This is a tale of two accidents. Or rather, the tale of two drivers.
On 29 April, Sonika Singh Chauhan was killed late at night when the car she was in lost control and smashed into a lamppost and a jewellery shop. The driver of the car was her friend, the actor, Vikram Chatterjee.
Chatterjee survived with minor injuries. Chauhan died. Chatterjee has admitted he was drinking that night but denied he was drunk. He has said he might have been driving at 60-70 kmph though police say the car's Event Data Recorder suggests it was more like 95-105 kmph. Chatterjee, his head bandaged, surrounded by personal bouncers, surrendered before a court on 5 May and got bail immediately on a personal bond of ₹1,000. The only condition imposed on him was that he cooperate with the investigating officers. The public prosecutor did not object to the bail.
Earlier this year, on 7 March, there was another fatal road accident in Bengal which also made headlines. Famous folk singer Kalika Prasad Bhattacharya was travelling on the Durgapur Highway with his band. His car went out of control as well and crashed. Several of the people in the car were injured. Bhattacharya died. The driver of the car, Arnab Rao, was arrested from his aunt's house on March 12. He admitted the accident was caused by speeding. He has not been accused of driving under the influence of alcohol. He was denied bail. He has languished in jail since then. Ironically, it is the Vikram Chatterjee case that finally drove home the inequity to his family.
The grossness of the disparity between the rich and powerful and the poor is not a secret. There is nothing new about what the haves have and what the have-nots have not. But the two accidents underscored the two systems at work, the two sets of rules. Rao's mother Karabi Ghosh tells ABP Ananda, "See the poor do not get justice. Because we are poor should my son get a different legal treatment?" His lawyer said he would bring up Chatterjee's case in pleading for bail for his client.
Technically the difference between them is simply a letter.
Rao was charged under Section 304 of the IPC or culpable homicide not amounting to murder. Chatterjee was charged under Section 304A or death due to rash driving. If 304A was made punishable more than seven years, it would automatically become non-bailable and the offended would have to go to court to seek bail. 304A currently carries a maximum punishment of two years in jail. Thus Chatterjee surrendered and walked free on bail. 304 comes with a maximum punishment of ten years and thus Rao was thrown into jail.
One silver lining of these horrible tragedies is it forced the legal system to take notice of this inequity. Arnab Rao was finally granted bail.
Rao was charged under Section 304 of the IPC or culpable homicide not amounting to murder. Chatterjee was charged under Section 304A or death due to rash driving
Justice Ashim Kumar Roy said Rao should have been charged with 304A not 304. "Moreover, there is no possibility of him tampering with the evidence if he is released on bail," Roy said. "So, this court is granting the petitioner bail."
This is not surprising or unique to India. The rich have clout and bend the poor to their will. When a superstar like Salman Khan is involved in a hit-and-run, it's his driver who shows up in court to take the blame. That is the way the system operates and we shrug and largely accept it.
The rich have access to connections to high-placed politicians and powerful lawyers. Pictures have emerged of Chatterjee's father playing carrom in the police station, while the police were interrogating his son. The poor only have access to overworked public defenders. Rao's mother has no idea about the difference between 304 and 304A — or how a letter can change one's fate. She just knows the police came and told her not to worry, they needed to take her son to the station to record a statement and that was the last she saw of him. Chatterjee's family might not have known the difference between 304 and 304A as well, but they had an advantage Rao did not. They had a rolodex that mattered and that meant he would be treated with kid gloves by the system.
Rao's mother has no idea about the difference between 304 and 304A — or how a letter can change one's fate
At least, in this case, the victim was a well-known model, not a hapless pavement dweller. The victim's family has some clout as well and is not entirely without resources to be fobbed off with threats or money. Chauhan's mother has lobbed pointed questions at both Chatterjee, the police and the investigative authorities about a cover-up and asked whether due procedures were followed.
In the end that's what it's all about — due process. The rich and powerful will always have more clout and access to better lawyers. Most of us reading this are privileged enough to want that better lawyer if we faced a similar predicament. But if we are a nation of laws, at least everyone should be subject to the same due process. It took one tragic accident to underscore that basic point. But at least it's been made. The price tag, however, was slightly different, and also the lengths of time each had to spend in jail.
Rao was asked to furnish a bail bond of ₹20,000. That's probably more than two months salary for a driver in Kolkata. Chatterjee had to cough up ₹1000, the price of two or three cocktails at a ritzy hotel in Kolkata. But at least Rao was finally able to go home.
Of course, both should have to pay for their actions if found guilty. Let us see what happens next, but this tale of two drivers is shaping up to become a tale of our two Indias.
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