He will be remembered by history as the judge who sentenced Bollywood actor Sanjay Dutt in what was India’s longest running terror trial, but retired High Court judge Pramod Dattatreya Kode is kicking off a second innings merging two things he holds very dear — a three-decade career in law and his equally longstanding love for films. Earlier this week, as he took charge of a trial once again, the fan of Gregory Peck and Clint Eastwood did ot for the camera, for a film on the life of slain journalist J Dey. And of course, Kode plays a judge.
Only 43 when he took over at the helm of the 1993 trial, he has time now to reflect on the challenges of those years. “Convicting people who acted against their own countrymen, even 40 years after India had attained independence, was most painful,” says Kode, 62. As a specially designated TADA judge, he helmed the 1993 trial from 1996 till 2007, when he sentenced Dutt to six years’ rigorous imprisonment.
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At a studio in Goregaon, as he took the judge’s chair on a film set just three months after retiring as judge of the Bombay High Court, there was a chorus of “order order” in the fake court room. Later, seated in his two-bedroom apartment, he says his legal career, both as advocate and judge, gave him enough “highlights” to treasure.
The 1993 serial blasts should not be seen in a communal light, the retired judge says. After all, Hindus too were involved. “Investigations showed the involvement of Customs officers Somnath Thapa and R K Singh and few other police officers who were not Muslims. The real act was of terror as this country had never seen the import of RDX for carrying out blasts or the use of AK 56 rifles,” he says.
During the 10 years that he presided over the trial, Kode had to make sure that the accused and their families did not feel victimised. For a fair trial, the judge had to win the confidence of both sides – the prosecution as well as the defence. As many would observe later, Kode showed the human side of his tough professional demeanour when he allowed the accused in the case to attend funerals of their family members.
“No one ever took liberty and absconded from my court. I showed faith in them and they reciprocated,” he says. On Dutt, he says the actor’s mannerisms eventually convinced him of the “dignified man that he is”. “Sanjay’s behaviour reflected that he belonged to a good family. No activity of his destroyed or undermined the decorum of the court, or its authority,” says Kode, dressed in a white full-sleeved shirt and a matching pair of trousers. Dutt was convicted for illegal possession of arms. Apart from the actor, Kode convicted 100 others under various provisions of criminal law and acquitted 23 accused.
The criminal conspiracy in the 1993 case will always remain etched on the city’s conscience, he feels. “Once a bomb is thrown, one certainty is that human lives will be snuffed out, irrespective of their religious background. Hindus, Muslims both died during the 1993 terror blasts.” The charm of Bombay – he likes to call the city by its former name – was lost, but “being the city it is, the flamboyance was back in no time,” he adds.
Aspects of the trial continue to hover around his life. For one, Kode’s entry to the city from neighbouring Thane, where he did his schooling and later practised as a lawyer, was far from procedural. Two attempts on his life proved to be the “last straw that broke the camel’s back” and he decided to shift to Mumbai, initially moving into a flat in Marine Lines.
Kode has also not attended a single public function since 1993. He continues to have Z-plus security, something he labels a “professional hazard”. His childhood friend Kiran Kamat says Kode regularly expresses anguish at being unable to spend time with friends. “Pramod has several times expressed a desire to come to my house for dinner, but he never wanted it to be troublesome for us due to security concerns,” says Kamat (63), a former Captain with the merchant navy.
But in his retirement abode, he feels something “supernatural” that repulsed repeated attacks.. “Next to my Marine Lines home was Hazrat Bahauddin Shah Baba’s dargah (shrine). I paid my respects each time my car passed by it. Rooh ki hawa aati thi waha se jisne mujhe bachaya (the soul from the shrine protected me),” Kode says animatedly, the sunlight glinting off his multiple finger-rings. Kode now lives with his wife and two daughters in a judges’ society in Sion.
In his spare time, he is also a gemologist, an astrologer, a palmist, and a voracious reader. “There are over 1,000 books in my library,” he proudly says pointing to his study, which has books on the Indian Penal Code, Criminal Minor Acts, Central Civil Act and Code of Criminal Procedure prominently displayed. Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and jurist Nani Palkhiwala’s We, The People: India, The Largest Democracy, are a few of his favourite reads.
Curiously, Kode had not originally planned a career in law. “While my father wanted me to be a doctor, I wanted to be an engineer. I hated the smells of hospitals,” he says. His father once aspired to be a lawyer, but landed a white-collar job. For Kode, becoming a lawyer meant fulfilling his father’s dream.
His father beseeched noted advocate Ramakant Ovalekar, whom he knew well, to take the young Kode under his wing after the latter had completed his law degree from Government Law College, Mumbai. “It was on Ovalekar’s suggestion that I became a prosecutor and later in 1990 when district judge Makrand Vaidya asked me to become a judge, I couldn’t refuse,” he says.
Post-retirement life remains busy as people flood him with arbitration cases and consultancy requests. Somehow, the role offered to him in a Bollywood-style take on the J Dey killing appealed to him after he’d read the script.
Though a movie buff, Kode found acting rather difficult even though it is a character that comes naturally to him. “I used the same silk robe with a special collar I have worn for the past decade while enacting the court scene,” he reveals. In the film, Kode has to to say “overruled”, before pronouncing the verdict.
On the 1993 trial, he praises the media’s balanced reporting, citing it as one of the reasons that drove him to do the film. “It is J Dey’s story. What he faced as a reporter should come out in public. People should see how difficult it is to be in media,” he says.
Younger daughter Sheetal is proud to see her father portraying a judge on screen. “He is making a debut at 62, people should never give up on their dreams. Age is no bar,” says Sheetal, a tarot card reader.
Kode loves to watch Hollywood films starring Gregory Peck, Clint Eastwood, Richard Burton while among the Bollywood stars he’s partial to Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor films. “I have watched all the films at home. Amitabh Bachchan’s acting in Piku was phenomenal,” he says with a grin. His other daughter Swapna, a lawyer who practises in Mumbai, interrupts and tells her father to do whatever he pleases. “He worked hard all his life. He has ventured into a film purely because he is curious and wants to gain knowledge. It is time that he sits back and relaxes,” she says.
Kode has missed out on personal time with family and friends, he admits, but adds: “When it comes to serving the nation, no other commitment is bigger.”