Atanu Dey On India's Development

Just Deserts for Mr Dutt

The vilest deeds like poison weeds
Bloom well in prison-air:
It is only what is good in Man
That wastes and withers there:
Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,
And the warder is Despair.


Those lines are from Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of the Reading Gaol. It is one of the finest lyrical poems that I have ever read and at one time I knew it by heart. (It was not that I had consciously memorized it; just repeated reading of the poem did it. Same with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.)

{More verses from the poem at the end of this post.}

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What brought Wilde’s poem to mind was the news about Sanjay Dutt’s 6-year prison sentence handed down a couple of days ago. The sentence followed his conviction last November of the crime of possessing illegal weapons that he had acquired from terrorists who were responsible for the 1993 Mumbai bombings.

I am not sure that I understand why exactly it takes 8 months to sentence someone. The conviction was in and the sentencing guidelines were there. So what was the delay for? And exactly why does it take 14 years to conclude a case? Granted it was a complicated case. But were they short of resources? Were they involved in more important cases? Shouldn’t the trial of criminals who took the lives of 257 innocents and maimed hundreds be undertaken expeditiously?

Ah but India is a poor underdeveloped country and that is why our criminal justice system takes decades to reach a verdict. Or is it the other way around? Is it that because its justice system takes decades that India is a poor underdeveloped country? I am convinced that the the latter is the case.

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Anyway, Mr Dutt got hauled off to jail in Mumbai. It appears that he started weeping upon hearing the sentence. And his jail mates said he did not eat the first night and was crying. Misses the fine wines and chocolates, no doubt. Poor baby. His prison garb is too rough. He could not sleep at night. How could he? No down comforters, no silk PJs, no air-conditioning.

Oh the humanity! How could they! Is there no justice in this world!

First they throw Paris Hilton in prison. She cried profusely. And now Sanjay Dutt. He wept. We are living in evil times, I tell you. Evil. Kaliyug is upon us. I was beside myself with grief and could not sleep a wink that whole night when I heard the news.

Want more evidence? The heartless criminal justice system, adding insult to injury, imposed a fine of Rs 25,000 on him. Imagine! Now the poor family will have to starve. Where on earth are they going to find that kind of money?

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Seriously though, it is silly to fine someone Rs 25,000 who generally spends that amount on a few drinks with a couple of friends every evening. Monetary fines should hurt financially. In my opinion, fines should be proportionate to a person’s wealth and income to be equitable and meaningful.

So also, I think, that the punishment should fit not just the crime but the profile of the criminal. For the same crime, the severity of the punishment should be determined by how visible in society the criminal is. Why? First, because people who are held in high regard by society (such as rich business people, movie stars, politicians) have “externalities” in the sense that their actions have a greater impact on others relative to the actions of unknown people. They should be therefore held up to higher standards. Since they are examples, they should receive exemplary punishment for wrong-doings.

Second, for reasons of fairness and balance. If an unknown person were to do a good and noble act, very few people would come to know about it and so will be modestly rewarded (even though the act may not have been motivated by the prospects of rewards.) A celebrity would gain a disproportionate amount of reward for the same act, however, because a lot more people would come to know of it. I suppose that greater reward can be justified by the consideration that more people would be inspired by the celebrity act. So therefore, for the same crime, a celebrity should be punished more severely than an unknown person.

In India, we have it backwards. Celebrity criminals get immunity from prosecution. In fact, one of the best reasons to be a politician is that you can commit crimes without the fear of being punished. And in some high profile cases, it is advantageous to become a high ranking politician just to gain immunity from jail.

You know what they say about owing money to the bank. If you owe Rs 10,000 to the bank and cannot repay it, then you are in trouble, not the bank. But if you owe the bank Rs 100 crores and cannot repay it, then the bank is in trouble, not you. If you are a petty thief, you are in trouble, not society. You get hauled off to jail, say, for diluting milk with water. But if you are a big time crook, embezzling on a grand scale, raping, pillaging and murdering, then you become a “leader” and society in in trouble, not you.

Here I am taking a just deserts conception of justice. Here’s Brad Delong on what a prosperous society does with regard to rewarding virtue:

We want a society in which those with natural abilities are provided with powerful incentives to use them productively. We want a society in which the successful cultivation of abilities is greatly rewarded. We want those capable of discipline and effort to receive as rewards the fruits of that discipline and effort. We want all these things because a society that provides people with a framework of such incentives is a richer, a happier, a more productive and prosperous society–a better society.

I am taking the converse position. I think that just deserts requires that those with natural abilities should be given powerful incentives to not engage in criminal behavior.

