Even after 13 years, victims of Salman Khan’s hit-and-run case have not been delivered justice. With the Mumbai High Court suspending a five-year jail sentence, their agony gets longer
By Bikram Vohra
Ever since Plato and Xenophon failed to de-fend their master Socrates in 399 BC for heresy, thus allowing 500 Athenians to judge him guilty and have him executed, justice per se, has been a negotiable instrument. And the quality of judges and lawyers is a major factor in the victory or defeat of the accused.
Indian justice is mystifying when seen through the prism of an egalitarian democracy and echoes Shelley’s verse: “I have no hope nor health, nor peace within nor calm around.” Cloned from a colonial past and cornered by sheer volume, it has robbed most of the wretched and lost the right to a speedy trial. Over 2.8 million people await justice at this moment, a serpentine queue that boggles the mind.
That it is elitist is not a major surprise. In independent India, since the day Mahara-shtra Governor Vijayalakshmi Pandit “forgave” Commander Nanavati in 1962 for shooting his wife’s lover, justice has always been up for grabs and impacted upon by political expediency. Nanavati shot businessman Prem Ahuja with his service revolver and was sentenced to life after a two-year trial. A petition to pardon him was moved by a Sindhi leader, Bhai Pratap, who was himself in a bit of hot water. The government was under pressure to let the officer go free to maintain the morale of the armed forces. He was finally released and left for Canada in a case where guilt was eclipsed by hi-octane emotional arm-twisting.
Many others who have committed the same sort of crime are still in jail, have been hanged or died in incarceration with no one doing them any reverence.
In the case of Salman Khan, we have a classic example of justice thwarted by the passage of time, so that when a legal caveat is finally announced, it sounds vindictive rather than the distilled result of litigation. The chasm between the deed and the verdict is so wide and so washed away by the torrent of water under the bridge that it almost seems anemic and ludicrous. That it then filters away through gaping loopholes and reliefs afforded to an accused in a lower court makes the whole issue academic and utterly pointless.
A bond of `30,000 is furnished to keep him free. That is farcical but it is within the framework of the law. And there is rejoicing on the streets. Wherefore rejoice, what conquest brings them home except that the old girl’s blindfold slipped and the faceless dead don’t count.
Back up a little.
The public has no recollection of the accident or a faint one at best. The act is blurred. The collective mind is baffled that if the evidence is so startlingly clear 13 years later, why was it not equally clear when the trial began and why has there been such inordinate delay getting these ducks in a row. The absent driver, his convenient reappearance and the suspiciously choreographed scenario of innocence would all have been validated and in focus if the psychological and legal statute of limitations was observed.
Now, sympathy creeps in and soaks the facts. He is a nice guy, he engages in charity, he has redeeming factors. None of these have any bearing. The three tenets for not delaying justice are universal even though they are not applied with the equality one expects. To save the accused anxiety, to avoid long imprisonment as an undertrial and negate the possibility of the accused being exposed to time, diminishing his mental and physical capabilities.
In Salman’s case, he fulfills the required parameters. Anxiety has been his partner all these years. He has technically been an undertrial and it is not his fault he was allowed to continue living his lifestyle by the law. In Category 3, of course, you are mentally and physically rubbed raw and exhausted by the sheer suspense of the unending case.
That the system has turned all three elements into confetti and made them almost caricatures in any adversarial process cannot be denied. The fear of contempt of court silences the individual. The legal fraternity does not speak up with one voice and demand a review in which “justice delayed is justice denied” is lifted from its clichéd roots and confronted.
In a perfect world who you are and the clout you have would be outside the purview of justice. But we do not live in a perfect world. And Khan will be “protected” by the system because it fits with the prevailing priorities. One cannot cavil over the right of Khan to obtain instant bail. If there is a provision in law, he has the right to use it. What one can express concern about (and should express) is the inability to extend the same relief to a common man. Here lies the rub.
The country does not really care about the thousands of powerless men and women (and minors) awaiting trial. It is seen as the luck of the draw. With a violent police force that engages in physical brutality for sport, the poor seldom get their day in court.
Ergo, the miscarriage of justice has already begun and once that vehicle starts its sooty journey, there is nothing to stop it ramming the promised judicial process.
