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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

(Published in, on 30 November, 2011, retrieved from

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Soon after 2G accused Kanimozhi was granted bail, someone posed a rather ridiculous question to her father and DMK patriarch Karunanidhi – would his daughter be given a meatier post, in recognition of her jail time? And the octogenarian came up with an even more bizarre response – that he was no autocrat, and the party would decide.
Huh?! So, someone who’s spent 193 days in jail, on charges of abusing her influential position, and who’s been denied bail on the grounds that she may pull strings, may be elevated to a higher rank in recognition of her behind-the-bars time?
Perhaps because of our struggle for Independence, which turned many of our freedom fighters – including Jawaharlal Nehru – into prolific writers, motivating the public from their cells, there is a certain sense of heroism associated with being herded off to jail.
And now, it appears it matters very little what the means to the end are. Once you’ve been in jail, and come out, a little thinner and a little larger, you deserve to be honoured, to be rewarded for the feat of surviving mosquitoes, summers, winters and non-gourmet meals.
It’s been just over a decade since Karunanidhi himself was carted off to jail on television – and how. A camera in his bedroom – yes, it makes one shudder every time, doesn’t it? – happened to switch on as police stormed the room, Karunanidhi’s partner and Kanimozhi’s mother Rajathi Ammal screamed as she rushed to find a stole to throw over her nightie, and the Kollywood-scriptwriter-turned-politician howled that he was being murdered. The next time elections were held, in 2006, the video was used extensively for propaganda, and Jayalalithaa was shunted out of power.
However, the sanctifying effect of a jail term, however short, was best illustrated earlier this year, when the government goofed up by arresting Anna Hazare. A Gandhian, even more Gandhian in fact than Gandhi himself – never married, no progeny, soldier-turned-activist – fasting in jail, refusing to leave even after being released, protesting against his unjust arrest, gave hungry television cameras the perfect start to a perfect drama. The smiling man at the centre of all the fury had the nation swooning in feverish support of a Bill most hadn’t read, and far fewer had understood. It was an excellent marketing strategy, with a transparent booby trap the Centre obligingly stepped into.
Don’t get me wrong – there’s no comparison between the uncalled-for, preventive arrest of a man who had set out to start a peaceful hunger strike, and the much-delayed arrest of a woman accused of criminal conspiracy, forgery, accepting a bribe, abetting bribery, and conspiring to cause breach of trust by a public servant.
Hazare’s imprisonment came close enough, especially seen through the rather hyperbolic lens of media focus, to detentions of national leaders seven decades ago.  
Kanimozhi’s court appearances were marked by sympathy from a judge who spoke of her dignified demeanour, of appeals for her release on the grounds of being a woman, mother, poet, and well, less-accused-than-the-other-accused. But it was quite clear that the arrest, coming nearly four months after that of Raja, was warranted.
Yet, there’s a thread of similarity in their release from jail – plates of sweets being passed around, a sense of justice served at last, and expectation of reward.
Shouldn’t we learn to separate activists from criminals, people fighting for a cause from people subverting norms? While the difference seems quite clear in the minds of the public, and understandably blurred in those of the politicians involved, it’s rather disturbing when a press conference churns out a question about Kanimozhi being rewarded, and the answer makes it clear that the question was anticipated.
It reminds one of an even more troubling appeal a few weeks ago – for the commutation of the death sentence against the accused in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. So what if one of the convicts has written a book in jail? Does that undo the horrific crime he was convicted of? And do decades spent in jail, and the trauma of wondering whether one will live or die, even out the cold-blooded killing of a politician, leave alone that of tens of curious citizens who had come to hear a political speech?
We may be a land where prospective heroes were once jailed; but the hallowing effect of a jail term is outdated. Criminals and terrorists cannot and should not be hailed for serving jail time.


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