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Justice catches up with Indian movie star

Some see Sanjay Dutt's sentence as vindication of the system; others say culprits in the 1993 riots are still free.

August 11, 2007|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

MUMBAI, INDIA — It's hard to miss Sanjay Dutt's famously grizzled face on the Indian landscape.

One of the country's most popular movie stars, Dutt's hound-dog looks adorn billboards and the backs of city buses, plugging products from steel beams to underwear. At 48, he has made more than 100 movies, with another on the way next month, and his evolution from Bollywood wayward son to lovable middle-aged rogue has made him a staple of India's celebrity-obsessed newspapers and TV shows.

There is only one discordant note in this typical symphony of modern media saturation.

Dutt is now in prison.

And not for a transgression of the Paris Hilton, "I forgot my license was suspended" variety, either. The Indian actor was recently sentenced to six years of "rigorous imprisonment" for possessing illegal weapons, acquired from Muslim friends in the Mumbai underworld around the time they are believed to have been plotting a series of coordinated bomb attacks in 1993 that killed 257 people.

The fairness of his fate has since been a main topic of conversation in India.

Far too harsh a sentence, said many of his fans and his pals here in the commercial capital and center of the Hindi film industry. There was talk of petitions, and entertainment figures were reportedly planning pro-Sanjay parties until it appeared that an organized campaign by celebrities might be counterproductive.

Any such effort to win his freedom would "shake the confidence of the common man in the judiciary," said state prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam, accusing Indian television news programs of "romanticizing" a criminal in their coverage of the case. Nikam had asked the court for a harsher, 10-year sentence, though much of India's legal establishment seemed content to purr that Dutt's conviction was refreshing proof that justice could resist the seduction of celebrity.

The media showed no such restraint, exploring such crucial details as whether Dutt could handle prison food and what prison job would best suit him.

But many here worry that the media frenzy over Dutt is drowning out a more serious challenge to India's justice system: the government's refusal to prosecute all those responsible for the Muslim-Hindu violence that racked Mumbai, then known as Bombay, in the early 1990s.

The trigger was the destruction of the 16th century Babri Mosque in northern India by Hindu nationalists in December 1992, which led to rioting in several parts of India, including Mumbai, where as many as 900 people, mostly Muslims, were killed. The bombings came in March 1993, apparently as retaliation by the Muslim underworld, leaving sectarian strains lingering over this metropolis of 18 million people.

A subsequent public inquiry blamed a host of leading Hindu politicians and policemen for stoking the violence. But most have never been prosecuted, and many remain in positions of power.

"The Dutt case is just a distraction, a trivialization," said Bollywood director and producer Mahesh Bhatt. "The issue is not whether there is such a thing as celebrity justice. The question is what are we going to do about the real injustices that were done here, especially to the Muslim community."

Dutt's sentencing has, at least, brought the issue of responsibility for the Mumbai riots back to the surface. His supporters say he was merely a cameo player in a much larger drama. The popular consensus seemed to be that although he may have been guilty on the weapons charge, the 14-year lapse between crime and punishment has been ordeal enough.

"All India has accepted him," said Bipin Kumar Vohra, chairman of the SPS Group that uses Dutt in its national ads to promote its steel construction beams. "We were worried at first. But then we saw the whole nation stand beside him. People were putting garlands [of flowers] around his photo on the bus ads."

In the spasm of sectarian rioting after the mosque demolition, Dutt's late father, Sunil, a politician, joined those trying to stanch the violence and help victims. A Hindu, the senior Dutt was a former actor who married Bollywood legend Nargis, a Muslim. He was a prominent critic of religious extremists and Hindu radicals had threatened to kill him and his family.

At the same time, the younger Dutt accumulated his illegal arsenal, tapping his contacts in the Mumbai underworld just months before those same gangsters allegedly sent car and bicycle bombs to blow up landmarks in the financial district. (Those suspected of being the main organizers fled India and are believed to be in Pakistan.)

India's special anti-terrorism court never accepted his excuse that he needed the weapons to defend his family. The illegal arsenal included hand grenades, a 9-millimeter pistol and, at one point, three assault rifles.

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