Mythical “Famous Persons Act” appears to protect one of Bollywood’s biggest stars
JAIPUR, India––Arguably the most notorious case of allegedly poaching endangered species still before the courts of any nation, and certainly the longest running soap opera of Bollywood superstar Salman Khan’s career may end on August 10, 2016, when Khan goes to court on the last of four counts of illegally shooting chinkara, a rare gazelle, pending since 1998.
Will key witness appear?
The scheduled August 10, 2016 hearing may feature testimony from Harish Dulani, Khan’s driver during the alleged poaching incidents, whose absence from the courtroom on July 25, 2016 led to Khan being acquitted by Rajasthan High Court Justice Nirmaljit Kaur on appeal of two other counts for which he had been found guilty and sentenced in 2006.
The cases have spotlighted the continued existence of sport hunting and trophy hunting in India, more than 40 years after both practices were nominally abolished in 1973. The cases have also spotlighted the ability of affluent, well-connected individuals to evade prosecution for hunting-related offenses.
One week in jail
Khan, 50, in 2007 served one week in jail on one of the poaching counts, while otherwise evading punishment through protracted motions and appeals widely seen as abuse of the Indian judicial system.
In the cases most recently before the courts, Salman Khan was on February 17, 2006 sentenced to serve a year in prison, a seventh of the possible maximum, and was fined an amount equal to about $125 U.S. for poaching two chinkara on the nights of September 26-27, 1998.
Other stars walk
But Jodhpur Chief Judicial Magistrate B.K. Jain acquitted seven others accused in the case, including actors Saif Ali Khan, Sonali Bendre, Satish Shah, and two other stars who use only one name each, Neelam and Tabu.
“While arguing the appeal,” The Hindu explained on July 29, 2016, “Khan’s lawyer contended that the actor had been falsely framed in these cases, merely on the statements of Dulani. The lawyer argued that Dulani was never available to them for cross-examination and hence his statements could not be relied upon.”
However, The Hindu continued, “Dulani, reported to be ‘missing’ since 2002, surfaced two days after Khan was acquitted, and reiterated his claim that the actor had shot the animal dead.”
“Living my life in fear”
Elaborated The Times of India, “Dulani, who ignored several summons and skipped hearings in the cases, said he was forced to stay away by threats issued to him after he became a prosecution witness.
“I stick to the statement I made before the magistrate 18 years ago that Salman got off the car and shot the deer,” Dulani told media. “I was not absconding, but I was scared due to several threats received by me and my father. I have been punished for being Salman’s driver. I am living my life in fear. My father and I got many threat calls. I lost my job, my parents, and my peace of mind in these years. Due to fear I went away to my relatives’ place in Jodhpur. We had asked for protection but did not get it. If I had police protection, I could have given a statement. That was what I always intended.”
“Was not called to save Salman”
Dulani said he had attended hearings in the Salman Khan cases on November 24, 2015 and May 17, 2016.
“I did not disappear,” Dulani insisted to media. “I was not called (for examination by the defense) in order to save Salman. I still maintain that it was Salman who hunted (the chinkaras). How could he (Salman) be acquitted? I was yet to testify.
“I will go to the court and repeat my statement,” Dulani pledged. “Even if I am called to the Supreme Court to testify, I would say the same thing.”
Said The Times of India, “Dulani denied that he was ‘bought’ to save the actor.
“People have said all kinds of things about me. Some said I had moved to Dubai. The reality is I don’t even have a passport,” Dulani said.
“He never approached us”
“Rajasthan Home Minister Gulab Chand Kataria has said that the state police would provide protection to witness Harish Dulani,” if requested to do so, reported The Hindu on July 29, 2016.
Said Kataria, “He never approached us and did not bring this issue to notice. If he gives anything in writing, arrangement for his protection would be made. If he does not come, he will be contacted by the local police.”
The other evidence of note cited by Rajasthan High Court in acquitting Khan was that pellets recovered from the dead chinkaras were not fired from Khan’s licensed gun, a finding disregarding that Khan and his companions had multiple firearms in their possession, and that yet another charge pending against Khan is for alleged possession of illegal weapons.
