The death of Jessica Lal at the turn of the century gave birth to the New Age Protestor in India. For the first time since Independence, a crime forced the middle class to come out of their comfortable homes and converge on the India Gate—the new battleground of the national conscience. When political scion Manu Sharma—who shot Jessica—was initially acquitted, thousands marched to the India Gate with candles, chanting ‘Justice for Jessica’.
The media took up the refrain; even though the age of the social media had not dawned. The judgment provoked nationwide uproar. Subsequently, the Delhi High Court sent Manu to jail. The template of mass influence was set, and applied in later cases like the Katara Murder, the Uphaar incident and the Nirbhaya case. India gave Jessica the justice she deserved. Today, almost two decades after her death, her sister Sabrina Lal has forgiven Manu to attain closure.
Jessica was my friend, and is frozen forever in my memory as a stunning girl with mischievous eyes, a belly laugh and perfect dress sense. She was incapable of bearing grudges, and her sister’s pardon will be a fitting epitaph. Yet, Sabrina’s absolution goes beyond the murder of a party girl. The dark irony is that Manu is as much a victim of the times as Jess was. He was the son of a powerful politician, as was Vikas Yadav, son of the don-turned-leader DP Yadav.
A new class of politician had arrived, who did not respect the law and treated it like chattel. Witnesses turning up dead or hostile, police bungling FIRs and fake ballistic reports became the new normal. The nouveau leaders and their progeny, escorted by gun-toting private bodyguards, armed police escorts and red light-topped SUVs, had discovered the middle class’s playground. Guns were fired in restaurants, bars, discotheques and criminals shot reporters dead.
Manu was a product of this age, a victim of his own hubris in a system that protected powerful persons who broke the law or even committed murder. They also formed a new creme de la creme. Nitish Katara was reportedly killed for his affair with Vikas’s sister, Bharti. The Yadavs disapproved of the relationship: laughable if it wasn’t so cruelly real—an educated middle class boy exterminated because he was beneath their social status! Such was their clout that Vikas was granted bail 66 times in his first two years in jail, often without any clear reason given. A new privileged class had emerged in India, whose paramount values were determined by criminal wealth, political clout and massive Star Wars mansions with furniture and gadgets that would have made old money cringe.
But how did it matter? They had arrived and India was theirs. Sabrina has forgiven Manu but the real delinquent is the system that transformed Manu and Vikas into gangsters and killers, possessing the arrogance and muscle to put a bullet in the head of the law and walk away laughing, leaving a trail of blood, fear and corruption behind. As such cases grow in number, exposing the nexus between politics and crime—Unnao, Kathua, Gauri Lankesh, et al—it is important that India cannot and should not forgive the dark social order that created and perpetuates a political mafia that fearlessly thrives on a servile and conspiratorial eco system, thereby undermining the very foundations of decency and democracy.