As the news of six convictions – and one acquittal – in the 1993 Mumbai blasts which changed India forever broke last Friday morning, my mind raced back to that day in September 2013 when the city was abuzz with the news of a programme to be held at Pune’s Balgandharva Rang Mandir.
Abu Salem and five others were convicted by the Mumbai special court on Friday, but only five days earlier a division bench of the Bombay High Court had heard a PIL by a former convict about another prisoner who had been incarcerated in Yerawada jail from 2013-2016.
Prisoner Number 16656 had been sentenced to five years in jail for possession of arms that were used in the 1993 Mumbai blasts. He was released eight months early for good behavior. Pradeep Bhalekar, the former convict-turned-activist wanted to know why that prisoner had been let off. The judges, SS Jadhav and RM Savant, gave the government pleader three weeks to reply.
Prisoner Number 16656’s name is Sanjay Dutt, Bollywood hero and the son of cinema icons Nargis and Sunil Dutt.
That morning in September 2013, I remembered how Yerawada jail hummed with excitement. The reason for the cheer was a two-hour show being put up by Yerawada’s inmates to raise funds for jail staff and their families. The sets and direction had been done by Pune’s acclaimed film maker Rahul Solapurkar and none other than ‘Munnabhai’ director Rajkumar Hirani had visited the prison to oversee the final rehearsals.
The show was to be attended by the erstwhile chief minister Prithiviraj Chavan and Home Minister R R Patil.
And yes, Sanjay Dutt, Yerawada’s star prisoner, was also participating in the programme. Little wonder then that the show, with donation passes priced at Rs 1000, was completely sold out.
But just a few hours before the curtain was to go up, the show was abruptly canceled. Security concerns were cited, but officials remained tight-lipped. A couple of days thereafter, the ticket money was also refunded. The show was later held within the walls of the high-security prison.
Close to four years after the incident it has now emerged that the security concerns were more serious than many imagined. Jail sources say they had information that members of an organised crime syndicate had decided to serve breakfast to the prisoners taking part in the show, and through that gain access to Sanjay Dutt.
“We had no idea what the intention of the gang was and so we could not take a chance,” a source told this reporter.
But another controversy, regarding preferential treatment given to the actor through the 34 months he spent in jail, refuses to go away. The jail authorities gave Dutt a hundred days of parole and furlough as well as an additional eight months off for “good conduct,” but even the High Court now wants to know why.
Meanwhile, the authorities have had to grapple with a relentless barrage of queries.
Q: What was his diet?
Jail: Same as other prisoners.
Q: Did he get extra amenities?
Q: Did he get extra allowance?
Q: What did he do with his allowance ?
Jail: Buy a lot of bidis.
Q: What work did he do?
Jail: Make paper bags.
Q: Did he autograph the bags?
Jail: A nonplussed No !
Under pressure, jail authorities are preparing a year-on-year report on the number of days he was given off on parole. This has been broken down to 7 days a month for good conduct, besides one month per year for the same.
“Every time the actor was granted furlough or parole it made headlines. More attention was paid to the 100 days he was away from the prison than the 1000-odd days he spent behind bars,” said an officer, pointing out that the media spotlight ensured that there was no way he could have got special treatment.
Even murderers and serial killers are entitled to and get parole, the officer said, so why was Dutt’s time spent at home regarded as unusual?
In fact, Dutt wasn’t given even extra day that the jail superintendent or DIG or IG are entitled to give prisoners.
Jail sources said they are prepared to defend Dutt’s good conduct – adherence to discipline, not getting into disputes with any other prisoners or jail authorities and volunteering to do extra activities, like counselling other prisoners through the jail radio and lending his voice for a play put up by them.
Will this help resolve the matter? Not sure. But one thing is certain. Yerawada jail is looking forward to relinquishing its reluctantly acquired celebrity status that was thrust upon it in 2013. The extraordinary media attention and the fan frenzy has been debilitating.
They would happily close their books on prisoner number 16656. They are hoping they will be allowed to.