The details behind the Salman Khan hit-and-run case
The horror story that Bollywood producers and directors have been dreading became a reality earlier this month when three witnesses testified against the A-lister Salman Khan, who is accused of running over five people sleeping on a Mumbai street in 2002.
One person died and four others were injured in the hit-and-run. Khan denies the charge. His lawyers say he was not behind the wheel of his Toyota Land Cruiser that night and that it was his driver who took the vehicle out without Khan’s permission.
But the witnesses testified that it was Khan who emerged from the driver’s seat after the crash. One of them said he was so drunk he fell as he got out.
Twelve years later, the case is back in court (the judicial system is clogged with 25 million cases), much to Khan’s – and Bollywood’s – dismay. The filmmakers and production companies the actor is working with stand to lose millions of dollars if the 47-year-old, who has starred in 90 films during his 25-year career, is found guilty.
If Khan goes to jail – 10 years is the sentence for culpable homicide – the projects will crash.
Apart from the prospect of gigantic losses for the industry, the trial evokes shades of The White Tiger, the 2008 Booker prize-winning novel by the Indian author Aravind Adiga, in which a driver takes the rap for his female employer after she runs over a man. The driver agrees to go to jail for a crime he did not commit because he is offered a sum of money beyond his wildest dreams. Adiga writes: “The jails in Delhi are full of drivers who are there behind bars because they are taking the blame for their good, solid, middle- class masters.”
Did Khan bribe his employee to take the rap? That’s for the jury to decide. But the case does expose the gaping disparity between India’s rich and poor, as well as the most distressing feature of criminal cases involving the rich and powerful: the accused use bribes or intimidation to force witnesses to alter their testimony – one of the key witnesses in Khan’s case told the court that he received two threatening calls asking him to accept 500,000 rupees (Dh31,350) to stay away from the case. Often, witnesses do not receive adequate protection by the police or the judicial system, leaving them vulnerable to intimidation by the accused.
But times are changing. The days when celebrities (and industrialists and top politicians) could blatantly escape the force of the law are gone. The notion that all Indians are equal before the law has, largely, taken hold.
Khan has maintained his innocence, but if he does go to prison, he will find company in his fellow actor, Sanjay Dutt, who is serving a five-year sentence for illegally possessing firearms during the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts. Not surprisingly, Dutt has spent almost as much time at home on accord of his wife’s illness, but a harsh media backlash brought an end to the special treatment. Khan, if he is found guilty, can expect no special privileges either.
Published: May 18, 2014 04:00 AM