Everyone is entitled to presumptions of the guilt or innocence of a convict. And this applies equally to those who hold high public office as it does to ordinary citizens. But it is one thing for Jayant Sinha, Union Minister of State for Civil Aviation, to have serious reservations about the verdict of the fast track court in Jharkhand that convicted, and sentenced, a bunch of people to life imprisonment in a cow vigilantism case. It is quite another to felicitate those convicted merely because they were let out on bail by the Jharkhand High Court. A release on bail, as Mr. Sinha surely knows, is not an acquittal. The eight garlanded men he posed with for celebratory photos are still convicts, who were tried in a case in which a meat trader was savagely beaten to death on suspicion of transporting beef. That a Central Minister could have hobnobbed in such a public fashion with those convicted of murder is inexcusable. As a lawmaker, he ought to have known that doing so would raise inevitable questions in the public mind about his commitment to the rule of law and his lack of faith in the criminal justice system. In doing what he did, he allowed his personal beliefs to trump his public responsibilities. Mr. Sinha has declared that he is against any kind of vigilantism and all forms of violence. His defence for his grave lapse lies in a fine distinction. He believes there is a difference between the eight who were let out on bail and some others who participated in the murderous assault. While it is true that the group of eight was released from prison on the ground that the available visual evidence showed them only as onlookers as opposed to assaulters, the Jharkhand High Court’s order is not a proclamation of innocence. This depends on the outcome of the appeal — something that Mr. Sinha did not care to wait for.

From the string of statements he made on social media, it is far from clear whether Mr. Sinha has so much as paused to consider, leave alone care about, what the eight were doing at the scene of the crime. This strengthens the charge that narrow political considerations, as opposed to a presumed miscarriage of justice, played a role in his action — to first champion their innocence and then to celebrate their release. His clarifications notwithstanding, Mr. Sinha has lent the impression he has been guided by the political exigencies that prevail in his Hazaribagh Lok Sabha constituency, where the murder took place. Wittingly or unwittingly, he has opened himself up to the charge that he is indulging cow vigilantism and taking sides on the basis of the party affiliation of the convicts. One of the convicts, Nityanand Mahto, is a local leader of the BJP, and is known to Mr. Sinha. For him to claim he did nothing more than wish the eight well when they came to see him on their release on bail is neither convincing nor acceptable.

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