The police failed to collect and preserve the fingerprints on the steering wheel of the vehicle involved in the accident
The hit-and-run case is not Salman's only brush with the law. He was booked for allegedly killing spotted deer and black bucks in Rajasthan
Francis Fernandes of Hill Road in Bandra, Mumbai, was woken up by a loud thud in the wee hours of September 28, 2002. As he stepped out of his house to check what had happened, he heard loud cries. On the road, he saw a crowd surrounding actor Salman Khan. Two people in the crowd had iron rods in their hands. When Salman saw Fernandes, he asked for help. Fernandes, who had known Salman since his childhood, intervened and took away the rods. He rescued him from the mob and took him to the nearby A1 Bakery. “I did not smell alcohol on Salman and he looked okay. A car was passing, and my wife stopped it and told Salman to enter,” he told the court during his cross-examination in the trial.
Public prosecutor Pradeep Gharat pointed out this incident in his final argument of the case and raised a question in the court of additional sessions judge D.W. Deshpande—why did Salman not take the victims to hospital?
What stopped the actor from staying back to calm down people and tell them that action would be taken against his driver?
Gharat's argument prevailed on May 6, as Deshpande rejected Salman's argument that he was not driving the vehicle on that day. “I hold that you were driving the vehicle without a licence. You were under influence of alcohol. All charges have been proven against you. What do you have to say?” asked the judge.
The actor, who had not been giving away anything on his face, replied: “Whatever I have to say, my lawyer will say.” At about 11:30am, when his lawyer, Srikant Shivade, was halfway through his argument, a barrage of lawyers, journalists and fans of the superstar had a spat at the door of court number 52. The police intervened and shut the door. Soon the courtroom was like an oven, thanks to Mumbai's humid summer; lawyers and journalists were packed in the room like sardines in a can.
Salman's brother Arbaaz Khan, brother-in-law Atul Agnihotri and legislator Baba Siddiqui, who is a family friend of the Khans, had occupied a row at the back of the room. Salman's sister Alvira Agnihotri stood in the front. She cried when the judge pronounced Salman guilty.
On Salman's behalf, Shivade touched upon the social service done by the actor. “His foundation has spent Rs42 crore in the past three years and has treated children with heart ailments. If he is sentenced, his income, which sponsors this good work, will stop and the work will be affected,” he said. He urged the court to treat Salman like an ordinary citizen, and not make an example of him. He also cited two other similar cases—Alistair Pereira, who was sentenced to three years in prison, and, Sanjeev Nanda, who was sentenced to two years. Shivade emphasised that not only was the alcohol content found in their blood higher than that in Salman's blood, but also the number of deaths was higher.
Salman seemed uncomfortable, and the crowd curious, when Shivade mentioned his health. “My client has a condition,” he said. He was about to elaborate on Salman's neurological condition, when he was stopped by a gesture by the actor.
The prosecution's counter arguments revolved around ensuring that such a crime would not be repeated. At about 12:30pm, it was announced that there would be a judgment in half an hour. By then the police had managed to barricade the court room. Some lawyers left the court to go on with their daily work and a fresh batch replaced them. No one else in the room seemed willing to lose their square foot of space. Then, a few Salman fans slipped in and one began clicking photos. She was escorted out by a policewoman.
Deshpande, a soft-spoken man, was barely audible when he pronounced the judgment. But there was a collective gasp in the room when the words 'five years' were uttered. Salman's eyes, which had been attempting stoicism for about two hours, registered shock. Arbaaz, who had been garrulous, stood speechless. While people filtered out, Salman's family was readying his bail application in the High Court.
The Salman Khan hit-and-run case is a classic example of how an open-and-shut case can be dragged for years just because the accused is a celebrity. “It had more to do with how an incapable, slow and casual police administration nearly botched a case of rash driving, which incidentally involved a person of influence,” said senior lawyer Abha Singh, who was an intervener in the case. “The delay, coupled with deliberate intentions to 'go soft', had been an impediment for the prosecution from day one.”