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Maybe I am indulging myself in a bit of schadenfreude. I found Sanjay Dutt’s sanctimonious roles a bit too smug and too goody-goody by half. Perhaps it is his “gandhigiri” that rubs me the wrong way. It could be that my distaste for Mahatma Gandhi is leaking into my reservoir of compassion that I generally have for fellow unfortunates.

Or it could be that I have had it up to here with celebrities who think that they are exempt from the law of the land. Or the laws of nature.

I recall that when I heard Sanjay Gandhi (hey another Sanjay and another Gandhi — coincidence? I think not!) had tried to defy the laws of physics in his plane and had to be scraped off the tarmac in Delhi, I had the same sort of feeling that the guy had it coming and not a bit too soon.

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The Acorn has a take on this: The Value of Sending Sanjay Dutt to Jail. I do agree that justice should not be delayed for so long and that the man in 2007 is different from the man of 1993 when he committed the crime. But the Acorn calls for leniency saying that the man’s been ostensibly good all these intervening years (but there is some doubt) and since justice was delayed for so long.

Sanjay Dutt is an actor. He is being jailed now at the age of 48 for a crime that he commited at the age of 33-34. It is better for him to serve a delayed sentence since he spends the more youthful years free. I would rather serve 6 years in prison when I am 80 years old than when I am 40 years old.

Yes, justice delayed is justice denied. But that is when you are seeking relief for an injury done to you. Justice was denied to the victims of the terrorist acts by delaying it; it was not that the terrorists who were hell-bent on seeking justice. So the justice denied because of delay bit does not hold in the case of Mr Dutt as he was definitely not a victim of terrorism but was in some strict sense connected with the terrorists.

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I have said my piece and now back to Wilde.

Wilde was serving time at the Reading jail in 1895 when a man who had slit his wife’s throat was hanged.

Yet each man kills the thing he loves
  By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
  Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
  The brave man with a sword!

Some kill their love when they are young,
  And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
  Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife, because
  The dead so soon grow cold.

Some love too little, some too long,
  Some sell, and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
  And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves,
  Yet each man does not die.

What I find most compelling in the poem is the underlying tone which is about having compassion for ourselves. “Forbear to judge, for we are sinners all,” as the Bard said.

And I and all the souls in pain,
  Who tramped the other ring,
Forgot if we ourselves had done
  A great or little thing,
And watched with gaze of dull amaze
  The man who had to swing.

And strange it was to see him pass
  With a step so light and gay,
And strange it was to see him look
  So wistfully at the day,
And strange it was to think that he
  Had such a debt to pay.

I cannot resist quoting a few more verses from Wilde. But do yourself a favor and read the poem sometime at leisure.

For oak and elm have pleasant leaves
  That in the spring-time shoot:
But grim to see is the gallows-tree,
  With its adder-bitten root,
And, green or dry, a man must die
  Before it bears its fruit!

The loftiest place is that seat of grace
  For which all worldlings try:
But who would stand in hempen band
  Upon a scaffold high,
And through a murderer's collar take
  His last look at the sky?

It is sweet to dance to violins
  When Love and Life are fair:
To dance to flutes, to dance to lutes
  Is delicate and rare:
But it is not sweet with nimble feet
  To dance upon the air!

  • WalkOn

    “I recall that when I heard Sanjay Gandhi (hey another Sanjay and another Gandhi—coincidence? I think not!) had tried to defy the laws of physics in his plane and had to be scraped off the tarmac in Delhi, …”

    Brutal.

    Well, regardless of what they say or how they try to spin it, he’s got to serve his time. And I say thank goodness for that.

    I don’t think the punishment has to be proportional to how famous you are. It seems a very folksy idea and I am not sure there is too much merit in it. Isn’t the point to punishment to (ideally) reform the individual? It isn’t about societal retribution.

    In our country there are documented cases of people spending decades in prison undertrial. In that context 14 years for 250+ people doesn’t seem all that bad. What I do hope is that they get on with wrapping up the case with those accused of the riots that triggered the blasts. I’m getting tired of the “Bal Thackerey is immune” brigade.

  • Zingo

    Atanu,
    This is an amazingly stupid post for someone like you who writes as well as you do.
    Ok, first who are you to decide how bad Sanjay Dutt is, there is a justice system and it took it’s cource, matter closed. Let’s focus on something more positive and important. Lets figure out how we can try making justice system better for future.

    It’s stupid to even comment on things where facts are so hard to come by or what we consider facts are only the picture media puts in front of you.

    Second why bring Mahatma Gandhi in to picture? He has more than Billion followers all over world, so someone like you commenting on him especially with a negative tone is like a smelly rat spitting at a grand elephant. It does not matter and tells more about you than the man.

    Gosh I never expected you would disappoint with such astronomical stupidity.
    One less reader for you, I understand that you are not bothered.

