If you are in India or are an Indian or even an Indophile, you must be aware of the Salman Khan hit-and-run case. He is a famous Bollywood star. Nearly 13 years ago, he got behind the wheels of his SUV drunk, and despite his bodyguard advising him not to, he drove… over a few homeless people sleeping on the footpath. The last 13 years have been spent by him avoiding jail time, with the help of some really expensive and good lawyers. Salman and his team have always maintained that he was not driving. His bodyguard and driver and a few witness maintained that he was.
His bodyguard died in penury a few years later. His driver changed his story 11 to 12 years down the line and took on the blame. The witnesses turned hostile.
The footpath dwellers, you ask? One of them died. The others suffered serious injuries and are back in their hometowns in the Indian hinterland waiting for justice.
13 years later, the court found Salman guilty and handed him a 5 year prison term. It could have been anything between 3 to 10 years. It was a judgement that upset his fans and shocked many others. But there was also rejoicing. The sentencing had proved that in this country in the eyes of the law we are all the same – the rich, the poor, the famous and the homeless.
Within 24 hours of the judgement, his lawyers had appealed at a higher court and Salman’s sentence was suspended till the appeal is heard in June end or July.
But what is justice? These survivors don’t want to see Salman behind bars. They want compensation. They want jobs that they can hold despite their disabilities. In the last 10 odd years, Salman has through his foundation Being Human done a lot of good. Some say that the creation of the foundation was motivated by the need to earn brownie points in the court. Others say it was his way of doing penance. I really don’t think it matters anymore.
Given his standing in the Hindi film industry and the amount of money running on him, some members of the Indian film industry have actually fallen low enough to blame the homeless for sleeping on the footpath! Talk about lack of empathy! So driven are they by their need to be in the good books of Salman Khan that they are willing to drop humanity by the wayside.
In fact I no longer consider Salman the main culprit either. The main culprit here is the system that plays football with the poor and the middle class. Salman and his team are playing the system the best they can so that he can avoid jail time. The main culprit here is the complete lack of empathy and the attitude that ‘as long as I or my loved ones are not harmed, I am going to bet on the strongest horse’. Forget right and wrong. Forget guilt. Forget justice.
All of these events make me wonder what hope is there any hope for justice for those who are not rich or powerful or famous! The appeal is going to be heard in a couple of months time. It will be a chance for the Indian judiciary to prove to the Indian citizen that this is one pillar of the Indian democracy that is standing strong. It has provided us with hope in the past – albeit delayed – and one can only hope that justice is protected and served this time round too.
Justice is no longer about whether Salman goes to prison or not; neither is it about the duration of his sentence. It is about whether wealth and power can thwart and topple all sense of fair play.