At the very beginning, the cops who handled the case made two cardinal mistakes. They allowed Salman to go home after the accident without checking the alcohol level in his blood. Secondly, they failed to collect and preserve the fingerprints on the steering wheel of the vehicle involved in the accident. Shivade, an ace criminal lawyer, launched a strong defence arguing that the police should have submitted the fingerprints analysis report as evidence. The sole defence witness in the case, Salman's driver Ashok Singh, made a startling statement a few weeks ago that he was behind the wheel, and not the actor, when the accident happened.
Shivade argued that there were four people in the vehicle, not three as claimed by prosecution. Salman, he argued, drank only water at Rain Bar, and the only death in the accident was caused during the rescue operation when the vehicle was dropped when it was being lifted by a crane.
Public prosecutor Gharat, however, was confident of puncturing the driver theory. He relied heavily on the initial statement given by others in the vehicle—constable Ravindra Patil, who died of tuberculosis in 2007, and singer Kamal Khan—and depositions by victims and other witnesses. While Salman and Kamal left the accident spot, Patil, who had been assigned as the actor's bodyguard, filed a first information report at the Bandra police station. “The accused was drunk and was driving his car. We came at St Andrews Road and he was driving at 90-100 kmph. I told him to lower the speed of the car as a right turn was coming... The accused could not control the car while taking the right turn and it went on the footpath. The people were sleeping on the footpath,” Patil said in his statement in 2006.
The prosecution stand was strengthened by the statements of pavement dwellers Ram Asare Pandey, Mannu Khan and Mohammad Kalim Iqbal Pathan. They did not have any difficulty identifying the superstar behind the wheel. Also, assistant chemical analyst P.W. Dattatray Bhalshankar said in his statement that results revealed alcohol traces in Salman's blood.
Kamal Khan had given a statement in the magistrate court that he was sitting behind while Patil sat next to Salman, who was driving. But he did not appear in the court. A warrant was issued against him and he was arrested. He was released on a personal bond of Rs 5,000 and an undertaking that he would attend the court whenever required. But, he left the country immediately and never showed up again at the trial.
“We want Kamal back since he is the star witness in this case,” said Abha Singh. “Producing Salman's driver Ashok Singh as the person behind the wheel is perjury. If that was the case why was Salman shielding his driver all these years.”
When the sentence was announced, there was an outpouring of grief from Salman's fans who had crowded the sessions court premises. “We are going to be with him throughout,” said Prashi Chaturvedi, who is in her early 20s. “He has helped people so much, he has even helped the victims.” Neha Mathews, another fan, had reached the sessions court even before the media arrived. She prayed fervently as she stood outside the courtroom. “I have decided to do 7,000 prayers,” she said. “I hope he will get bail in the High Court.”
Bhaijaan, a restaurant in Salman's neighbourhood of Bandra, is decked with posters of his hit movies, with a brief note on their release dates etched on currency notes. The restaurant had plans to give free food to customers for seven days if Salman was acquitted. “This is disastrous,” said Rahul Kanal, who was Salman's junior at the St Stanislaus High School in Bandra. “Now we will down the shutters for a few days.”
Bollywood, on the other hand, enmeshed itself with social media to create a monster of illogical and insensitive comments. Farah Khan Ali, jewellery designer and wife of DJ Aqueel, tweeted: “It's like penalising a train driver because someone decided to cross the tracks and got killed in the bargain. #salmankhancase”. Singer Abhijeet went a step further, comparing the dead with street dogs in his tweet. It attracted a barrage of criticism on social media.
The hit-and-run case is not Salman's only brush with the law. The actor was booked for allegedly killing spotted deer and blackbucks in Rajasthan, where he is facing trial in four cases. But, his bad boy image has in no way affected his popularity. A lot of it has to do with his on-screen image and his social and humanitarian work through his NGO Being Human. From an on-screen lover boy to an action hero and now a convict, his journey from the late 1980s is a fascinating tale.
Salman's Maine Pyar Kiya, in 1989, was a blockbuster, and the son of Salim Khan was an instant hit. His next blockbuster, Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, established him as Bollywood's favourite lover boy. “Generally with age, the charisma of actors decreases. But with Salman, it is the obverse,” said trade analyst Komal Nahta.
