In the early 1990s, following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, the ugly grip of communal hatred was felt across the country. Mumbai, the financial capital known for its cosmopolitan nature, was hardly insulated. In the afternoon of March 12, 1993, a series of 12 bomb explosions tore through the most iconic parts of Mumbai, leaving the Maximum City scarred forever.
Soon, actor Sanjay Dutt, who was by then a popular face with many hits over the past decade, was named an accused in the case under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) for accepting weapons from Abu Salem, who had been implicated in relation to the Mumbai blasts. This was just weeks before the launch of his blockbuster hit Khalnayak.
For the next two decades, the case against Sanjay Dutt dragged on, with him being put behind bars on several occasions and for months on end. It was the period in the immediate aftermath of his arrest in 1993, however, that was most defining, both for him and his family. His acting career came to a complete halt for the next four years.
In her book, “Mr and Mrs Dutt — Memories of our parents,” Dutt’s sister, Namrata Dutt, chronicled the painful times the family went through. The book quoted Dutt’s father, Sunil Dutt as having remarked soon after his arrest, “How can I sleep when I know my son is in the same city, a few miles away from me, lying on a cold stone floor?”
By the 1990s, actor Sunil Dutt was a top Congress leader. At the time of the Bombay riots and the subsequent arrest of his son, Dutt faced stiff opposition from his party’s chief minister Sharad Pawar. When Sanjay Dutt was arrested, the frictions between Sunil Dutt and his party became more pronounced with the entire party distancing itself from him.
Maharashtra at this point in time, was a stronghold of the Congress party that had ruled over it for decades since Independence. But the political colour of the state was experiencing a new flavour with the rise of Bal Thackeray’s Shiv Sena in collaboration with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the deep-rooted Hindutva ideology that they were propagating. It is noteworthy that the Sena, that was strongly protesting against the Bombay blasts, had been running a campaign in the party’s mouthpiece, Saamna, against Sanjay Dutt’s alleged criminal activities.
However, a surprising turn of events occurred when Thackeray, at a party meeting in Shivaji Park announced that Dutt was innocent. Not only did it come as a surprise to the BJP, but is laos shocked members of his own party. Reportedly, in 1995 an alienated and helpless Sunil Dutt reached out to the then governing party leader Bal Thackeray for the sake of releasing his son. Later, in an interview to journalist Rajat Sharma in the television show Aap Ki Adalat, Sunil Dutt was asked why he chose to reach out to the Sena chief even though he had opposed him in the past. “At that time the Sena was in power and Bal Thackeray used to often say that the key to the government is in my hands. Naturally anyone will reach out to the person who has the key to the government.” said Dutt. “If my son has a political problem, I will take him to a politician,” he added.
With the intervention of Bal Thackeray, Sanjay Dutt was released in 1995 after having spent 18 months in prison. It is reported that soon after his release, his first stop was at the residence of Bal Thackeray. Dutt has since then never shied away from proclaiming his gratitude towards the former Sena chief. In November 2012, when Thackeray was in a critical condition right before passing away, a distraught Sanjay Dutt was quoted by the Times of India as having said that “Balasaheb is a father figure to me. He stood by me at a time when no one else came forward to support me.”
After Sanjay Dutt’s release, Sunil Dutt refrained from contesting Lok Sabha elections against the Sena. However, he repeatedly made clear in interviews that his reasoning for staying away from elections was his opposition to the Congress leadership.