WWF-India calendar boy
Among the stars-of-the-month depicted in the 1999 World Wildlife Fund-India calendar, Salman Khan often led illegal shooting parities into the Rajasthan desert during fall 1998, while making a film called Hum Saath Saath Hain, witnesses testified at his multiple trials, but repeated complaints to police and wildlife officials failed to bring him to justice.
Finally members of the staunchly anti-hunting Bishnoi sect gathered evidence of Khan’s activities, and marched 5,000 strong on foot to Mumbai to demand justice.
The renowned Indian conservationist Valmik Thapar described the Bishnoi in his 1997 book Land of the Tiger as “the primary reason that desert wildlife still exists on the subcontinent. The women of the community have been known to breastfeed black buck fawns and save insect life,” he wrote, “while many of the men have died in their efforts to counter armed poaching gangs.
Killed by poachers
Chellu Singh, 17, for example, a Bishnoi from Sewdi village, Nagaur district, near Jaipur, India, on January 30, 2003 tried with several friends, all of them unarmed, to detain a gang of poachers who had reportedly shot more than a dozen deer from the backs of camels.
The poachers shot Singh and fled.
A similar incident in 2014 brought the murder of Shitanram Bishnoi, shot at close range by alleged poacher Farooq Khan, whose family contend he was only trying to scare nilgai antelope away from crops. Six thousand Bishnoi marched to demand Farooq Khan’s arrest; he has yet to go to trial.
Beliefs similar to Jains
“Bishnoi is an offshoot of Jainism,” Thapar asserted, reversing the tradition claimed by Bishnoi elders.
The modern Bishnoi faith was established by Guru Jambheshwar, 1451-1502, a Hindu opponent of idolatry, whose teachings substantially overlapped teachings of Jainism. But the Bishnoi teachings also attracted adherents from other religious traditions, including Sikhs––like Chellu Singh––who customarily take the surname Singh, meaning “lion.”
“All nature’s creations have a right to life”
Bishnoi believe, Thapar continued, “that all nature’s creations have a right to life. This belief reached its apotheosis in 1778 when 294 men and 69 women laid down their lives to protect the khejri tree. A senior officer of Jodhpur state arrived to cut down the trees, which were needed for burning lime. The first to challenge him was a woman, who hugged one of the trees and was promptly decapitated. Her three daughters followed suit and were also axed. Many others followed. This mass slaughter led to a royal order that prohibited the cutting of any tree in a Bishnoi village.”
To this day, Bishnoi villages are wooded oases in the otherwise harsh Rajasthan desert, where wildlife congregates in proximity to the people.
Fearing the Bishnoi, despite their reputation for practicing nonviolence, even at cost of their own lives, Salman Khan reportedly hid at the home of the chairman of WWF-India’s Rajasthan committee until his arrest.
“The judgment has come as a shock”
“We respect the (Rajasthan High) Court. But there is disappointment, especially among wildlife lovers in our community,” Bishnoi community leader said Hiraram Bishnoi told The Hindu. “We are going to request the state government to approach the Supreme Court in this case,” Bishnoi pledged.
Agreed Ramniwas Budhnagar of Bishnoi Tiger Force, the Bishnoi conservation society that led the march to bring Salman Khan to justice, “While we respect the constitution and judicial system, the judgment has come as a shock to us. There was direct evidence of his violation of the law, what he did was premeditated and planned, and he was a repeat offender.”
Got away with murder?
Salman Khan in 2015 was acquitted of killing a homeless man, Nurulah Mahbob Sharif, in a 2002 hit-and-run car crash that injured several other men, all of whom were sleeping at curbside in the Bandra West suburb of Mumbai.
After 13 years of legal delay, a lower court found Khan guilty of culpable homicide and sentenced him to serve five years in prison.
Appellate judge Anil Ramchandra Joshi then threw out the testimony of Khan’s former bodyguard, Ravindra Patil, who had died from tuberculosis in 2007 and was therefore unavailable to reappear for cross-examination.
Absent Joshi’s testimony, Joshi found that “the prosecution had failed to establish beyond reasonable doubt that Khan was driving his SUV and under the influence of alcohol,” The Guardian summarized.