October 28, 2002


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Varsha Bhosle

Where there's money, there are hostile witnesses

One evident fact about India is that in drink-'n-kill cases, the elite are routinely let off the hook.

Do you remember the BMW case? Let me refresh your memory: On January 10, 1999, a BMW driven by an inebriated Sanjeev Nanda, grandson of the former Chief of Naval Staff and arms dealer Admiral S L Nanda, ran over sleeping pavement-dwellers in Delhi. His friends Manik Kapoor and Siddharth Gupta, sons of wealthy businessmen, were with him. Three people died on the spot while two received serious injuries. Sanjeev sped away - and ran over three policemen at the picket, killing them, too, on the spot. When he was brought to the police station, Sanjeev was still drunk. He was caught only because an oil leak from the spot had led the police to Siddharth's house - where the car had been washed of the blood and flesh by Siddharth's father and his employees. The pillar of Delhi's elite society had destroyed evidence of homicide.

The police usually register fatal accidents under Section 304A, causing death by negligence, a bailable offence. But the circumstances led them to lodge this case under Section 304, culpable homicide not amounting to murder, a non-bailable offence. The accused were defended by a battery of lawyers, who argued that they should be granted bail. Senior advocate and Congress member R K Anand contended that the police had falsely registered a case of culpable homicide when there was no witness, and said, "even knowledge that the car may kill or injure someone fatally, cannot be imputed." In between, Sanjeev, a hatta-katta 21 year old, complained of "chest pains" and was shifted to a hospital. In the meantime, he had had the presence of mind to refuse to undergo an identification parade...

Where there's money, there are hostile witnesses: Manoj Malik, the lone survivor of the hit-'n-run, told the court that he was hit by a truck. Key witness Hari Shankar refused to identify the BMW. Sunil Kulkarni absconded. In fact, none of the witnesses supported the prosecution. In the end, Siddharth and Manik were granted bail. As for Sanjeev, the Delhi high court imposed a bond and surety amounting to Rs 45 crores, then reduced it to Rs 15 crores (peanuts for an arms dealer, anyway), and allowed Sanjeev - a British national - to travel abroad. And that's the last I've heard of that.

Remember Jessica Lall, the Delhi model who was killed at a party for refusing to serve a drink to a drunk guest? Manu Sharma, the son of a minister in the Narasimha Rao government, whipped out his semi-automatic pistol and shot her at point-blank range in a room filled with people. After which, Manu and his friends, including Vikas Yadav - the son of Rajya Sabha member D P Yadav - fled. Vikas (charged in 1991 for the murder of a young student in Hathras, UP), kept Manu's car at his father's house for two days and changed the shattered windscreen and number plates before abandoning it. It was an "open and shut" case, with no need for gathering circumstantial evidence, with plenty of eyewitnesses, many of whom were Jessica's friends.

Or so the police thought. But, where there's money, there are hostile witnesses: As the case dragged on, the star witnesses began turning hostile. Even Jessica's colleague, who had filed the FIR, denied that Manu had fired the shot. Other witnesses followed suit. Then, crucial files relating to the case were found to be tampered with... Last I heard of Manu was in January this year, when the Delhi high court granted him bail on a bond and sureties amounting to a mere Rs 3 lakhs. For a murder committed in cold blood.

With such lofty precedents, do you for a moment believe that Salman Khan will spend another night in jail...?

The publication that's really a catalogue of music/film/concert promotions disguised as news, stated on October 1, "There was no trace of alcohol in Salman Khan's blood," even when other reports indicated "double the permissible limit." And on October 15, under the headline, "NGOs say Salman Khan is a kind-hearted man," it ran a story on "the charitable and humane side of Salman Khan, one which has not been much publicised earlier."

Yes it has been - and widely. To give just two instances from the publication itself: "On the other hand, he's been raising funds for Kargil victims, doing his bit for Cancer patients, and generally just being a good boy" (Times of India, August 4, 1999); "One little-known aspect of Salman's life is his various acts of charity. Besides being very generous with his donations, the actor visits AIDS and cancer patients every week" (Filmfare, July 2002 issue).

Furthermore, the catalogue bombarded us with the views of highly educated, distinguished psychologists on Salman. For example, Sushmita Sen ("Why is everyone behaving as if they have never made a mistake in their lives?"), Fardeen Khan ("he's a very misunderstood person"), Sunil Shetty ("I can vouch for the fact that he's a good soul"), Arjun Rampal ("I fail to understand why journos are stating that he needs psychiatric treatment"), Boney Kapoor ("He is not a monster"), and Sanjay Leela Bhansali ("genuinely a tender-hearted human being").

Point is, because Dawood Ibrahim regularly fed the poor at dargahs, should his crimes be condoned...?

However, this customary imbecility didn't bother me. What got my goat was the picture of Salman Khan in the knitted white skull cap used by Muslims splashed on all the front pages, which, of course, was preceded by feeds about his praying five times a day and voluntarily eating jail food. This was the first time we saw Nanga Pehelwan in, shall we say, ethnic wear. Salman is going to play that which is handled beautifully by our politicians - the religious card. I say this with absolute certainty because he's played it once before - in the blackbuck poaching case.

Public memory is awfully short and I'm gonna fix yours: In September 1998, while shooting a film in Jodhpur, Salman Khan, Saif Ali Khan, Sonali Bendre, Tabu, Neelam Kothari and Satish Shah hunted every night for chinkaras and peacocks - both, protected species. After several days of this, the Great Brown Hunters went to Gudha Bishnoi and shot two blackbucks. As the blackbucks thrashed about on the ground, Salman got out of his Gypsy to slash their throats. However, the gunshots had brought the villagers, who saw Salman and the dying blackbucks. The film stars fled, leaving the blackbucks behind. But the villagers had recognised Salman and noted the number of the Gypsy.