We might make pious whistling sounds and whine a bit but it does not add up to a spit in the wind. If we admit that the large majority are marginalized and refused the protection promised by the judicial process, then, we can more easily understand that perceptions of injustice will always prevail.
But before we get maudlin about those faceless millions, spare a mild thought for the high-profile who are often victims of their fame and pay the price for it. While they do obtain certain concessions, they also are disqualified from any short-cuts or plea bargains. Justice has to be seen to be done for a hungry media needing to feed its ghoulish masses and that mandate mangles the rights and privacies of the individual. Salman has been under the cloud for nearly 13 years. That is the extent of an official life sentence. In the case of Sanjay Dutt, it was even longer before he was sentenced. The anguish of such a long “wait” is tangible.
Sanjay Dutt’s trial and conviction took more time than Salman’s hit-and-run case
When you hold the sword over their heads for such long periods, they are already serving the state and are at its mercy. This aspect is also wrong.
Sabrina Lal, sister of Jessica Lal ( far right)
When celebs are victims, it may be no different. Jessica Lal was murdered in a nightclub in April 1999. Her killer was sentenced to life in 2006. It took four years to hang Mohammed Kasab and if you really want to rub it in, follow the Hashimpura massacre in 1987 when 42 people were killed ostensibly by cops. It has taken 28 years to throw the case out in 2015 for lack of evidence. Did no one kill them?
(Below) Relatives of Muslims killed in Hashimpura
One cannot cavil over the right of Khan to obtain instant bail. If there is a provision in law, he has the right to use it. What one should express concern about is the inability to extend the same relief to a common man.
In the Bhopal gas leak tragedy, grandchildren were appearing on behalf their long dead grandparents in a third generation “hand the baton” trial that still ranks as a permanent stigma on the judicial process.
In both the cases, the verdict was delivered fast
Even on the global yardstick, Indian justice grinds so lowly that often the powder goes unnoticed. The Oscar Pistorius trial in South Africa began 11 months after he allegedly shot his girlfriend through a locked bathroom and the verdict was delivered soon after. Whether one agrees with the verdict or not is irrelevant to the process.The fact that it was completed expeditiously is what counts. In the OJ Simpson case, where the running back Hall of Famer was charged with the deaths of his girlfriend Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend in June 1994, the case came to trial in 1995, just over a year later.
With India currently battling a wave of rapes, the closest comparison one can make to the inability of the courts to handle the fallout is the racial assaults by the police in the US. In both cases, the prejudice is deep-rooted, part of a mental make-up that defies common sense. The perpetrator justifies his conduct because it is filtered through contempt. What is known as the “Rodney King” syndrome in America is known as the “Nirbhaya” equation in India. Both cases have become symbolic for their genre of crime and political leaders have failed to rise to the occasion and support the innocent.
King’s beating by four cops has been a forerunner to multiple such assaults on Afro-Americans. The Indian girl raped on the bus shocked a nation as more examples of ugly male chauvinism were exposed and continue to occur. The gross common factor is that there exists an element of “condoning the culprits” that defies every decent tenet but feeds on a profiling that just will not get beaten down.
Prejudice that is part of a culture makes a mockery of law and the law far too often loses. Against the marooning of justice in most categories except perhaps for a new alacrity in white collar fiscal scams, the Salman case is not a major landmark. It is only fraught with fear of ethnic reprisals and shrill fan support.
It is also unlikely that he will ever spend any significant time behind bars and he has the wherewithal to finance his appeals so that will eat up the years. As of this moment, the time lag has saved his skin.
His atonement can only be financially supporting the dead man’s family. What the Salman case must underscore is the need for speed. To make the verdict an associate of the accusation rather than a far too distant and disconnected cousin so that it erodes into an escape route.
The two major flaws in this case are:
- To not make someone pay the price for a criminal offence…in law you cannot be held to a higher or different standard unless you are elected to public office and Salman has got away with it by default.
- To not establish precedents that are available to all. Who else gets a bail for such an insignificant amount or is almost anointed rather than castigated?
Above all, the case should ensure that fear of retribution from either the system or the power of the accused does not force good men and true to be silent…or build a house of lies. For, when the reporting of a crime is made equal to the committing of it, then your system is run by criminals.