The appeal from some quarters for clemency for Bollywood actor Sanjay Dutt, who has been sentenced to a five-year prison term by the Supreme Court for possessing an AK-56 assault rifle two decades ago, lacks moral force. It singles out an individual for favourable treatment solely on the basis of his popularity. If accepted, the demand would entrench the belief that the country has two parallel systems of justice — one for the privileged and another for the rest. The irony is that the Court itself chose wisely to avoid any hint of softness by refusing to countenance supervised probation as an alternative to imprisonment. The appeal indicates a selective realisation that punishment involves deprivation of liberty and agonising court appearances — something that tens of thousands of suspects go through. The case did go on for 20 long years but surely this is not unique, as many cases take as long or even longer. And instances of the apex court enhancing jail terms years after the trial is over or setting aside old acquittals are legion. It is unfortunate that the appeal should have found immediate resonance in both the Union and the Maharashtra governments, which have spoken about considering it.

A question has also been raised about the proportionality of a five-year jail term for merely possessing a weapon that was not used, and was unrelated to terrorism. There is sound jurisprudential basis for treating possession of an assault weapon as an offence serious enough to warrant a minimum prison term of five years. The Kalashnikov came through underworld gangs and was linked to the consignment of explosives used to perpetrate the Mumbai serial blasts, though Dutt may not have known that. The very fact that a deadly assault weapon lies unaccounted for in private hands puts society at risk because the chances of criminal elements accessing it later are high. That is why punishing mere possession is necessary to curb the use of such weapons. The appeals being made on behalf of Dutt unmask an innate tendency among the Indian upper classes to identify a worthy cause only in the plight of the privileged. That he has already suffered imprisonment for 18 months and that he is married and has children are conditions common to a large section of Indian convicts. Invoking his respectable parentage or his screen depiction of a kitschy version of Gandhian protest as reasons for pardon is amusing. While these are circumstances that the Governor, or the President, may consider when a mercy petition comes up, it is passing strange that public figures should be quicker in pointing them out than the one convicted. As Shakespeare says in Measure for Measure , “Lawful mercy is nothing kin to foul redemption.”