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A Dear Deer Chase

Three nights in jail, and it may be just a start. Is Salman a victim of his celebrityhood? Or is the law right in making him a test case? Updates

A Dear Deer Chase
P Lashkari
A Dear Deer Chase
Salman Khan loves dogs. He has two French mastiffs whom he calls My Son and My Jaan. To pamper their palate, he has special food from abroad flown down for them. To keep these thick-coated animals comfortable in Bombay's steamy heat, the ACs in his house run constantly at carefully controlled temperatures. Even when a stray dog in his neighbourhood died, Salman is said to have gone into deep depression. The same Salman Khan who is said to have shot coy, harmless chinkaras and black buck near Jodhpur in 1998 with a cold and steady hand. No wonder the superstar is often called a bundle of contradictions.

Salman is also a personality who seems to evoke extreme responses. While his fans and Bollywood—which has crores riding on his movies—rallied around the troubled star, calling the five-year sentence (if not the Rs-25,000 fine) awarded by the chief judicial magistrate of Jodhpur for hunting a chinkara as harsh and inhuman, environmentalists found it a shot in the arm for the cause of nature protection. "It's a good day for wildlife and conservation," said Kartick Satyanarayanan of Wildlife SOS.

Five years is the highest punishment ever awarded for a wildlife offence in the country—the only other such case being that of notorious wildlife trader Sansar Chand. Wasn't it too cruel to have done this to Salman, to have put him in the same league as a professional criminal like Sansar? How many other wildlife offenders have been brought to book in this manner? Is he being made a soft target because he is a celebrity? "There are so many instances of animal killings in the country but nobody points a finger at them," bemoans actress Raveena Tandon. In fact, around the same time as Salman's hunting incident, there were reports about an Andhra minister having hosted an official dinner for then Lok Sabha speaker G.M.C. Balayogi. It had dishes made out of half-a-dozen protected species like sambhar, spotted deer and peacock. Balayogi died later in a copter crash, and the case is now all but forgotten.

Okay, there might be a perverse pleasure in seeing a star fall, in reading about him eating dal-roti and chana-gur in jail, sleeping on the floor, wrestling with mosquitoes under a single fan on a hot night, sharing his cell with a lifer. But logically and legally, Salman couldn't have gotten away with a lesser sentence. "The case has not been invented to do him in. There's a law and he had been flouting it," says Vivek Menon, executive director, Wildlife Trust of India (WTI). The killing of chinkara, a Schedule 1 species like the tiger and the leopard, can get punishment of up to seven years. Thus, the sentence has been in consonance with the law, says Satyanarayanan. "Salman should be glad he got away with five years." Adds Belinda Wright, executive director, Wildlife Protection Society of India: "A celebrity, like the common man, has a duty to abide by the law." The judgement only "shows that you can't buy everything with money and popularity," notes P.K. Sen, director, species programme, WWF India.

Sansar is, no doubt, an organised wildlife criminal involved in 20-odd cases, while Salman is what Menon calls a "gentleman shikari". However, Sansar was convicted for trading in animal skins on circumstantial evidence (testimony of a co-accused), while the case against Salman has been much stronger—there was direct evidence of his violation of the law.

What Salman did was premeditated and planned, for thrills and fun. Moreover, he has been a repeat offender. In a similar case of hunting black buck, the actor was sentenced to one-year imprisonment on February 17 this year. "The Wildlife Protection Act specifies that second and subsequent punishment is higher," explains Ashok Kumar, vice chairman, WTI. In fact, that the other pending hunting case, where his co-accused include stars Saif Ali Khan, Neelam, Tabu and Sonali Bendre, could turn out even worse. And we're still not talking of the other case hanging over Salman's head—the hit-and-run case in Mumbai where one person died and four were injured when his Land Cruiser rammed into a bakery in Bandra. For the record, Salman was involved in yet another case of poaching chinkara in Kutch but got away for lack of evidence. A few years ago, the Panvel farmhouse of his father, Salim Khan, was raided and he was found keeping endangered species like black buck and spotted deer in confinement.

Experts admit that unlike Salman's hunting cases, there are many wildlife crimes that go unrecorded. But they think it will act as a deterrent against possible violations in the future. "It's an eye-opener for the country, it has raised public consciousness," says Sen. "People will think twice about hunting for fun," says Wright. India has a very strong Wildlife Protection Act that was promulgated in 1972 but its enforcement has always been a problem. For example, the other high-profile black buck hunting case, involving ex-cricketer Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, is still pending in court. The conviction rate is estimated to be as low as one per cent. Preparing a chargesheet and gathering evidence is cumbersome, the court cases stretch on for years. Also, there are no special wildlife prosecutors trained in environmental law. The judiciary itself is burdened with other civil and criminal cases. "Environmental crimes tend to take a back seat. They haven't been a priority," says Wright. There have also been innumerable cases of the accused absconding after getting out on bail. The dispensation in the Salman case shows a positive way to the future. Notes Ashok Kumar: "Salman's two convictions have brought teeth to the Wildlife Act."

On April 13, Salman was granted bail, and he walked out of the Jodhpur Central Jail looking nonchalant in jeans and sleeveless vest, and none the worse for his three nights in jail. Among those waiting for him were brother Sohail, girlfriend Katrina Kaif and crowds of cheering fans. By nightfall, the star touched down Mumbai to a hero's welcome. For now, there's a respite from the ordeal. But the ghosts of the dead deer won't go away so easily.
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