Salman Khan’s conviction came as a rather long-awaited victory to all those who have been involved in the wildlife and conservation scenario in India. While some may question this statement, the obvious answer to it lies within our constitution that declares poaching as a heinous and punishable crime. Those found guilty of the offence ought to be tried and charged under the full extent of the law. Over the past few decades, the major lack of concern over poaching and the low rates of conviction have rather encouraged the crime. Another factor playing a role in the increased number of poaching cases is due to the endless stalling (it took 20 years for Salman Khan’s case verdict). Although the megastar received a bail and did not have to spend more than two nights in the jail but the convicted status still must have acted as a deterrent to other ‘entitled’ souls who assume and suppose that they are free to commit such crimes and get away with it without facing any consequences.
As a girl who was born in Jodhpur, I have had eternal love for the city since childhood. On one of my visits to the city a few years ago, I had an encounter with the Bishnoi community where several chinkaras peacefully grazed in and around the village. While this was a new sight to me, other locals seemed unfazed by this and told me about the statue of a Bishnoi man who lost his life taking a bullet to save a gazelle from a hunter.
The Bishnoi community was founded by the famous Guru Jambeshwar in the 15th century and his primary teaching involved the protection of biodiversity. The community thus looks down upon the damage to any animal species or plants and considers all forms of life as equal before God. Taking immense pride in their community history, Bishnois have fought several times to protect their biodiversity and thus didn’t shy away from opposing Salman Khan too.
Salman Khan was accused of killing two blackbucks in October of 1998 while he was in Jodhpur to film Hum Saath Saath Hain. Other accused actors such as Saif Ali Khan, Tabu, Neelam Kothari and Sonali Bendre who too were present in the jeep during the killing have been acquitted while Salman Khan was convicted by a Jodhpur court.
The blackbuck is an antelope which is on Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act of India, the highest protection accorded under the law. To further put this into perspective, the tiger too is on Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act and the consequences are only imaginable if a tiger had been shot by someone. Then why suffer this discrimination even in animals of considering one important and disregarding the other?
While support for the star filled the airwaves with great concern over whether he would eat rotis or cabbage in prison, and whether it was fair to put him through this ordeal 20 years after the act and if he should have been convicted at all, after all, he is now a benign “Being Human” advocate, the witnesses to the killing of the blackbuck, unfortunately for the star, were more concerned about the antelopes’ right to life than his facade of ‘being human’.
Thus, the concern lies over the kind of privilege that people in rarified lives enjoy assuming that they can do what they wish to do without bothering about consequences. While it is impossible to be in Jodhpur around Bishnoi villages and be aware of their devotion to wildlife it could be either the willful ignorance of the fact or such complete disengagement from the world that the star assumed he could be in that jeep and could target those antelope without having anyone know or do anything about it.
Khan’s defence over the years of the antelope dying from dog bites to keeling over in starvation has been utterly absurd. More absurd, has been his claim that he found a young fawn trapped and hungry and fed biscuits to it. The man in concern is overly cut off from the realities of the world, who has been accused of much worse (hit-and-run in Mumbai) and then acquitted. A man who wears the mantle of a victim as “I am a star, so I am more persecuted”. A man who has also been accused previously of being violent to the women in his life. That he is immensely generous with his crew and cast, very helpful and encouraging of young actors, a dream actor for producers and that he gives to charity, is not mutually exclusive with the more negative aspects of his personality.
In a career that’s spanned almost 30 years, Salman Khan, the poster boy of controversies, has only reached greater heights. Neither is the blackbuck poaching case his only brush with the law nor is it his first conviction. Yet somehow, Salman Khan as a brand is one that only keeps on giving. That he can be a good friend to some does not mean he was a good friend to the black buck that night. It does not take rocket science to know that a late night drive in a jeep with a gun, with the intention of shooting something, is just wrong on so many levels in a country that declared hunting illegal in 1972. Assuming that he could do it because he is Salman Khan somehow makes it worse.
If media footages from the two days at Jodhpur are anything to go by, Salman Khan’s fans still worship him with the passion of a thousand suns. And the fact that we are today a society who is willing to hero-worship stars to the exclusion of a logic and good sense also makes us culpable if not utterly responsible.