New Delhi: Indian National Congress leader Lalit Maken and his wife Geetanjali (former president Shankar Dayal Sharma’s daughter) were shot dead on 31 July 1985 by Harjinder Singh Jinda, Sukhdev Singh Sukha and Ranjit Singh Gill alias Kukki, who suspected he was involved in the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984. Jinda and Sukha were given the death sentence and they were hanged in 1992. Kukki was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2003, but the sentence was commuted in 2009.
The opinion of Avantika Maken (Tanwar), the daughter of Lalit Maken and niece of Congress leader Ajay Maken, was sought before commuting the punishment of Kukki. She told the authorities she had forgiven her father’s assassin and moved on in life.
Recently, the welfare officer at Delhi’s Tihar Jail sought the opinion of Sabrina Lall, sister of Jessica Lall who was killed in 1999, about Manu Sharma alias Siddharth Vashisht who had shot her sister dead. She replied, “I am told that in this period he has been doing good work for charity and helping inmates in jail which I feel is a reflection of reform… I would like to state I have no objection to his release, owing to the fact that he has spent 15 years in jail.” Lall has refused any compensation from Sharma although she is entitled to a reparation.
Since the letter of reply from Sabrina Lall created a flutter on television — while newspapers reported the development dispassionately — Sirf News contacted Avantika because she had been through a similar turmoil in her life.
“I saw my paternal and maternal grandparents suffering for their children. I know what it is for parents to lose their child. I knew that my parents were never going to come back. That very time, Kukki’s mother was suffering from cancer. I went to meet his parents and I had lunch with them. In fact, now, Kukki and I are good friends,” Avantika begins the conversation with this correspondent, adding that Kukki visits her house off and on and their spouses and children are mutual friends, too.
“If Sabrina Lall has come to forgiving Manu, it is a nice gesture and well-timed,” Avantika says, adding, “Because whoever we have lost, they are not going to come back.” “Par jo zinda hain, un ke parivar waale to hain (but those who live have families),” she says.
Speaking about Manu Sharma, she says, “You stay behind the bars for so many years; you do go through a lot; you tend to change, you do realise what has happened. If Sabrina feels that way, it is good on her part.” Her voice chokes as she exclaims, “What else can I say?”
[pullquote]“Ya to poochho mat. Aap pooch rahe hain aur woh bol rahi hain to sunne ki kshamta raho na (Either you don’t ask; since you have asked, have the capacity to listen to the answer)!” she says.[/pullquote]
I bring to Avantika the question that certain television channels have posed to Lall: “Who are you to forgive a criminal? He has committed a crime against the state (a criminal case is fought in Indian courts as the Union of India versus the accused).”
“That happened also during my parents’ case. I am nobody. When I went to meet the Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit ji, I went with Kukki’s father,” Avantika says, informing me further that Congress leader Manish Tewari and lawyer KTS Tulsi accompanied them.
“I said, politically I am no one; I am nowhere. But as the only child of Lalit Maken, I wanted to forgive Kukki and I wanted to move on. I wanted him to get married and see him settled,” she affirms.
Similarly, Avantika says, “Sabrina is the only surviving member of her family. Her parents are no more as far as I know. She played a major role during the trials.” Now, Avantika continues, “If the rules say that before commuting the sentence of Manu Sharma, you must seek the opinion of the surviving member of Jessica, why should anybody else raise a finger?’”
“Till the time she was speaking against Manu Sharma, she was good. Today when she decided to forgive him, how can you blame her? What nonsense!” Avantika sounds upset at television’s lynch-mob mentality.
“Ya to poochho mat. Aap pooch rahe hain aur woh bol rahi hain to sunne ki kshamta raho na (Either you don’t ask; since you have asked, have the capacity to listen to the answer)!” she says.
About her life at present, Avantika says, “I feel so content. I have a lot of satisfaction when I see Kukki’s family. Bhagawan bhi kahta hai ki agar koi maafi maang raha hai to usey maaf karo. Itna to dil rakhiye! (Even God says if somebody is sorry, forgive him. Have a heart!” she says, echoing Sabrina Lall’s sentiment where she said she had had a Christian upbringing that taught her forgiveness.
“I want my children to learn how to forgive,” Avantika says.
Mentioning the grievous crimes being committed in society, “where girls are being raped, so many innocent people are being killed,” she says, adding, “If somebody is doing something good, you must encourage her, not discourage (her). If she wants to move on, why should you say she must stay bitter all her life?”
“I am not saying what punishment is enough for what crime. That is for the law to decide. But when the authority has sought Sabrina’s opinion, the media must learn to respect the voice of a lady. Bechari kuchh kah rahi hai aur aap uskey peechhe pade hue ho (the poor woman is saying something and you are after her life); this is not correct,” Avantika says firmly.
“I am not advising Sabrina what to do, but I feel her forgiveness is a good gesture,” Avantika says. With concern for the Sharma family, she adds, “Manu Sharma has a wife. Do you think she should lead her life despondent forever? Think about the other family members who are left behind. It’s about Manu’s father, Manu’s brother, Manu’s sister who, many don’t know, suffers from cancer.”
However, since sympathy for the innocent kin of a convict may not impress the law, Sirf News calls up Justice (Retd) RS Sodhi who had sentenced Manu Sharma. Justice Sodhi receives the call but refuses to comment on the case or the sentence review board, citing the reason of professional propriety.
Manu Sharma is among the Tihar Jail inmates who have been moved to what is known as an “open jail” for their “good conduct”. While the Supreme Court has held that a lifer should spend all his life in jail, the punishment cannot be of a duration less than 14 years in the case where the government of the day wishes to release the prisoner. Manu Sharma has spent more than 15 years in jail, with a few instances of parole with court permission.