Along with success came the attention of the Mumbai underworld. In 1998, he started getting the protection of the Mumbai police. For a few years after the accident, his career saw nothing exciting. But, he reinvented himself as an action hero in 2009, with the blockbuster Wanted. Since then Salman's films have been setting records at the box office. Wanted was followed by super hits like Dabangg, Bodyguard, Ek Tha Tiger and Kick. “Last 5-6 years Salman had a magical run,” said Nahta. With the jail term, he said, the fans might get even closer to Salman and he could ride high on a sympathy wave. “The dynamic of stardom works in his favour,” he added. “Brand Salman was bolstered by his run-ins with the law.”
Despite Salman's success as a star, the grey patches of his persona had come to the fore on many occasions. He had an ugly tiff with a fellow actor, who was reportedly dating one of his former girlfriends. He is also reported to have had stand-offs with actor Shah Rukh Khan on many occasions. Shah Rukh visited Salman at his residence on May 5 to express his solidarity with him and his family.
Industry insiders say the accident and the ensuing developments brought a noticeable change in Salman's character. While the maverick Salman overshadowed the real Salman in the initial years, he mellowed and began contributing heavily to charity and philanthropy. “At the core, Salman is a helpful soul,” said Nahta, recollecting an incident. A few years ago, Salman's friend's maid's son fell terminally ill and wanted to meet the actor as his last wish. Nahta communicated it to Salman, who was then shooting at Lavasa township. He asked Nahta if the boy could be brought to Lavasa. The boy's doctors advised against him travelling. Salman sent a text message to Nahta saying he could arrange a helicopter to pick the boy. It was done, and the actor spent half a day with the boy.
Being Human, his NGO, is an offshoot of his larger philanthropic endeavours. It is reported to have adopted villages and is engaged in socially active projects with an eye on projecting the good image.
In movies and endorsements, about Rs200 crore is riding on Salman. A few days ago, he was shooting his upcoming release Bajrangi Bhaijaan in Srinagar. The shooting of another major film, Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, is not yet complete. “A shorter sentence term wouldn't have affected his career in a big way,” said an industry insider.
The conviction, however, is not the end of the legal fight. The prosecution is preparing for the next round of battle in the Bombay High Court where it will get tougher as defence counsel Shivade is joined by ace lawyer Harish Salve.
On May 6, within hours after Salman was sentenced, Shivade and Salve secured an interim bail for the actor from the High Court, citing that they had not received the copy of the judgment. Salve said they had got only the two-page operative part of the judgment and not the detailed copy citing reasons for conviction. While granting interim bail, Justice Abhay Thipse said that the copy of the order had not been delivered yet. “The order could have been pronounced when the copy was ready. It should not have been delivered if the copy is not ready,” he said.
Salman is likely to get a regular bail once the interim bail term expires. “Looked at that way, he can continue to be out of jail on a regular bail till the final hearing of the appeal. There is also a possibility that the High Court might postpone hearing the bail plea till the courts resume after the summer vacations. In that scenario Salman would have to be in jail at least till the courts resume,” said lawyer Asim Sarode.
A source in the defence side said it could take some time till the final hearing of the appeal happens and it made legal sense to ensure that the bail gets 'regularised'. A regular bail will ensure the actor is out of jail for a specific period of time. Such a bail could be obtained on a routine basis till the final hearing of the appeal.
“Salman does not have to go to jail till the final hearing of the appeal,” said senior lawyer Abbas Kazmi. “He has already obtained interim bail and the High Court can resort to CrPC Section 389 which typifies 'suspension of sentence' proclaimed by a trial court.” Criminal lawyer Satish Maneshinde said an appeal was continuation of trial in this case and there were no legal impediments for Salman to stay out on bail. Both the lawyers, citing precedents, said the sentence was on the harsher side. “That he is a top star might have worked against him,” said Kazmi.
For the defence team comprising Shivade, Salve, Niranjan Mundargi, Anannd Desai, Nirav Shah, Chandrima Mitra and Manhar Saini, the job is cut out—keep Salman out on bail as long as possible so that he could fulfil his commitments. And, since an appeal is treated as a 'continuation of trial', the bail conditions of the trial automatically apply to Salman. The catch, however, is that if the High Court decides to hear his bail plea after the summer recess, he could be heading to jail at least for a brief spell.
With Sharmista Chaudhury & Dnyanesh Jathar