Between God and the Accused
Designated TADA judge Pramod Dattaram Kode goes to work every day in a bullet-proof ambassador in the halo of Z-plus security. For over eleven years he has been presiding over Asia’s longest terror trial and he hasn’t missed a single day. Not even when his father expired a few years ago. He has spent thousands of hours surveying the arguments for and against the people who were responsible for the serial blasts that rocked Mumbai in 1993.
The mood is not always grim in his court. The judge displays a mischievous streak at times. He would spring a joke on an unsuspecting lawyer and there would be a twinkle in his eye. Otherwise, his face is a sombre mask, hard to comprehend. His brooding eyes are transfixed on the lawyers, betel nut in his mouth. Most of his fingers are adorned with rings. He is somewhat affected by numerology (his favourite numbers are nine and one) and likes to pass certain orders on certain dates.
The nature of the case is so sensitive that he is one of the most guarded men in the country. Forty-five men stand sentry. He never steps out of his New Marine Lines home except when he has to go to court or when he goes on his annual Shirdi visit. He lives with his wife and two daughters, one of whom is now studying law. His security men accompany his daughters too, wherever they go.
Kode is regarded as a tough man with a soft core. He has allowed some accused to visit their ailing parents or to attend the marriages of their children. He has also been compassionate with those who had to travel for commercial reasons, like an accused who was dealing in fabric and said he had to go to Lucknow for a wholesale purchase. He has entertained more than 10,000 such miscellaneous applications, a record of sorts. The 57-year-old judge doesn’t have any grey hair though.
His courtroom is large and stuffy. It may have been the first in Mumbai to be modernised – with a mike and a computer, which has its own story. The clerks kept reducing the point size of the fonts because the case history was becoming so voluminous. This Friday, the outdated computer broke down, probably in revolt. The courtroom resembles a classroom, with wooden benches and one man with all the authority. Here, the 123 accused have lounged around like college kids catching up on the times whenever they met. The front-benchers, like the Memons, follow the proceedings seriously and don’t do small talk, but the back-benchers enjoy a quiet chat. The judge rarely, if ever, raises his voice in court. The accused had begun to treat him like family and a few years ago even presented him a large handmade Diwali card. It used to adorn the notice board until a few days ago. But now, with the sentences being handed out, it’s hard to say if the warmth would stay.
Kode joined the judiciary in the 1980s. He was a sessions court judge trying ordinary Indian Penal Code cases then and later in 1993 became a special judge under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act where for three years he tried several cases filed against notorious gangsters Dawood Ibrahim, Arun Gawli, Amar Naik, Ashwin Naik and Chhota Rajan. He was given Y-class security in 1994. In 1996, when he was transferred to the Arthur Road court complex carved out of the high-security Arthur road prison barrack, his security was enhanced. He was upgraded to the Z-category by the year-end and later to Z-plus.
The judge does not have an insurance cover as the state government continues to drag its feet on its promise of a Rs 25 lakh life insurance policy. Earlier, when judge J N Patel was conducting the trial before his elevation to the Bombay High Court, the government had suggested a Rs 50 lakh insurance cover.
Kode has declared 100 accused guilty, including three women and acquitted the remaining 23. He is now going through the crucial task of sentencing the accused. Film star Sanjay Dutt’s fate too, is in his hands. More than anybody, he is glad that it is all coming to an end. It’s improbable though that he would ever walk like a free man.