Next day, the villagers reported the incident to forest officials and filed a complaint naming Salman Khan as the poacher. Forest officials immediately seized the dead blackbucks and the Gypsy. On inspection, they concluded that the Gypsy had earlier ferried chinkaras. A subsequent enquiry revealed that Salman Khan had hunted chinkaras in Mathania, too.

The Bishnois worship blackbucks as "Jhambaji," and were not about to let the sacrilege pass. When they doubted the pace of the investigation, they began a dharna in Jodhpur, demanding the arrest of the poachers. Finally, forest officials took the film stars into custody, and after grilling them for 7 hours, homed in on Salman as the main accused. On October 12, Salman's application for anticipatory bail was rejected and he was arrested. On October 13, he pleaded innocence and charged that he was being falsely implicated for "political" reasons.

But what happened on October 14, is straight out of the casebook of O J Simpson: Loudspeaker-fitted vehicles drove around the Muslim localities, announcing that Salman was in difficulty and that Sohail Khan wanted to address the Muslims to get their support for his brother. Muslims were urged to assemble at the stadium grounds to hear Sohail, who charged that his brother was a "victim of politics." But when people started gathering at the venue, the local police swiftly swung into action and dispersed the crowd.

Nevertheless, the harm had been done: Thousands of people gathered outside the court room, the Bishnois raising the slogan "Hirnon ke hatyaron ko phansi do," which was instantly met with a vociferous "Salman Khan zindabad " from the Muslims, who now believed that the case was being manipulated by the then BJP state government. In Jodhpur, it's become a case of Hindus vs Muslims. Just as OJ's had become Whites vs Blacks...

In the meantime, the forest officials of Jodhpur and Bombay recovered the arms used for poaching, as well as a Mauser, a Magnum and a 12-bore gun kept by Salman's family without any licence. The raiding party also found in his father Salim Khan's farm house two live chinkaras, one blackbuck and one peacock, which are enlisted as protected animals and birds in Schedule I of the Protection of Wildlife Act.

While all this evidence was turning up, this "nice boy" (according to Dr Rishi Kapoor), was busy claiming, "I am innocent and being implicated in the poaching case without any reason. I myself love wild animals. How can I shoot them?" In the meantime, his near and dear ones sponsored a post-mortem report from the government veterinarian, Dr Narain Nepalia, which said that the blackbucks died of overeating and dog bites... The Forest Department exhumed the blackbucks and ordered a fresh autopsy by a board of vets. Marks of bullet shots were found, Nepalia was suspended and charged with giving a false post-mortem report.

The Forest Department then went into overdrive and filed four cases against Salman. Two charge him with shooting chinkaras; another pertains to violation of the Arms Act; the fourth names him as the main accused in the shooting of two blackbucks. When the combined cases went to court, guess what... where there's money, there are hostile witnesses:

  • Key prosecution witness Dinesh Gawra, who held the spot light as Salman hunted, has absconded.
  • In May this year, witnesses Kanwara Ram and Rupa Ram denied giving a statement to the police that they had seen the Gypsy. Pukh Raj said he had seen a vehicle but could not identify it.
  • In June, prosecution witnesses Daulat Ram and Sumnesh Limba told the court that the knife (used for slitting the necks of the animals) was lying on the table in the police station, whereas the recovery memo stated that it was handed over by Sohail Khan in their presence.
  • In July, Arun Kumar Yadav, the owner of the Gypsy, told the court, "Whatever I told in my earlier statement about the animal blood on the seats of the Gypsy and the stinking smell coming from it and also the finding of bullets from inside the vehicle while washing it was not based on my personal knowledge."

    Such, then, are the antecedents of Salman Khan, Esquire. And, such is the family supporting him. Is it any wonder why singer Kamaal Khan, who was in the car when Salman crushed to death the worker in Bandra, told the police that his friend wasn't driving the Landcruiser when the accident occurred...? Salman, in a police statement, has denied that he was driving the vehicle and refuted allegations of being intoxicated. His claim that bodyguard Ravindra Patil was driving the Landcruiser is known to be false: Patil can't drive, and one victim told the police that he saw Salman getting down from the driver's seat. Actually, the whole country has seen on television one victim state the same from a hospital bed.

    Now that Salman's out on bail, the PR will begin in earnest. And so will the oiling of needy hands. As The Indian Express reported on October 1, "The Mumbai police haven't yet spoken to Ramashray Pandey, but Salman Khan's family has... After the dead and the injured were taken away, Pandey was struggling to get some sleep when he was woken up by two people... They wanted him to tell the Bandra police that 'it was not Salman who was behind the wheel when the accident happened.' He was offered money to spin the story... 'Don't force me to commit a sin. It was Salman who drove the vehicle, no one else. I won't tell a lie,' he says he told the two men. The men insisted that Pandey visit Salman's flat... for some 'baat-cheet.' There, Pandey was introduced to Salman's brother, Sohail. 'I was told that I shouldn't worry about the money. Whatever sum I wanted would be given to me,' Pandey says he was told."

    That was Pandey's reaction on the day of the killing. But as the case drags on, need you doubt that we'll once again see that where there's money, there are hostile witnesses.

    Varsha Bhosle

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