Of Star-struck Indians
Film star Salman Khan’s judgement day (Wednesday) was also a sort of judgement day for a large segment of Indians. The judgement delivered by Justice D.W.Deshpande was that on the night in question (September 28, 2002) Salman Khan was driving his Toyota Land Cruiser that ran over five people sleeping outside American Express Bakery in Bandra, Mumbai, killing one and crippling four others, he was driving the car without a driving licence and he was drunk. The judge looked at the accused directly and put the accusations very succinctly before sentencing Salman Khan to five years’ imprisonment: “You were driving the car. You did not have a licence. You were drunk. All charges proved.” This forthright approach was most appropriate because all along Salman Khan’s lawyers had maintained that it was his driver Ashok Singh who had driven the car on that fateful night, that Salman Khan had lost his driving licence and that he was not drunk. On the basis of the testimony of quite a few witnesses Justice Deshpande was able to establish without a shred of doubt that it was Salman Khan and not Ashok Singh who was driving the car and that he was so drunk that when he got out of the car after the accident, he was uble to stand, falling down twice in the attempt. The truth about his lack of a driving licence was established much more easily through a reference to the records with the RTO. [The driving licence currently with Salman Khan was secured in 2007.] The only response that Salman Khan could make was, “I was not driving the car... But I respect your decision and accept it.” Obviously, there was not much else that he could say after he and his lawyers had failed to sustain the untruths that had been told in court under solemn oath to speak the truth and nothing but the truth. However, there were very clear indications that Salman Khan had accepted the judgement and wanted his lawyers to leave it at that.
Any assessment of what happens in India when a leading film star is justly sentenced by a court for crimes committed must begin with what his lawyer did after the judgement was delivered. The defence seeks permission to begin arguments pleading leniency of sentence. And despite repeated orders of the sessions judge to wrap up the arguments soon, the defence lawyer goes on with his arguments for a full hour. He cites instances of other judges having been given prison sentences of three years in similar cases, he lists the charitable acts of Salman Khan and in the end attributes to him ailments that shock the actor himself: he has ear ache, he is a heart patient and a neurological patient. Even Salman’s request to stop fails to dampen the lawyer’s zeal in inventing ailments for his client. Thereafter begins the rush of his defence team to get Salman bail from the Bombay High Court. Justice A.M.Thipsay of Bombay High Court tells Salman’s defence team, “He has been on bail these past 12 years.” However he gives Salman an extension of bail for two more days. And a court that closes at 5 p.m. stays open till 7 p.m. so that bail document can be produced at the sessions court to eble the actor to go home. Obviously none of this would have been done for an ordiry citizen.
People who thronged the Mumbai courtroom on Wednesday were there not because they wanted to see justice being done, but rather because they wanted their celluloid hero to be spared punishment regardless of the crimes committed. One daily newspaper devoted the entire front page (except for just one other news item) to the Salman Khan case. Even our newspaper editors seem to lose their sense of proportion and priorities when it comes to film stars. Such irratiol and subjective attitudes are detrimental to both democracy and respect for the rule of law that democrats must uphold at all times in order to survive.