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October 26, 1998


E-Mail this column to a friend Vir Sanghvi

The buck stops here

Public sympathy is a funny thing. Just consider and contrast the cases of two Bombay film stars: Sanjay Dutt and Salman Khan. The two men have some superficial similarities. Both are industry children, both are noted for their violent tempers and both appear to believe that a good two-hour workout improves the mind. But public reaction to their imprisonment has been vastly different. When Sanjay was arrested under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, the people of India were on his side. His continued incarceration became a national cause celebre and when he was finally released, there was dancing on the streets. Salman, alas, can count on no such sympathy. The general reaction to his arrest has been one of grim satisfaction. A few hundred fans have protested half heartedly, but the great Indian middle class has already made up its mind: it is time to make an example of somebody like Salman.

At one level, this is bizarre. The crime that Sanjay was accused of was far more serious. He possessed an assault rifle at the peak of the Bombay riots. When asked if he owned such a gun, he denied it while simultaneously arranging for the weapon to be surreptitiously destroyed. The charge against him -- possession of a gun that is no hunting rifle and can only be used to kill people -- was identical to the charge against several others who were also jailed for apparent involvement in the Bombay riots. But while the other TADA detenues languished in jail unsung, Sanjay became a national symbol of injustice.

On the other hand, even if Salman is guilty as charged -- and of course, he must be regarded as innocent until it can be demonstrated otherwise -- his crime is much less serious. There is no suggestion of involvement in terrorist violence, no friendship with such Dawood Ibrahim henchmen as Hanif and Samir Hingora and no assault rifle.

The most that can be said is that he went off on shikar in an area where hunting is banned, and then shot and killed two black bucks (and then ate them for dinner but that I suppose is not part of the chargesheet). The charge against Salman is poaching which, if upheld, does not show him in a very good light but does not, nevertheless, suggest that he is a hood, a goonda or a terrorist.

So why is it that Sanjay had the middle class cheering for him while Salman sat sullenly in custody bereft of popular support?

I doubt if the answer has much to do with environmental consciousness. We care about wildlife but we care more about terrorism. Few of us -- if any -- would argue that Salman's crime (if proved) is greater than the one Sanjay was accused of. The real reason, I suspect, has less to do with the crimes than with the way in which we perceive both stars.

By the time Sanjay was charged under TADA, most people had begun to feel sorry for him. He had lost his mother in tragic circumstances, had overcome a severe drug addiction problem, had seen his marriage break up and had suffered during the Bombay riots. His father had offered to resign from the Lok Sabha because of the government's inability to control the riots. And his family had been threatened by assorted Hindu communalist organisations.

Not only did we see Sanjay as a tragic, insecure figure, we also saw him -- how do I phrase this delicately? -- as being less than an intellectual giant. So when the police came up with outrageous allegations -- among them the charge that he had plotted to blow up the stock exchange -- we could agree with Shatrughan Sinha who retorted: "Don't be ridiculous! He doesn't event know what a stock exchange is."

In the circumstances, it was hard to see Sanjay as an international terrorist. It was easier to see him as a macho moron who had decided -- when his family was threatened -- that the best way to protect his sisters was to procure an assault rifle. It was possible that he bought this rifle from one of the many Dawood henchmen who thronged the film industry but then, who else do you buy an AK-47 from, if not a hoodlum?

When Sanjay was arrested, we saw the arrest as one more in a series of tragedies. When he remained in jail for months, we were shocked by the unfairness of it all. The state had no proof that he was a terrorist. All it could demonstrate was that he possessed an AK-47 which, by itself, is hardly proof of a conspiracy to blow up a stock exchange or the Reserve Bank of India. The overkill on the part of the government removed whatever doubts we may have had about Sanjay. Even those who had been inclined to judge him harshly at first believed that he had now suffered enough.

Salman is perceived very differently. For all know, he is probably a kind, gentle, cerebral, mild-mannered fellow. But that, alas, is not how most people see him. Largely as a consequence of the manner in which he is portrayed in the press, he is seen as being a rich, spoilt and successful brat. The only tragedies in his life seem to consist of the odd flop or the occasional broken love affair. His manner is perceived as arrogant and self-satisfied and the general view is that even if success has not gone to his head, it has certainly gone to his overmuscled biceps.

It was somehow in keeping with the seriously tragic nature of Sanjay's life that the crime he should be accused of involved a major offence against the state. Similarly, it is in keeping with Salman's image that he is accused of the kind of crime we associate with rich brats: he took three attractive girls on a shikar, shot two members of an endangered species and then returned to his palace hotel where the chefs served the black buck for dinner: Even the treatment they have been accorded by the authorities conforms to the stereotypes. Sanjay was beaten up by the Bombay police, kept in a cell with hardened criminals and when he fell ill, the warden chained his wrist to the bedpost.

Salman, on the other hand, did not go to jail at all. He was kept at the wildlife department's headquarters where an office was hastily converted into a makeshift bedroom for him. His food came from the Umaid Bhavan palace hotel (yes, the same one where black buck was on the menu), he was supplied with bottles of mineral water and fizzy drinks and, lest he got too bored, he had access to a cellular phone. Despite this, the star was unhappy. "I couldn't sleep at night," the papers reported him as having said. "There were too many mosquitoes in the room." The poor dear!

Though Salman probably does not realise it, he might well have been better off spending three nights in an ordinary jail. The crux of the case against him -- in the court of public opinion -- is that he is a rich kid who believed that the laws did not apply to him. He believed that he could go off and shoot endangered species, could trample over the religious sentiments of the entire Bishnoi community while on his shikar-picnic and that even if things did go wrong, the case could be hushed up. One of the more shocking sidelights of this matter has been the first autopsy on the black bucks. The man who conducted it concluded that they had died of overeating -- over-indulgence apparently being a condition that causes large bullet holes to appear spontaneously in well-fed deer -- and that there was no evidence of shikar. This has since been overturned and the expert on overeating is now absconding. No doubt, he had been well fed himself to doctor the autopsy results.

There was also a middle class recognition that nothing much would come of the case. After a few days, Salman got bail. He flew back to Bombay, was photographed, and resumed life as usual. The case will drag on while his high priced lawyers secure adjournment after postponement. Eventually, some settlement will be reached and no more will be heard about the black buck biryani or whatever it was that Salman's shikar was intended to produce.

Given its frustration with our legal system, the middle class wants to see Salman suffer now. It wants some tangible proof that the law treats everybody equally and that rich kids can't shoot endangered species, and then resume their normal hump-and-pump lifestyles with only a three-day break at some wildlife office to deter them.

In its heart, the middle class knows that this won't happen. It senses -- even if he is guilty -- that Salman will get away with it. It knows that the way the law works in India, if you are rich and powerful, you may suffer some temporary inconvenience but that you always win in the end. All that you get by way of justice is a few days of public humiliation. The importance of the Sanjay Dutt case was that the rules were reversed -- perhaps he suffered too much because he was rich and powerful. Until it can be demonstrated that the Salman Khan case is a similar exception, nobody will feel sorry for him. On the contrary, they will reckon that he has got away too easily.

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