Today, on the 10th of December, the Bombay High Court acquitted actor Salman Khan of all charges in the 2002 hit-and-run case, claiming that the prosecution could not adequately prove that the actor was drinking, and even that he was driving at all.
[Disclaimer--this isn’t an article about Salman Khan or where we stand on his verdict as much as it is an observation of celebrity crimes and their general trajectory in the age of Social Media in India. We stand with the judiciary and their verdict and believe in equality for all before the law.]
Criminal justice in itself is a creaking system full of loopholes, connections and power. Although laws are engraved with a sense of objectivity, rarely does one witness thorough parallelism across a heterogeneous pool of criminals. There is an automated assumption within the walls of justice that is governed by an implicit disclaimer; if you’re rich or influential, you win. ‘Not today’ says your heart and we agree-to a certain extent atleast.
Salman Khan was convicted in the 2002 drunk driving case under culpable homicide not amounting to murder and sentenced to five years of imprisonment. A prompt setup of lawyers and a bureaucratic lapse and alleged privilege of the judiciary saw him secure interim bail till 8th May and the Bombay High Court has gone onto suspend the sentence whereby the actor will not be going to jail as he posts bail with the trial court. The conviction has shocked few as millions claim validation for their certainty about the guilt. Varied responses of relief, humour, anger and grief flood social media while the national media is set to debate and unravel the efficacy of justice, celebrity influence, and an excruciating coverage of this single news story. But regardless of your stand, we can only hope you’re ready to laud the judiciary for giving a resounding example of equality before the law, something which is a rarity in India.
two-thirds of India’s 4million prisoners in jails are under-trials. not convicted, can’t pay bail. but tonight a convict is not one of them.
— Ajit Ranade (@ajit_ranade) May 6, 2015
A country where 53 of its current Lok Sabha members face criminal charges, the general public is accustomed to believe in a fractured notion of justice and equality. If one adds to that a mix of cases involving famous actors, celebrities, industrialists and their kin, justice not only seems like a farce but also an illusion. More than often, one is left asking several perplexing questions such as - do people just walk away? Do these cases remain unresolved? Who decides the privileges? Why doesn’t anybody talk about it? It seems this conversation is taking place but through rumours and conjecture - a manner which rarely merits any informed thought or reporting.
The Salman Khan saga - whether it’s from the Drunk Driving case or the Black Buck case, has long held fascination for many as a prime example of manipulated or delayed justice as many groups in unison seemed to scream - “It’s all there! Why the delay?” Then, as is atypical of human behaviour, we forgot and moved on in the absence of a platform to broadcast until 2nd July 2013, when a sessions court in Mumbai ordered that Khan be tried under charges of culpable homicide. It was the age of social media and in the past few months that the trial has grabbed headlines, it has gained even more online notoriety.
Social media has provided a unique dimension to those pointless conversations where fun speculation with friends and family is now shared with millions across the web. We could take a cue from the West too, right from the deep beliefs about the OJ Simpson trial farce to the recent revelations by Hannibal Buress about the silenced rape allegations on Bill Cosby, it seems the undoing of some famous personalities has come from unwavering belief of guilt or simple hearsay. If one can even attribute such conjecture and speculation to a trial by media and audience, the case of the Aston Martin in Mumbai trumps all disbelief one can hold in rumors and conjecture.
On the night of December 8th, 2013, an Aston Martin on Mumbai’s Pedder Road collided with an Audi A4 and a Hyundai sedan. The driver of the Aston Martin fled the scene in two security detail cars, which were following him as Foram Ruparel, the driver of the Audi A4, filed a complaint at the Gamdevi Police Station citing a young man at the wheel. Vikram Mishra, whose Hyundai Elantra was also rear-ended by the Aston Martin, and spun 360 degrees was travelling with his wife, their 17-year-old son, a pregnant family friend and her husband. Mishra complained about the callous attitude of the police in responding to the emergency and the delay in registering the FRI. But the most riveting revelation of the incident trickled later - the car was registered to Reliance Ports, a private firm under Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Limited.
As speculation and several eyewitness accounts appropriated the blame to Mukesh’s eldest son Akash Ambani, Bansilal Joshi, 55 ,came forward as the driver of the Aston Martin that night. The vocal victims of the crime suddenly assumed silence as they accepted a new delivery of their cars, an Audi A6 which replaced an Audi A4 while a Skoda replaced the deceased Hyundai. What was even more peculiar was the sudden silence assumed by the traditional media, which was only replaced with social media speculation and theories, often relying on humour and sad observation of the situation.
If you think this is based solely on conjecture by hidden online trolls or Twitterati, a media professional of Network 18 privately rued to someone how a humorous segment on the car crash was asked to be taken down by those at the top. Network 18, which Reliance bought a controlling stake in in May 2014, already had significant financial stake and clout controlled by Mukesh Ambani at the time of the accident. Since then, CNN-IBN, a news channel, has gone on to dedicate an entire day of news coverage to the opening of the Reliance Hospital in Mumbai while ignoring all other significant news stories of the day.
A News Story About The Car Crash Is Deleted By Hans India
A quick search on the issue will presently draw up articles on Forbes and Millenium Post, each providing more questions than answers with the latter even questioning if there were two casualties that night. Mumbai Mirror and Mid-Day, who had taken up extensive reporting of the issue never once questioned the sudden silence assumed by the victims, satisfied by the compensation meted out to them and their refusal to seek any further justice. Thus, a stoic silence (and silencing) crept in, breeding more rumours and theories.
