council of India chairperson Markandey Katju’s open advocacy for mercy has set the establishment exploring the possibilities.
A Congress leader told The Telegraph on condition of strict anonymity: “We would be happy if there could still be a way out. It should be explored.”
Maharashtra governor K. Sankaranarayanan’s office treaded with caution, wary of setting a precedent that could be exploited in future.
A Raj Bhavan source said: “A governor cannot be impulsive. He has to act in accordance with set procedures, taking into account all possible ramifications of a decision.”
Another official said: “We cannot recall any recent instance in Maharashtra where people have approached the governor for clemency to avoid serving a jail term after a Supreme Court verdict. Clemency is sought only in the rarest of rare cases where the person is very old or suffers from a terminal illness or has very small children who could turn destitute if the person is not granted a pardon,” an official said.
But in the 1960s, Raj Bhavan had granted clemency. Charged with murdering his businessman friend Prem Ahuja for having an affair with his UK-born wife Sylvia, naval commander Kawas Maneckshaw Nanavati was given a life sentence in 1961.
Vijayalakshmi Pandit, then Maharashtra governor and Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister, had granted pardon to Nanavati who spent three years in prison.
Justice P.B. Sawant, Katju’s predecessor at Press Council of India, said from Pune that no parameters were required for a pardon from the governor. “I have not seen his (Katju’s) letter, but in Sanjay Dutt’s case, that he is not a criminal and that this is his only offence could be some of the factors,” Justice Sawant said in reply to a question.
In New Delhi, Union information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari gave a cautious response, saying that Katju had been a Supreme Court judge and when he spoke on any issue, people took it seriously.
Tewari said there were several views on Sanjay’s jail term and he would not comment in his official capacity.
But he added that it was a legal issue and the government departments and agencies concerned would take action through the proper route.
The minister’s statement did not reveal any explicit support for the actor but his decision to speak on this sensitive issue said a lot. The Congress usually refuses to give any opinion on the Supreme Court’s verdicts.
Law minister Ashwani Kumar indicated the government’s willingness to explore whether a window could be opened. “The governor will use his discretionary powers when there is an appeal to him. He has the power to pardon. We should not comment on it,” he said.
Sharad Pawar’s Maharashtra-based NCP came out in support of the actor.
The Samajwadi Party, too, has demanded clemency for the actor, though the BJP and the Shiv Sena have different views.
Although Sanjay had once drifted towards the Samajwadi Party, he has been campaigning for the Congress in elections of late. His sister Priya Dutt is a Congress MP and an AICC secretary.
Congress leaders said they favoured leniency for Sanjay only because he had suffered a lot and his conduct since then had been good.