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12 May, 2015

Some are more equal than others

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

When a Mumbai court found film celebrity Salman Khan guilty in a hit-and-run case at the end of a protracted trial and gave him a five-year jail term last week, a leading British daily saw in it a message that India’s elite are not above the law. Few in India share that view.

In fact the speed with which the normally slow-moving judicial machinery granted Khan interim bail within hours of his conviction has provoked a national debate on the vaunted principle of equality before law.

The cause of action took place in September 2002. Salman Khan was returning home from a bar late at night when his car jumped the kerb, killing a man sleeping on the pavement and wounding four others. The trial dragged on for nearly 13 years. The usual practice of one party or the other seeking adjournment, non-appearance of witnesses and disappearance of evidence contributed to the delay.

Salman Khan, who was on bail, did not have to go to jail immediately as his lawyers rushed to the Bombay High Court and obtained an order giving him two days’ time to surrender to the law. That gave him enough time to file a formal appeal and secure regular bail till its disposal.

Considering that the charges were serious enough to fetch up to 10 years in jail and that normal procedures required him to give himself up immediately, Salman Khan got off cheap. While the High Court was considering his plea, lawyers were standing by in New Delhi to move the Supreme Court if its decision was unfavourable.

Khan’s buddies and fans, however, were not pleased. Their anger spilled out in the social media in the form of quaint arguments. “Roads are meant for cars and dogs, not for people sleeping on them,” singer Abhijeet Bhattacharya tweeted. Jewellery designer Farah Khan Ali said the accident was the result of the government’s failure to provide housing. If no one was sleeping on the road, Salman would not have driven over anybody, she wrote.

Such arguments infuriated many. Cars are supposed to ply in roads and not on pavements, one tweeter pointed out. In Muzaffarpur, Bihar, a court, acting on a complaint by a local advocate, directed that a first information report be filed against Abhijeet and Farah Khan for various offences including attempt to promote riot and enmity between different groups.

Film stars and politicians poured into Salman Khan’s residence in a show of solidarity. According to industry circles, those who have already invested around Rs 2 billion will be in serious trouble if Khan is unavailable to complete the films under production.

Salman Khan commands a measure of sympathy among sections of the population by virtue of his identification with various public causes. However, he has to contend with a few negative factors too. The hit-and-run case is the third in which he has been convicted. Ten years ago a Rajasthan court sentenced him to a year in jail on a charge of poaching protected animals. At the moment he faces a combined sentence of 11 years but has so far spent only six days in prison.

The High Court judge who granted him instant interim bail offered this justification: “Since the appellant was on bail throughout the trial and since a copy of the judgement of conviction has not yet been furnished to him, it would be proper to protect the appellant for some time in the interest of Justice.”

In theory all citizens of India are equal but in practice some are more equal than others, to borrow Orwell’s famous expression. The time-consuming and costly judicial process puts the rich in an advantageous position in courts of law. There have been occasions when counsel for affluent litigants went to judges’ residences after working hours and obtained instant relief. That is a privilege the poor cannot hope for.

Arrest, trial and conviction of the high and the mighty, which occur rarely, are exceptions, not the rule. The odds are stacked in their favour from the moment investigation of a case begins. It is not unusual for ministers to stay put in their jobs while officials serving under them go through the process of investigation.

Not long ago a posh car belonging to a company of Mukesh Ambani, the richest Indian in the Forbes list, was involved in an accident which resulted in two deaths. Some eyewitnesses said Ambani’s son was in the driver’s seat. But the police accepted the driver’s claim that he was at the wheel. Salman Khan’s driver also came forward with a similar claim but that was years after the accident, and the court wasn’t impressed. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, May 12, 2015.

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