In the last few days, we witnessed the unique, if not unprecedented, judicial speed and efficiency in handling of the famous 'Hit and Run' case involving numero uno Bollywood star Salman Khan. Indian media, particularly private TV channels, too has been prominently giving coverage or so to say 'minute to minute' live details of the entire melodrama.
The case was pending trial for over twelve years and the celebrity Khan was accused of drunk driving and running over five persons sleeping on a pavement outside a bakery on 28th September 2002, of which one person died and four were seriously injured. As per prosecution version, Khan was driving his Land Cruiser in an inebriated condition at the time of the accident. The sessions judge hearing trials of the much talked about case found the actor guilty of all charges and sentenced him to five years rigorous imprisonment.
As the sentence was for more than three years, actor required to approach the Bombay High Court for bail. The high tension drama that climaxed on 6th May (AN) in the Sessions' Court with imposition of jail term of five years ended in an anti-climax on 8th May 2015 (AN) after two days with the Bombay High Court granting the bail suspending the five-year sentence in a major relief to the actor. Obviously, the actor’s Bandra residence was a sight of much revelry with family and friends including Bollywood fraternity toasting each other while hundreds of fans singing and dancing outside the residence.
The kind of speed and efficiency shown by the defence lawyers and judicial system in this case is unique if not unprecedented. Ordinarily, after the accused is found guilty of committing a crime, another date is assigned by the judge for deciding the quantum of punishment. The logic behind this is to give adequate time to the defence and prosecution to prepare for their arguments and counter-arguments. The Sessions' judge upheld the actor guilty of all charges framed against him and passed the quantum of punishment within hours on the same date. Defence lawyers instantly moved to Bombay High Court and obtained interim bail for two days for the actor within three hours of the pronouncement of the judgment. Then before expiry of the interim bail, the High Court promptly heard both parties and granted bail suspending the five-year sentence in a major relief to the actor. This has also triggered a debate as to how many people can afford this kind of treatment and relief in this country.
While High Court would have valid reasons to grant the stated relief to the actor, sure it's verdict does not offer a cause for public jubilation or celebration. Currently, Khan is indeed the number one star of the Hindi film industry with a fan following of millions, many of them with the belief that the actor can do no wrong. This episode establishes once again that celebrities with their charismatic and charmed life are well insulated against negative developments in their personal lives.
One doesn’t know as to this nearly thirteen years trial may stretch to how many more years from now but this case certainly raises another important question if anybody has spared a thought for the plight of the victims of this ill-fated accident. While supporters talk high about the charity and humanitarian ways of the actor, ironically in the instant case other than (meager!) compensation ordered by the court in the past, none of them have cared for the poor victims of the accident so far who have been left high and dry with the death and disabilities.
There is no doubt that a celebrity trial instantly generates mass interest and often disproportionate action and reaction in the media and public. While people at large and Bollywood fraternity stood solidly behind the actor during this crisis and expressed their sympathy and solidarity in various forms, singer Abhijeet Bhattacharya has gone way ahead and too far to speak up his mind on Twitter:
“Kutta road pe soyega, kutte ki maut marega, roads garib ke baap ki nahi hai…”
(Dog (People) will sleep on the road, it will die dog’s death because roads are not property of the poor.)
This was for most controversial statement that reflects not only the lack of sensitivity but also the poor taste and mindset of the singer celebrity. He apparently later apologized for his insensible remarks defending his comments that they were not meant to show disrespect for the homeless but the damage was already done.
Sure the law doesn’t provide for the poor to dwell and sleep on the road and footpath but the law also doesn’t permit any rich and celebrity for the rash and drunk driving or driving without a license. While some poor and homeless are compelled to sleep on the pavements mainly during the night, it is not considered crime under the eyes of the law. On the other hand, rash or drunk driving and driving without a valid license fall under the criminal offences punishable under the law. While in India due to celebrity culture and other loopholes, there may be very few instances where rich and celebrity have been prosecuted or punished by law for these offences, one can find a long list of celebrities in countries like United States who have been prosecuted and punished including jail terms for such offences. To name a few in United States, celebrities like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Robert Downey Jr, Justin Bieber, Mel Gibson, Mike Tyson, Nicole Richie, Reese Witherspoon, Nick Carter and many others have been prosecuted and punished at various points of time and place for similar offenses. Obviously, they were brought to book because they didn’t receive any special consideration or priority before law due to their massive wealth or celebrity status.
What needs to be remembered by all is that the law of the land is the law for all citizens irrespective of their status and everybody should be treated at par before law. Reportedly, there are thousands of undertrails languishing in jails without hearing and cases pending before judiciary for years, including the judge who heard this case, because neither they have the resources to furnish bail bonds nor they can afford the services of the top lawyers to move and fight their cases. This particular instance once again raises eye brows reminding that this is high time for the country to review its judicial system to bring in much and long needed reforms.
This also reminds me of having read a report sometime back about the commitment and hard work of a Maharashtra police officer in this case. It would be unfair if we do not acknowledge the exemplary commitment and good job done by an assistant police inspector Dinesh Patkar. Reportedly, Patkar and his men were responsible for tracing majority missing documents (56 out of 63) in the case which otherwise perhaps would have imploded and closed way back. These papers included statements of witnesses, panchnama, and the station diary entry of Bandra police station, crucial as evidence to sustain and substantiate charges against the accused.
The country for sure needs many more Patkars in the police force who do their job quietly and dutifully to bring wrong-doers to book with hardly any incentive other than meager sum received in the form of salary at the end of a month. While people are enticed and charmed with reel heroes with huge fans-following, the men like Patkar are, in fact, real heroes in the society diligently doing their duty without expecting much of the recognition or return.
It is interesting, and sometimes amusing too, to observe that people or for that matter society at large perceive and respond so differently depending upon who has committed a crime, circumstances under which it has been committed and even in calibration of the quantum of punishment.
I have come across people who acknowledge the crime committed by the actor but extraneous considerations and arguments are put forth to undermine the seriousness of the offence. For illustration, they will state he is a nice person who has done a lot of charity and humanitarian work; poor and homeless people should not sleep on the road; too much delay in arriving at the judgment already tantamount to punishment to the actor in the form of mental agony and harassment; that the actor is targeted due to his star status while others have been spared with much lighter punishment in similar offences, and so on and so forth.
People having a contrary view hold the opinion that the justice is blind and it doesn’t see or care who is involved. Whether the actor is a good human being, is immaterial in the case or if somebody got away with lesser punishment, is of no consequence in the matter when it is proved that he has committed an offence.
Irrespective of arguments in support or contrary to this case, what should be remembered and upheld by any conscientious person is that the law is same for everyone and need of the time is an effective legal and judicial system which is context-neutral and only functions objectively to uphold the justice and social order.