Salman Khan and the Blackbuck saga Salman Khan is among the most bankable stars in Bollywood with around 600 crore rupees riding on him

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KUMKUM CHADHA

Hundreds of Salman Khan’s fans had a sleepless night; some did not eat; others bemoaned the price their favourite film star had to pay for being famous. In fact, when Khan spent two nights in jail before being bailed out, many spoke about the unfairness of the system who in their perception came down heavily on the “poor kid”: that the “poor kid” is 50 plus of age is another matter.  But the facts first: Khan was sentenced to five years imprisonment following his conviction for killing two blackbucks in 1998. Blackbucks are an endangered antelope.
The case against the Bollywood superstar was registered on the complaint of the Bishnoi community which reveres nature and considers killing animals a sin. The blackbuck is protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 and the punishment for hunting blackbuck can be up to six years.  The actor killed the animals in Rajasthan’s Kankani village near Jodhpur during the shooting of a Hindi film Hum Saath Saath Hain.

The Bollywood actor with his co-stars allegedly went hunting on October 1-2 in 1998 outside a forest reserve near Kankani village in Jodhpur.  According to prosecution, they were in a Gypsy that night with Salman in the driving seat. He spotted a herd of blackbucks and allegedly killed two of them.

The medical board report stated that there were holes, one inch in diameter, in the bones of blackbuck carcasses and this could be caused by shots fired from a gun. Relying on this report, the trial court refused to admit the argument of the defence that the hole had been made by the investigator using a charred piece of coal just to establish the story of poaching and frame Salman in the case.

In a verdict that ran into 201 pages,  Chief Judicial Magistrate said that since the culprit was an actor and had a substantial following, his actions were observed and followed by the masses.

“The accused.. is a popular actor whose deeds are followed by people. Despite this, the accused hunted two blackbucks. It is not justified to give Salman Khan the benefit of probation in view of the manner in which he hunted by shooting two innocent, moot black bucks that come under the purview of the Wildlife Conservation Act,” the verdict said adding that the “people look upto him”.

“The way the accused killed two innocent black bucks in violation of the wildlife laws…he is a film star, people emulate him and look up to him… and there has been a rise in poaching incidents, so leniency is not justified given the severity of the crime, the evidence and the circumstances,” said the judge, explaining his decision.

“The accused is a popular actor whose deeds are followed by people. Despite this, the accused hunted two blackbucks,” Khatri said in his written judgement.

After spending two nights in Jodhpur Central Jail, Khan left after completing all legal formalities and headed back to Mumbai in a chartered flight. He cannot leave the country without the court’s permission. Khan is among the highest-paid anchors in the country, with estimates pegging his earnings per episode from Bigg Boss last year at Rs 60 million. He is also among the most sought-after celebrity endorsers in the country. He is the brand ambassador for Thums Up for over a decade and is currently the face of Appy Fizz, Revital, Paragon and Astral Pipes and Suzuki motorcycles among others. Khan’s estimated annual endorsement fees are Rs 120-150 million per year per brand.,

Khan is also among the most bankable stars in Bollywood with around 600 crore rupees riding on him.  His upcoming projects include  four major films over the next two years — Race 3, Dabangg 3, Kick 2and Bharat. While the last three are in pre-production stages, Race 3 is in production in the UAE. Though it is early to say whether the projects will be shelved or Khan replaced, much depends on the course the future court hearings take.

As things stand, producers would rather wait for Khan’s legal outcome because he has the midas touch. His latest film Tiger Zinda Hai, for instance, raked in  Rs 3.39 billion in India.

None of this however justifies his taking the law into his hands or being a law onto himself. Worse still this is not his first brush with law. Khan  is a habitual offender given that he was involved in a hit and run case in 2015; cases were registered against him for poaching chinkaras and case registered against him under the Arms Act in 1998. In the hit and run case where he is alleged to have killed one person and injured four others, Salman was acquitted of all criminal charges in a higher court after being found guilty by the lower court.

This is not Salman’s first case nor his last; neither is he the first celebrity to be booked. There were others before him and will be some after, the most prominent being Sanjay Dutt who spent some years in prison.  He served a five-year sentence for being in possession of an AK-56 rifle and more importantly his connection in the 1993 Mumbai blast. Dutt was arrested under TADA or Terrorists and Disruptive  Activities (Prevention) Act.

Celebrities toying with the law is nothing new. The who can touch us attitude is their undoing. This was Dutt’s nemesis and in all likelihood will be Khan’s too. That is why when the judge while pronouncing Khan’s five-year sentence said that because he was a celebrity and needs to set an example, he was stating a truth.

Film stars, however, macho they may be or need to project themselves as super heroes, need to set examples for their fans to emulate. They certainly cannot be seen  shooting  black bucks  or running people over in their speeding vehicles in the middle of the night.  Restrain and responsible behavior should be their hallmarks and a message must go down in society that even if the law is unequal it is weighed heavily against the rich and influential.  It is against this backdrop that a harsh sentence for Khan, if at all it is one, is justified, correct and much needed. The fear that this will create, and it is imperative that it should, that if this can happen to them and if “big people” can go to jail then so can we. It is this that will act as a deterrent and maybe curb violations of the law that have become somewhat a routine in this day and age. And film stars and other celebrities need to know that just because they are popular they cannot cross the line or do what suits their fancy.

What is worse is their insensitivity that they bring along. Within hours of walking out on bail Salman Khan was reportedly partying with his friends. This marks a clear absence of remorse on the part of Khan and being granted bail a cause of celebration irrespective of the fact that he had committed a crime. What irks is that remaining out of jail is more important than the fact that the law has tightened its noose. Given this attitude and mindset, there is little scope for a corrective. Therefore despite all the chest beating that Salman Khan’s fans indulged in following his conviction, the Court did well by delivering justice and sending  a clear message that fame brings with it responsibility, accountability and a moral obligation to behave correctly and keeping on the right side of law.

The writer is a senior Indian journalist, political commentator . She can be reached at: (kumkum91@gmail.com)

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