I have always enjoyed the company of thieves. I have known a few over the years, and some quite well. I met them usually in sessions court, which I covered for two years, 1995 and 1996, as a reporter. The city civil and sessions court, to give the thing its proper name, is next to Bombay University. It is a lovely structure built by the British in the colonial style (unfortunately it has an ugly appendage, an annexe built by Indians in the Indian style).
It contained around three dozen courts but no press room. This meant that reporters had to move from court to court through the day, to find out what was going on. Often the people to ask were those accused, who volunteered information, including about themselves. The reason I enjoyed their company is that they were inevitably interesting.
Thieves can get killed in India if caught. They approach their work with an intelligence which is unusual to find in Indians in the office. They have a sense of humour, and very often a sense of mischief. They tend to laugh off their luck, though that might have come to them with time. They spoke to me sometimes when waiting for relatives, who never came.
Prison diaries: Actor Sanjay Dutt (in white striped shirt) coming out of Pune’s Yerwada jail along with his lawyer, Satish Maneshinde, in 2007 after getting bail. Photo: Ritesh Uttamchandani / Hindustan Times
Eight of the sessions courts tried cases under the NDPS, which stood for Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, Act. The accused here had spent many years in jail. This was because of a very difficult “guilty unless proven innocent” bail clause inserted by Sunil Dutt, upset by his son’s early addiction. By the time they were out, many of the accused, mostly Nigerians, had outdated passports and were forced to stay back in India. I would see some of them near Kala Ghoda, where they were dealing again.
Every so often you would come across an accused person who was middle class.
One such man was Mohammed Jindran. He was Sanjay Dutt’s best friend in jail. Jindran was a chubby man with long, thinning hair. He spoke English well, and his language was gentle. His teeth were brown from the Marlboro Lights he shared with Dutt whom he shadowed around in the jail at Arthur Road, and in the court, which was attached to the jail.
I first met them one evening, around 6, when they were having dinner. I got no story at the courts and had strolled over to the jail to see if there was something to be found there.
The jail gates were shut but there were a dozen women, most wearing burqa, outside. They wanted to submit a note seeking permission for home food to be given to their husbands, or sons or brothers, who were undertrials and hadn’t got bail. The women didn’t write English and one of them asked if I did. Soon I was writing permission notes for all of them.
As I was finishing, a guard came out of the jail gate and, pointing to a dark window near the top of the facility, said the jailor wanted to see me. I followed him in and was taken to the jailor, a man called Hiremath, who asked what I was doing. I told him, and he softened. He volunteered to show me around. “Do you want to meet Sanjay Dutt?” he said. I said I did. Dutt was in the courtyard, sitting on the ground finishing his dinner, dal and roti, with Jindran and two others. We were introduced and chatted. As he was about to be put back, Dutt said he wanted to see me in court the following day. The next morning I waved to him and he handed me a sheaf of papers, written by at least three different people, in black, blue and red ink. The note was in Hindi, but he claimed to have written it. “Print this if you like,” he said, “it’s for my birthday.”
The letter was a theatrical howl of innocence (“hang me at the crossroads if I’m guilty”, etc.). It was poorly written but excellent reading material. The paper was delighted to run the story on his 37th birthday, 29 July, which was the next day.
Jindran also wanted his letter published but I told him the newspaper wouldn’t be interested. He had expected the answer and did not mind.
He was arrested, he told me, after finding sacks of the explosive RDX in one of his godowns. He said some workers had brought it in. When he found out, he tried to dump it in a creek, and was caught. In the months that I met him he was always optimistic, and confident of being freed.
On 29 June 1998, Jindran was killed in Khar, shot after he got bail. The police thought Chhota Rajan had had him killed for his role in what was Dawood’s plan.
One afternoon I went past what seemed an empty court when I stopped and came back. I noticed some very senior lawyers, though no big case was on the board.
A thin, shy young man was sitting alone before the judge, on the benches a few rows back. I slid in next to him and asked what the case was about. “Murder,” he said. Who’s the accused? I whispered. “Me,” he said. He was a Rajasthani man, a servant in a Ghatkopar house, who had not been paid by his master in three months. He demanded to be given his money, and was slapped. Then? That night he cut the man’s throat with a kitchen knife as he slept. Then? He stole what was due to him and ran home to Rajasthan, where the police picked him up after a few weeks. Then? He was in Arthur Road jail for a couple of years, where he became good friends with Kashi Pashi, a senior man in Chhota Rajan’s gang. Then? When my trial came, he arranged for them, he said, waving at advocate Sudeep Pasbola and his associates.
He was acquitted.
Another time, Iqbal Mirchi’s lawyer Shyam Keswani strolled up to me and asked if I was a reporter. I said I was. He handed me a chargesheet and asked if I could report it. It was a 200-page document, armed with which a government of India team was being sent to extradite Mirchi from London. It was a narcotics case, and I spent the night reading it to learn there was no mention of Mirchi anywhere except for the very last page where it was written: “Also wanted in the case, one Iqbal Memon alias Mirchi.” I reported what a half-baked case it was.
Sure enough, the Bow Street magistrates’ court laughed off the Indians. I’m not sure if the report helped but justice, of a sort, was done. Keswani came to me and said he wanted to present me with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label, but thankfully he forgot.
Sessions court also had a Tada (‘anti-terrorist’) court, headed by a judge called Pramod Kode. He was from a modest background. One public prosecutor, Shafi Shaikh, told me he had once seen Kode use public transport, the second-class coach of a local train.
Judge Kode chewed paan, had a deep Marathi accent and a kind voice. I liked him immediately. Kode began questions with the word “whether” and rounded them off at the end: “Whether accused was present at the location?”
I began reporting from his court, and he must have noticed my scribbling. At lunch break one afternoon his sheristadar, as court clerks are called, said the judge wanted to see me.
I introduced myself and we chatted. I hesitate to say we were friends, we were not, but he was friendly and we spoke regularly. One day Arun Gawli was to be brought to the court and there was lots of security. Judge Kode summoned me to his chambers. “How’s it outside?” he asked. “Menacing,” I said. He laughed.
One morning in his chambers he asked what I was paid. I told him and he must have been appalled, for reporters were then paid little. After a moment he said, “Still, you must save and buy books.” I said I would.
The following year, March 1996, he left sessions court. He was made special judge and given full-time the most important trial in India, the Tada court trying the Bombay Bomb Blasts at Arthur Road, after Judge Patel was elevated. That was the last time I met Judge Kode.
Four years later, February 2000, I took a job as newspaper editor. On my first night at work, my assistant said an anonymous man was on the telephone, waiting to congratulate me. It was Judge Kode, who had kept track of my career, and we laughed at my stroke of fortune.
He went on to conclude the blasts trial, convicting Sanjay Dutt. He is today Justice Pramod Dattaram Kode of the Bombay high court, and I hope he makes it to the Supreme Court.
Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.
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