Millennium Post

Unapologetically unequal before law

‘Be you ever so high’, said Lord Denning, ‘the law is above you.’ But is it? The Supreme Court, in granting actor Sanjay Dutt an additional four weeks, on his petition, to surrender to the authorities to serve out his jail sentence has raised the question as to whether it has treated him favourably and, therefore, unequally. It is hardly necessary to repeat the legal truism that all citizens are equal in the eyes of the law. None other than the Supreme Court can be more aware of it. Yet the Supreme Court had no qualms in rejecting the petition of Zaibunissa Kazi, another accused in the 1993 Bombay blasts, who had similarly asked for more time to surrender.  Zaibunissa, a cancer patient, had asked for an extension based on the grounds that her clemency plea was still pending before President Pranab Mukherjee. Dutt had asked for an extension of six months time in order to complete his films on which investments of some Rs 278 crore of producers’ money is apparently riding. These are pure commercial considerations yet the Supreme Court has chosen to give Dutt the benefit of doubt on humanitarian grounds. It is true that no simple formula can apply to all persons. Yet there must be clear principles behind the decisions of the Supreme Court.

There must be no tendency in our legal system for those who are celebrated or are rich and famous, and therefore influential, to receive favourable treatment. Sometimes, when celebrities and others who are prominent in our community find themselves before the courts, suggestions are made that they receive preferential treatment. Different standards, it is said, apply. This is unfortunate if it happens. Offenders, be they high or low, rich or poor, famous or obscure, must expect to receive parity of treatment. The notion that status in society somehow provides the offender with an advantage over others is alien to the system of justice chosen by us. The culpability of a person coming from a good background may, indeed, be regarded as all the greater, particularly, if he is a person to whom others look for an example.  The Supreme Court must therefore be careful about the kind of precedents it sets. After its decision on Dutt’s petition, the Supreme Court has chosen to decide similarly in the case of seven others who are not so prominent. Perhaps it will exercise a similar humanitarian consideration in the case of Zaibunissa, whose plea for extension of time to surrender is likely to come up again.
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