The justice system in India continues to buck the trend elsewhere and shows itself ready to hand out some harsh sentences to its movie stars if not its politicians (even if some remain understandably skeptical about the final result). On the heels of Sanjay Dutt’s (Lage Raho Munnabhai) six year prison term for buying illegal weaponry, a court in Jodhpur today upheld the five year prison term handed to Salman Khan (Marigold, Partner) for hunting Chinkara, an endangered species of deer. Khan is currently on appeal for another hunting-related conviction, which carries a one year prison term, and is due to appeal this decision as well.
Personally, the Blackbuck case, as it has been dubbed, brings to mind an iconic line from Deewar, a movie co-written by Khan’s father Salim Khan, in which the successful smuggler Amitabh Bachchan tells younger brother/ eager beaver policeman Shashi Kapoor that he is ready to comply with his wishes and surrender to the law. Just as soon as the law is able to arrest the men who turned him from an innocent child to a criminal.
I agree, the analogy isn’t very apt here. Khan, surely one of the most successful Hindi film actors of our times, was scarcely led astray or forced into a life of crime in order to survive. Nevertheless, “Jao pehle us aadmi ka sign leke aao jisne mere haath mein ye likha ki mera baap chor hai“(“First, go get the signature of the man who tattooed ‘My father is a thief’ on my arm”) is a line that resonates in a larger context every time I think about this case. It’s convoluted but it goes like this…
First off, I have to admit that I’m not against hunting per se. But before you decide to hunt me down to see how much I like it when the tables are turned, hear me out.
Hunting isn’t always about sport, sometimes it’s about survival. Salman Khan might have found it recreational, but there are still people in this world, especially in India, who depend on the local (shrinking) forest for its (depleting) bounty because they cannot afford to put meat on their table otherwise. For others, such as farmers, an explosion in the population of certain animals could mean financial disaster. Vermin, in the farming lexicon, aren’t just the rodents that city slickers such as I would find repulsive. It’s a broad term that encompasses all animal life that may threaten their crops including the cute li’l country cousins of Peter Rabbit and Bambi.
But what about animal rights you ask. Ah, that’s where things get trickier.
Valmik Thapar, who knows a thing or two about India and her animals (especially the fast vanishing tiger), once said something in the middle of one of his wonderful documentaries that I found hard to accept right off the bat. He said that the kind of coexistence between man and wild animals that the most kumbaya amongst us (like, um, me) would like to see remains for the most part a myth. When man and beast are competing for the same resources, conflict is inevitable.
His words gave me a queer feeling in the pit of my stomach because my initial and involuntary repudiation aside, I realized he was right. It’s much easier for me to sit here in my nice apartment in the middle of a teeming city and lecture some villager eking out a living on the edge of a forest about the joys of conservation. But that man isn’t thinking about the ages to come when he invades the tiger’s home to chop the trees down – he’s thinking of his child at home who needs to eat.
Thus animal rights, at some point or the other, will come into conflict with human rights. And it is up to us to decide how and where to strike the balance and keep the ecosystem balanced without trampling all over our fellow human beings.
Make no mistake, I believe in conservation – I just don’t think it’s a straight-forward, one-pronged issue as so many others seem to believe, is all. For conservation to work in India, the man on the edge of the forest must have a stake in the tiger’s survival just as much as the man in the city who’d one day like to take his kid on a safari to see something other than the urban jungle.
In the case of the blackbucks, the people of the forest did have a stake in the issue. The Bishnois, the tribe that lives in the area where Khan and his idiot friends went hunting, were conservationists long before it came into fashion and they’re fairly fanatical about it. Even if I was mainly thinking of an economic solution when I talked about a holistic approach to conservation, I’ll take what I can get in a country where concern for animals falls somewhere right in the middle of complete indifference to religious fervor.
Anyway, to continue, the Bishnoi have been at the forefront of the case against Khan, reporting his actions, showing up to protest and refusing to let the matter slide discreetly into oblivion as happens so frequently. This judgment is therefore a victory for their efforts rather than traditional animal rights activists like Maneka Gandhi or groups like PETA that are struggling to find a toehold.
And that, to me, is the problem.
On the face of it, the result is what is important. Movie star kills endangered deer, is sentenced to jail despite celebrity status. All hail the Indian justice system! But scratch the surface and what you have is some of the same old, same old: a bunch of people made a fuss about the sentiments of their community being hurt, applied the most relevant law to their grievance and managed to successfully prosecute. Next!
I do not wish to take anything away from the efforts of the Bishnoi or discount the importance of this ruling. But please bear in mind that Salman Khan is hardly symptomatic of the larger problem of poaching in India.
Poaching continues to thrive and flourish across India. Now that the tigers are all but completely eradicated in a silent massacre that never fails to disgust or astonish me when I think about the reams of newsprint we waste on wondering if Shahrukh Khan hates Amitabh Bachchan or whether Bipasha Basu and John Abraham have split, our pitiful population of lions are next on the hitlist.
Magazines like Outlook (if I remember correctly) are able to track tiger pelts and bones to markets in Tibet and Chinese apothecary shops but the police are unable to smash the smuggling ring that’s doing the hunting. Perhaps some of the Hindu right wingers could please take a break from intimidating artists to protest the treatment of the sacred steer of the Mother Goddess? There isn’t going to be any Sherawali if there’s no Sher left, you know.
Sending Salman Khan to jail for his actions is laudable because it shows us the law is the law – but only if he’s not being held to a higher standard. It’s completely disingenious to pretend that his celebrity does not matter. Of course it matters! If the courts succeed in punishing him for his actions then that’s one pitfall negotiated. But sending him to jail solves little if he ends up as a sop thrown to our collective conscience about the fate of wild animals in India.
We’d do well to remember that Khan and his friends didn’t set out on the hunt on their own. They had guides who knew the terrain, knew where game was to be found, and took them to the middle of a forest ostensibly patrolled by government employees committed to the cause of conservation. And their actions would not have attracted attention had it not been for the Bishnoi’s sharp lookout and the hunting party’s celebrity components. The question here is: how many others have taken that trip without being called to account for it?
And so, when I think of Salman Khan, a man who’s reaping the bitter harvest he sowed, I can’t help but think of that line from Deewar. It’s just as futile and meaningless in real life as it was in the film, but it’s something to think about.
Friend and Salman’s main girl Sakshi Juneja has a fan’s perspective.