The Examined Life

Where I torture reality till it confesses the truth

A Tale of Love and Heartbreak

I don’t know how many remember the story of Syed Modi, who was murdered in 1988. He was a star badminton player who had fallen in love and married Amita (Ameeta?) Kulkarni, also a badminton player. He was shot dead in Lucknow while returning from practice.

Suspicion fell on his widow and on Dr Sanjay Singh, then sports minister of UP. The allegation was that they were having an affair. The case ended up with the CBI.

As it happens Sanjay Singh is a relative of the late VP Singh, who, at that time, was leading the fight against the Rajiv Gandhi government over corruption and misgovernance. Sanjay Singh is also the “Raja” of Amethi. It was the height of the Bofors scandal – a few newspapers, notably N Ram’s Hindu and Arun Shourie’s Indian Express were courageously exposing the bribery. I had just started reading newspapers, was following the various scandals with avid interest and virtually hero-worshipping Shourie.

Arun Shourie decided that the CBI investigation into the murder was intended to persecute Sanjay Singh, and mounted a full-scale defence of Amita Modi and Singh. Looking back, it is incredible how much of it I swallowed. I don’t remember the specifics, but a few things stand out. The CBI had found Amita Modi’s diary, where she had written about the conflict she felt in choosing between “S1″ and “S2″. It should have been obvious even to a stupid 14 year old what S1 and S2 were, but I bought the Indian Express version where it quoted Rani Jethmalani (Ram Jethmalani and his daughter were fighting on behalf of the defence) to say that the diary just reflected Amita’s disturbed mind and nothing else. The Indian Express also went to Amethi where they interviewed the people there. They were quoted as saying that while it was imaginable that their Raja would do a bit of womanizing, they couldn’t believe that he’d committed the murder. Garima Singh, the then wife of Sanjay, stood behind her husband.

Eventually, the case came to trial in 1990, by which time VP Singh was the prime minister. The CBI had weakened the case sufficiently that Amit and Sanjay were acquitted.

I forgot all about the case till I read a small news item tucked away somewhere, to the effect that Sanjay had married Amita. By then, VP Singh had gone from being the darling of the middle-class, the crusader against corruption, to its most hated symbol, with his Mandal agenda. Arun Shourie had gone from campaigning vehemently for VP Singh to fighting him. I don’t think he has ever mentioned the Syed Modi murder ever since VP Singh became Prime Minister. But the news of the wedding made me feel profoundly stupid. It’s difficult to believe now, but at that time, I had honestly thought that even their supposed affair was a story concocted by the CBI as part of its witch-hunt. (That is how the mind rationalizes. I suppose I could have believed that they did have an affair, but did not commit the murder. But then, how could it be a with-hunt to investigate the suspicion?)

So, quite clearly, Shourie had been perfectly willing to lead his newspaper on a campaign to subvert justice even as it was fighting the government on corruption. I am sure he did it with the highest of motives – I think he thought that getting the Rajiv Gandhi government out was then the highest national interest. But something didn’t seem right.

Of course, Sanjay Singh then had a fairly typical political career for a UP politician. He switched parties a few times. He was with the BJP for a few years before finally landing up with the Congress. Now, he and his wife are the feudatories of the current royal family.

The story faded to a dim memory for me, but I suppose the lesson has always stayed with me. It accounts for my cynicism over the Lok Pal and the concept of “Persons of unimpeachable integrity”. It accounts for my scepticism over the idea that the dynasty represents everything that is wrong with the country, or that if only the country rediscovered its Hindu soul, we would be great. It accounts for my discomfort with idolizing or demonizing (Narendra) Modi. In general, I am sceptical of any solution that relies on people’s character rather than structures and incentives.

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9 Comments

  1. Liked the post.
    I had bought the CBI’s story back then and it was like a typical Bollywood film story for me. In fact, Syed Modi was the first Badminton player I came to know about – rather than Prakash Padukone!
    Interesting coincidence that I read this just after reading Ameeta Singh’s declaration of assets owned by her and her husband as part of the affidavit submitted – this was published in today’s Indian Express.

  2. All this is right and ok.

    But I don’t see why the existence of the affair and the existence of a witch hunt are contradictory.

    Plus, let’s say that Shourie/team decided first that this was a CBI witch hunt without properly investigating and painted an unbalanced view. This is also just as likely to be the result of an ideological blinder (‘CBI has always been a tool of political oppression – an affair does not naturally lead to a murder’) as opposed to cynical realpolitik (‘Sanjay must have eliminated Syed, but let’s exonerate him anyway on account of unbalancing Rajiv Gandhi’).

    Of course none of this really matters.

  3. Good enough, but if you are not going to rely on people’s character, pray do tell, how will institutions or structures help. After all they are staffed by people themselves.

    Incentives are not a cure either, it is a tool, and as with any tool, it will be used as per the whims and fancies of the ‘people’. Example: witness the role played by incentives in the global economic crisis of 2008.

    Obviously, this argument fails, if Skynet is up and running; but then we might run into a case of ‘benevolent dictatorship’.

    However much we might dislike it, and whatever we do, virtues and morals and ethics and yes character are the things which ensure the continued existence of justice, equality and freedom.

    Mike.

  4. It accounts for my scepticism over the idea that the dynasty represents everything that is wrong with the country

    Isn’t that a strawman?

    or that if only the country rediscovered its Hindu soul, we would be great.

    First a couple of comments on this : (1) a lot of the argument in this regard is actually made using “structures and incentives”, using “Swami(monk)”-type theories on satisfaction in life. Of course, I do see that you have a different “Steve Jobs”-ish theory of self-satisfaction, and I had sort of concurred with you, though that is beside the point. (2) While this point of yours is not entirely strawman, relatively few people insist on rediscovery of Hindu soul as a necessary and sufficient criterion for greatness; at least this sort of mentality is not disruptive in Indian society by any means, and no more depleting of productivity than say, cricket or bollywood (your favorite candidate bases for Indian nationalism).

    More importantly : I notice that just like left-liberals you are more interested in bashing Hindu misconceptions and Hindutva. You hardly train your guns anywhere near the fringes of Islamist extremism. Don’t you think selectively focusing your attacks on one community (or at least, doing so 90% of the time) creates unfairly negative stereotypes about that community, and makes the people of that community defensive rather than dialogue-oriented?

    I seriously would like to know the motivation for your selectivity. Left-liberal “structures and incentives” for establishing intellectual credibility?

  5. i love to play badminton specially during the weekends. this game rocks.`

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  6. I totally agree to that sentiment expressed in the last line regarding the New Indian Messiah, Narendra Modi. Surprisingly, this murder story that had gone to sleep in my memory (I was a mere adolescent, then) revived after watching an innocuous tribute episode on television. The same question came to my mind. How in this strange land of paradoxes can one search for that or those ‘unimpeachable character’ that can revive our political (media included) or social ideals?!

  7. Sad that a national hero is killed and the perpetrator of the crime are roaming scot free

  8. It is precisely because , the rich and powerful, get away with murder, precisely because the investigating agencies are mere tools at the hands of those in power, Anna Hazare wanted the CBI out of the control of those in power.Otherwise, how on earth could they investigate any crime effectively by those very people … in power.

    Sanjay Singh got away with murder because he was powerful and hence the CBI deliberately weakened their own case.

    If it was some other common man he would have been nailed by now