The death of Sunanda Pushkar also sent the rumour mill into a frenzy. When repeated delays or differing causes were put forth, a few still stuck to their belief that it was cold blooded murder, blaming none other than her husband Shashi Tharoor. At a media function in 2014, where Shashi Tharoor was in attendance had many people thronging to the social media savvy politician. When one person was asked why he mentioned that Tharoor had killed his wife shortly before taking a photograph with him, he replied with deadpan certainty “Because I know he did.”
It was murder! Sunanda Pushkar : There is justice in this world after all . God bless her soul.
— Shobhaa De (@DeShobhaa) January 6, 2015
Wish Sunanda Pushkar’s close friends would speak up. I heard very pathetic stories from some of them about Tharoor’s abuse of Sunanda.
— Madhu Kishwar (@madhukishwar) January 6, 2015
Sunanda Pushkar’s death controversy further strengthen the fact that the rich and powerful can strongly influence the investigation process.
— Kundan Sharma (@kundansharma07) January 6, 2015
In January 2015, when the Delhi Police declared her death to be a case of murder, the rumours and allegations resurfaced. Tharoor has subsequently been questioned and maintains innocence while insisting that he is co-operating with the authorities. After the conviction of Salman Khan, it’s clear that the gaze will now shift to Tharoor with the public perception maintaining a clock - how long before he faces the same fate?
We are aware that the narrative presented seems more and more similar to a Bollywood gossip tabloid than a credible news piece, but in dearth of credible news and reporting or perception of a botched up investigation, these rumours have gained notoriety especially with the rich and powerful due to the media and general public’s fickle mindedness. And the sad fact is, the names mentioned are not alone.
Sanjay Dutt, the star with a kind heart and perception of a Bollywood star, was quickly forgiven and accepted back by the fraternity which had alienated him after his involvement in the 1993 bomb blast case. This unwavering support from the industry still stands true even as he serves his sentence in Yerwada Jail since 2013. Navjot Singh Sidhu, the cricketer, commentator and present day reality television star, was in fact convicted for culpable homicide and sentenced to three years of imprisonment. The Supreme Court suspended the sentence, thereby allowing him to contest and win the by-elections for his seat and serve deafening laughter week after week on national television. If one starts traversing through the long list of celebrity crimes which have been forgotten or blurred, we don’t need to look further than the crime of hit and run itself.
John Abraham was sentenced to fifteen days of imprisonment under negligent driving when he injured two pedestrians with his motorbike in Khar in 2006. But the actor never spent the night in jail after securing bail although he did pay a fine and took the injured to the hospital. Manish Khatau, son of industrialist Mahendra Khatau, slammed his car into a police barrier and severely injured a constable. Yet, he was never charged for rash and negligent driving, eventually being acquitted on the charge of attempt to murder. But perhaps Actor Puru Rajkumar’s hit and run case hold special mention in the context of the Salman Khan case, impunity and silence.
Puru Rajkumar, the son of thespian actor Rajkumar, ran over five people in December 1993, killing three of them in the process. He fled the crime scene in a fashion similar to Salman Khan but was let off with just a fine of Rs 30,000. As the actor faded from memory and public consciousness (a fact many believe would have not led to the constant hype around Salman’s crimes, had it not been for his resurgence in the film industry) we have failed to express pure disgust and outrage in a clear case of farcical justice.
Saif Ali Khan, Shiney Ahuja and politicians like Jayalalitha and Jagir Kaur are all currently embroiled in legal hearings along with scores of other famous personalities and yet the conversation around them in the general public and the media seems to be censored. The scores of interviews with Sanjay Dutt and Salman Khan would either avoid the cases against them or label them ‘mistakes’,’hurdles’ or ‘setbacks’. The caretaker and soft approach seemed to have emboldened the stars so much that in an opening episode of Bigg Boss, hosted jointly by Sanjay and Salman, Sanjay Dutt joked about how looking at the ‘jail’ in the compound bought back bad memories. Tell us you didn’t laugh as his innuendo made you blissfully oblivious to the damage Dutt caused by shielding arms and not presenting vital information about the blasts to the police or how Salman killed a person in drunken stupor and hunted an endangered animal?
But then are we really relishing justice or a sadistic impulse? The Times Of India carried a full front page story about the Salman Verdict with details about his behaviour in court, the bail etc. while the names and voice of the victims shifted to page 2. Would the public not have benefited from listening to the aggrieved victims and their kin first?
In an essential opinion piece of the verdict, Suhel Sheth perfectly points out the adverse effects of our savage and presumptous culture where we love to see our heroes drown and fall. He asks us to consider that in our rush to defend or vilify the larger than life beings, have we considered that the celebrity culture has actually harmed Salman’s case? Few pointed out how the Alistair Pereira case, where the accused had killed seven people and injured eight and yet, was sentenced to 3 years of imprisonment.
The Salman Khan verdict is being hailed by the media as an oracle to those who sit in the ivory towers of wealth and influence that their immunity from culpability might be over. But few are questioning their own role played in creating an environment of jingoism, exaltation and trial as well as the complete silence and reversal in cases such as that of the Ambani-Aston Martin car crash.
It’s time for our society, justice system and the gatekeepers of information to assume a more responsible role where a person is neither exempted nor targeted for their social stature or fame. In the absence of such a culture, rumors and kangaroo court judgements will be passed- serving neither the victims nor the accused in a just manner. Because in the age of social media, muffled justice is assumed guilt.
As Khan was acquitted of all charges since the evidence piled against him was circumstantial and inadequate, social media’s reaction has been one of uproar against the verdict. Scroll on for the Twitter-voiced community anger laced with bitter sarcasm and frustration at the Indian judicial system.