By B. Raman
An innumerable number of people —-many of them loyal admirers of Barkha Dutt, India’s famous TV icon, and others not necessarily so— watched with a mixture of emotions a TV show under the “We The People” series of Barkha on NDTV on the night of July 3,2011.
The show, aired at the usual time of 8-9 PM on a Sunday, clashed with the Wimbledon final in London. Despite this, as one could see from the comments in the Twitter world, many chose to forego watching live the Wimbledon final and instead watched Barkha’s show, which posed the excruciating question: ‘Has a tragedy turned into a tamasha, pushing justice on the backseat?’
As I watched the show, my mind went back to the late 1950s when I was a 22-year-old journalist working as a Sub-editor in the Madurai edition of the “Indian Express”. There was no TV those days. We had to depend on the print media, Radio Ceylon and All India Radio for the daily news.
Thousands and thousands of people not only in India, but also in the neighbouring countries followed the proceedings of the trial of a very handsome and very dashing middle-level Indian naval officer by name Kawas Manekshaw Nanavati who killed the businessman lover of his wife.
During Nanavati’s spells of long absence from home when he went out on duty in the seas, his wife, feeling lonely, developed an intimate personal relationship with a businessman. On finding this out, Nanavati approached the businessman and asked him whether he would marry his wife. When he said no, Nanavati killed him.
It was a pre-meditated murder— and not one committed in the heat of the moment due to a sudden outburst of anger. The tragic outcome of what one used to call the “Love Triangle”—-two men or women developing a relationship—not necessarily love— with the same person and its tragic denouement.
The Second World War, when thousands and thousands of men had to go to the battle front leaving their wives and girl friends alone, saw many instances of such “Love Triangle”. Many movies that came out of Hollywood after the war, had the “Love Triangle” as the theme.
In the Nanavati case, the public sentiment was considerably —if not overwhelmingly— in moral support of Nanavati despite the evidence that he had committed the pre-meditated murder of his wife’s lover. Public sentiment saw justification in the anger of Nanavati against his wife’s lover and in his decision to kill. Because of this public sentiment, the whole judicial process in this last trial by jury in India got distorted and it was with great difficulty that the judiciary could ensure that justice was done to the relatives of the lover.
In the Nanavati case, the issue was very simple— should public sentiment be allowed to influence a judicial process. The answer was equally simple—No.
Since 2008, India has been witnessing the judicial sequel to another tragedy, which was also the outcome of a suspected Love Triangle. It involved the emotional relationship of two men with a woman. The two men were Jerome, a naval officer, and Neeraj Grover, a TV production executive, and the woman is Maria, a budding actress.
The Love Triangle culminated in the alleged gruesome murder of Neeraj by Jerome, who was assisted after he had committed the murder, by Maria in disposing off the dead body of Neeraj in an unimaginably cold-blooded manner by cutting it painstakingly into pieces.
The issues involved in this case were not as simple as in the case of Nanavati. Was the murder pre-meditated or committed in the heat of the moment during a quarrel between Jerome and Neeraj? Was Maria equally guilty as an accomplice to the murder by cold-bloodedly assisting Jerome in cutting and disposing off the dead body of Neeraj, who was apparently as much her friend as Jerome was?
Probably, as a result of a weak prosecution presentation of the facts and circumstances of the case, which did not adequately highlight the cold-bloodedness of the actions of Jerome and Maria, the judge came to the conclusion that the important ingredient of intention to kill, which is necessary in a murder case, was not present. Hence, he held Jerome guilty of only culpable homicide not amounting to murder and sentenced him to 10 years of imprisonment. He did not treat Maria as an after-the-act accomplice to a murder and merely held her guilty of participating in the destruction of evidence relating to an act of crime. He sentenced her to three years’ imprisonment. She has already completed this and come out of jail.
Growing sections of public opinion have been either confused or shocked by this judgement. Many feel that the cold-bloodedness and gruesomeness of the conduct of Jerome and Maria after Neeraj had been killed did not entitle them to any leniency on the ground that the fact that the murder was committed in the heat of the moment during a quarrel over the affections of a woman provided a mitigating circumstance.
If Jerome had stopped after Neeraj had died, the argument of a mitigating circumstance might have held valid. But, his gruesome actions, supported by Maria, after he had allegedly murdered Neeraj should have normally denied him the benefit of the argument of a “mitigating circumstance.”
Public perceptions of an unjustified lenient interpretation of the facts and circumstances of the case have resulted in considerable moral support for the parents of Neeraj—who, in the eyes of many, have suffered a double tragedy, first when their son was murdered cruelly and again when justice was allegedly not done to the memory of their son.
The case will now go in appeal to a higher court. One has to await its judgement. The projection of the implications of this case in a TV debate by Barkha has added to her reputation as a fearless TV journo, who does not hesitate to take up for debate the most controversial of the controversial issues in order to add to the awareness of the public.
It required great courage to have had a televised debate on this issue so soon after the judgement when one is not clear in one’s mind about the flow of public sentiments. She had shown that courage. Her show was marked by tremendous home work and research which enabled her to cover in less than 60 minutes the welter of issues involved—the tragedy of the parents, the gross injustice to them, how to correct it, the poor prosecution, the distasteful conduct of the defence lawyer, the inappropriateness of a film being produced on the tragedy and the comparison with the Nanavati case. The entire debate was marked by the right sense of pathos and the right measure of dignity. Never once did she allow the debate to deviate from this path of dignity. She kept the focus throughout on the tragedy of the parents and the need to do them justice.
Barkha has always had her critics. She will have busloads of them in this case too. There are bound to be snide remarks from them regarding what they consider to be her motive in organising this televised debate. Such snide remarks are an occupational hazard in this profession.
This article first appeared in the Sri Lanka Guardian and is reprinted with permission