I say, Chaps, I’m not a Common Crook

When politicians like Mr P Sangma and Mr Vayalar Ravi complained that judicial activism was getting excessive, I shrugged it off as the ploy of vested interests. I had a similar reaction when businessmen began to complain about raids on corporates. But now I find many middle-class folk saying the authorities have been too harsh in the ITC case.

They say, ITC directors should not be treated like common criminals. They may have violated some regulations like FERA, but that is true of anybody who goes abroad and fails to surrender surplus foreign exchange on return. We have so many mindless rules, many of which have worked against the country’s development. Breaking such rules is not the same thing as robbery. So we must distinguish between common bandits and company directors. They should not be arrested indiscriminately and jailed without bail. Some milder form of treatment is required.

I am dismayed by the middle-class bias of this reaction. ITC directors are the sort that the upper middle-class rub shoulders with. Indeed, the highest aspiration of many middle-class people is to get to the top of a company like ITC. The middle-class has little sympathy for industrialists, but a lot for professional managers. This is true the world over—in most countries white-collar crime is regarded with more indulgence than blue-collar one.

I cannot agree. Carried, to its logical conclusion, the argument implies that:

  • It is dreadful for a man to steal a loaf of bread, but somewhat understandable for a manager to steal a million dollars.
  • The man who loots a village store should be locked up, but the manager who milks a company deserves preferential treatment.
  • An illiterate thug deserves harsh punishment, but we must make allowances for the chap who speaks with an Oxford accent.

This class bias has already been codified in our jail rules: they provide that college graduates will get more jail privileges and better food than the unlettered masses. The only saving grace I see in such discrimination is that, in our new era of corporate raids, it may induce sons of industrialists not to drop out of college, just in case.

The official justification for favouring graduates is apparently that blue-collar criminals have a low living standard anyway and so do not suffer so much when jailed, whereas elite law-breakers are used to a high living standard and so find jail much more painful. I find this argument amazing in a country where equality before the law is written into the Constitution. It reminds me of the savage sarcasm of Anatole France when he wrote, ‘The poverty of the poor is only to be expected, but the condition of the rich leaves much to be desired.’

If prison conditions are bad, let us improve them for all, but let us not have class distinctions or income distinctions. Otherwise we will end up using five-star hotels to provide accused politicians and businessmen with prison accommodation appropriate to their status.

I agree that there are extenuating circumstances for both professional managers and businessmen who have broken mindless regulations. In a milieu where crooked politicians refuse to let anything move without payment, the entire business class has been forced to become crooked too. Any businessman will tell you it was impossible in the bad old licence-permit raj (and even today, to a lesser extent) to survive without breaking laws, greasing palms and making black money. ‘If we break the law in order to build the nation’s industrial muscle?’ they say, ‘should we be treated as gangsters?’

There is something in the argument. But blue-collar criminals also have extenuating circumstances. One of them might say, ‘I was born on the streets of Delhi. I-never had any education, no chance to progress in life. I lived in the gutter not because I was stupid, but because of an accident of birth that placed me on the streets instead of the palatial houses of the rich. If I steal a little to feed my family, if I take a tiny fraction of the black money the gentry makes, is it really such a crime? Can those who have never known hunger understand the compulsions of the hungry?’

Or consider the plea of a Naxalite. ‘I found land ceiling laws being flouted with impunity by the landed gentry. They were all MLAs and zila parishad presidents. They had the local police station in their pocket. Their musclemen could kill and loot helpless peasants without fear. So I and my colleagues decided we would see some justice done. We have killed some of these blackguards and so made them more wary of behaving as though they were above the law. We have forced some landowners to give up surplus land to the landless. True, we have killed some policemen who may not have been guilty of anything. But when the other side can perpetrate so many wrongs, can break laws with impunity, can you really say we are the criminals?’

Many politicians in the hawala case may also plead extenuating circumstances. ‘I joined politics intending to promote the highest ethical standards. But I soon found this did not work. Those who extorted money and hired musclemen to capture booths won elections. Those who had neither money nor muscle were left behind. Fighting elections and managing a vast political machine costs hundreds of crores, yet our hypocritical system does not permit us legal means of financing these. So we are all obliged to make money and hire musclemen simply for political survival.’

Once we start listing extenuating circumstances, there is no end to them. This cannot be a reason for not arresting criminals. Nor can it be a reason for giving white-collar criminals preferential treatment. Besides, in practice, white-collar criminals end up getting far better treatment anyway. They magically fall ill when arrested, and spend their time in hospitals instead of jail (look at Mr K L Chugh and Mr J N Sapru). The death of Mr Rajan Pillai has been a godsend to all white-collar criminals – judges are now reluctant to ignore a manager or businessman who suddenly claims, after arrest, that he was at death’s door.

Meanwhile, many poor illiterates languish in jail as undertrials for years, because they cannot afford bail. Surely they deserve more sympathy than those speaking with an Oxford accent as they pull strings.

Extenuating circumstances should be taken into account by the courts at the time, of sentencing, but not by the police at the time of arrest. Judges should give lenient sentences where suitable. In Korea, another country where crooked politicians and businessmen are in the dock, two former presidents were sentenced to death, whereas the head of the Daewoo business empire got a suspended sentence. This is the sort of distinction that Indian courts could follow. In a totally corrupt society, politicians certainly have more to answer for than businessmen or managers. But this cannot be a reason to brush white-collar crimes under the carpet.

What do you think?