  • http://acorn.nationalinterest.in Nitin

    Atanu

    Yes, justice delayed is justice denied. But that is when you are seeking relief for an injury done to you. Justice was denied to the victims of the terrorist acts by delaying it; it was not that the terrorists who were hell-bent on seeking justice.

    Sure. That is the point I was making. Not only to the victims, but also for society as a whole, which lost an opportunity to deter potential criminals by punishing them promptly.

    [As an aside: I'm not quite sure whether the economic value of punishing a younger person is accurate in this context. (a) Bollywood stars were not as well paid then, as now, in real terms (b) Older actors may make more money (Exhibit A: I'll-never-retire Mr Bachchan). ]

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  • http://ambarthejovian.blogspot.com Ambar

    Atanu,

    I found this entire section rather repulsive, and frankly, very unlike you. My gut-level reaction was along the lines of “wtf sounds like commie reasoning” :D

    Regarding the externalities you speak of, as well as the rewards for good and noble acts – the crux of the matter is that the law does not confer either of these; the market does. It only makes sense then that the market should have the freedom to take these away and not the law. Simply put, the law does not mandate that Tabloid X has to write about MovieStar Y donating to charity. Tabloid X decides based on market forces. Given this, there is no reason for the law not to be agnostic to the celebrity status of a wrongdoer.

    Moving on to your arguments regarding celebrities and politicians being relatively immune to prosecution, we can surely identify these to be implementation failures, not system design failures. Or at the least, these are not due to failures in our laws themselves.

  • http://ambarthejovian.blogspot.com Ambar

    Atanu,

    So also, I think, that the punishment should fit not just the crime but the profile of the criminal. For the same crime, the severity of the punishment should be determined by how visible in society the criminal is………….So therefore, for the same crime, a celebrity should be punished more severely than an unknown person.”>

    I found this entire section rather repulsive, and frankly, very unlike you. My gut-level reaction was along the lines of “wtf sounds like commie reasoning” :D

    Regarding the externalities you speak of, as well as the rewards for good and noble acts – the crux of the matter is that the law does not confer either of these; the market does. It only makes sense then that the market should have the freedom to take these away and not the law. Simply put, the law does not mandate that Tabloid X has to write about MovieStar Y donating to charity. Tabloid X decides based on market forces. Given this, there is no reason for the law not to be agnostic to the celebrity status of a wrongdoer.

    Moving on to your arguments regarding celebrities and politicians being relatively immune to prosecution, we can surely identify these to be implementation failures, not system design failures. Or at the least, these are not due to failures in our laws themselves.

  • http://ambarthejovian.blogspot.com Ambar

    I think that just deserts requires that those with natural abilities should be given powerful incentives to not engage in criminal behavior.

    “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” – Karl Marx, 1875

    :-)

  • Anuj

    Zingo – Gnadhi has a billion followers! Really?
    Where and Who would they be? Do enlighten.

  • Zingo

    Anuj,
    Learn to spell first.
    Later you can try to read a few books which may improve your general knowledge. Hoping that you can read better than you can write,

    Zingo.

  • http://valluvar.blogspot.com shiv

    The aim of the legal system is to correct not seek revenge.Conversely if the punishment does not correct or at least seem to correct the law of the land is not served. In this context the law has already been subverted as the convict was tried under the arms act rather than tada. While this in itself is not bad (tada is a bad law) it shows that the law of the land is not always equally applicable. IAC at the end of the day incarceration of public figures establishes the rule of law more forcefully than any amount of education. Pity they could not convict PVN before nature took its own course.Or for that matter get jayalalitha to court.

  • Anuj

    zingo,
    i am sorry if my lack of control over the english language has offended you.
    i am a product of the indian govt. education system, where your language is taught only from the 5th through 10th standard. throw in the lack of good teachers and no familial resources [neither of my parents finshed high school], and the fact that i am even able to string a sentence togather, howeer, misspelled, is a miracle.

    now, if you still think me worthy, do tell me of those billion followers.

  • http://idlinginc.blogspot.com/ Mischievous Ignoramus

    Anuj,

    I think zingo is talking about the 1 bn scantily clad females who are Gandhi’s followers: “He was pained at heart, for he felt strongly for his poor countrymen. Though he was always simple in his dress, he decided to be simpler still. He gave up wearing a cap, a shirt and a dhoti too! Henceforth he wore only a lion-cloth. How could he wear so many clothes, when his countrymen couldn’t get the bare minimum to protect their modesty?”

    I think this is a wise strategy. Become a Gandhian, wear less clothing, make more money. Alas! males don’t have that option. :(

  • xyz

    Erm..I think you meant:”Just desserts for Mr. Dutt”.

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