The `Tiger' and the blackbuck

Published : Jul 01, 2005 00:00 IST

Investigations against celebrities kick up a lot of dust and the police are always at the receiving end. With the kind of pressures that operate it is doubtful if they will act swiftly and fairly.


NOW that the Bharatiya Janata Party soap has ended, story-hungry journalists are going to latch on to a hapless celebrity who is in the news for the wrong reasons. One would have thought he had everything going for him in the world: a pretty wife and a pair of equally charming children, and, presumably, all the money and leisure to indulge in small pleasures of life that would normally interest a 60-year-old Oxonian; things such as reading, golfing and sipping Darjeeling tea on the plush lawns of the Delhi Golf Club. Why then did `Tiger' Pataudi indulge in a mindless act of killing an animal that was unlawful to hunt?

The allegation against the celebrated cricketer of yesteryear is no doubt one of committing a blatant criminal offence. This is ignominy enough. More than that, his subsequent conduct negates the image of a cricketer of extraordinary courage who performed heroically against great odds, including the tragic loss of one eye. As I write this column, he is yet to surface and face the ordeal of police questioning. Undoubtedly, he had the ability to lead from the front and played some exciting cricket that entertained millions of spectators, not only in India, but wherever he went. Why does he now skulk? Wrong legal advice, or the pressure of his family? Whatever it be, his doings have caused him immense damage and taken the sheen off his personality.

I am amused that I am all for him in spite of his attitude towards me when we were watching New Zealand take on Australia in the World Cup at Chepauk, way back in 1995. I was sitting bang next to him on a sofa in the pavilion with none in the vicinity. I introduced myself to him, but he did not even as much acknowledge my greeting, what to speak of engaging in conversation with me for the rest of the afternoon. I am mentioning this eminently forgettable incident only because I believe there is something impersonal and distant about him. The loss early in life of his illustrious father and the impairment of vision in a car accident in the prime of his promising cricket career possibly explain a few oddities in him. But then how many law-breakers get the benefit of a consideration for such tragedies while assessing their guilt?

Mansoor Ali Khan Patuadi has been squarely accused of shooting down a blackbuck (legally declared an endangered species) in the forests of Haryana. He was a familiar figure in the area because he had often been going there with his friends for hunting. According to Maneka Gandhi, Pataudi and his family had been guilty of a similar misdeed of shooting down hundreds of birds about four years ago. He was hauled up for this but got away only because of his political and social connections. I do not know how far this is true. I saw Maneka a few days ago on TV clamouring for action against the Nawab. She was absolutely clear in her mind that the man should be in jail and not receive a kid-glove treatment just because he was a cricketer.

I am not very sure whether one should go so hysterical, but the animal rights activist talking to a TV channel was convincing and categorical. Here was a serious crime that should not go unpunished. It is very difficult to disagree with her basic demand that law should take its course swiftly, although it does not, in the case of many other compatriots of the Nawab.

WHAT does the law on the subject say? The legislation that deals with the subject is the Wildlife (Protection) Act,1972. This Act replaced the Wild Birds and Animals Protection Act, 1912, that had become completely obsolete. This is a Central Act, which empowers the State Governments also to perform some roles, such as the appointment of a Chief Wildlife Warden and the State Board for Wildlife. Section 9 of the Act states: "No person shall hunt any wild animal specified in Schedules I, II, III and IV, except as provided under sections 11 and 12." (These two sections permit the Chief Wildlife Warden to allow the hunting of a wild animal when it has become dangerous to human life or when this is required for purposes of education, scientific research or scientific management (such as translocation of an animal to an alternative suitable habitat.) Schedule I Part I Entry 2 clearly refers to blackbuck (Antelope cervicapra) as a mammal that should not be hunted by anyone, except under the circumstances stated in Sections 11 and 12. Section 50 confers on officials authorised by the Director of Wildlife Preservation or Chief Wildlife Warden, any forest officer and any police officer not below the rank of Sub-Inspector, powers of entry into and search of any premises and arrest and detention of an accused person. The power includes an arrest without a warrant. Section 51 prescribes a penalty that ranges from three to seven years of imprisonment (in addition to a fine), if the offence relates to animals listed in the four Schedules. The stiffness of the prescribed penalty would alone point to the gravity of the offence alleged against Pataudi and others.

One of the eight accused in the case has been arrested. According to a report, he has referred to Pataudi and his accomplices as the persons who were at the June 3 hunting spree at Kilrod in Haryana. Coming as it does from a co-accused, this requires strong corroboration if it has to be held against Pataudi. The whole episode gained publicity after the villagers tipped off Naresh Kumar Kadiyan, chairman of People for Animals (Haryana Chapter). Kadiyan, who fears for his life, has charged that the Haryana Police is guilty of a cover-up. Interestingly, a case has been registered against Kadiyan himself for digging out the carcass of the blackbuck and handing it over to the National Zoological Park in Delhi. The Chief Wildlife Warden of Haryana is also said to have complained of poor handling of vital clues by the police who allegedly kept him away from the investigation.

I am not surprised that a sensational case like this has generated charges and mutual charges. It does, however, raise the fundamental issue of how competent the police are in handling attacks on the environment. Do the police have the ability to investigate an offence against preservation of wildlife in the country? We are not talking here of a routine case of murder of a human being. We are actually on the subject of how to protect and preserve an increasingly fragile ecological balance from predators that are wealthy and influential. As I know, the police, including the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), need a lot more training in the area, if they have to make the right impact.

The Haryana Police must be under tremendous pressure from Patuadi's friends in government and outside. Of course they will deny this. As one who had spent nearly four decades in law enforcement, I will be surprised if no attempts are made to dissuade the police from acting. I am equally certain that in such a high-profile case very few top police officers would be willing to sacrifice their credibility and career. The Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) of the district has indicated that Pataudi will be arrested as soon as he is located. Any further delay in arresting him can only lead to a wagging of tongues.

But then, is an arrest warranted in this case just because the law permits this? The established practice is that even in respect of a cognisable offence where the police can arrest an accused without a warrant, the former enjoy a small area of discretion. The key test is whether the accused is in a position to tamper with the available evidence or intimidate important witnesses, because of the position held by him in government or in society. Under these circumstances, an arrest is warranted and justified. This is also the case when, unless arrested, the accused would escape from the locality where he lives and possibly to a place outside the country. Through his conduct of becoming incommunicado and not submitting himself to police interrogation, Pataudi has unfortunately strengthened the case for an arrest and a remand to judicial custody to start with and later possibly to police custody, where he will be questioned on the alleged incident.

Investigations against celebrities kick up a lot of dust. The police are always at the receiving end. Like Caesar's wife they should be above suspicion. But with the kind of pressures that operate, especially in India, it will be preposterous to expect them to act swiftly and fairly. Readers may recall how actor Salman Khan figured a few years ago in a similar outrage. He is still going strong; years later he was involved in another unsavoury incident in the heart of Mumbai. The trial in this case is still dragging. The BMW case in Delhi a few years ago decisively proved that when the rich and the famous commit an offence, they can buy up witnesses and change the course of justice. There is no getting away from such hard realities of life.

It is this unsatisfactory state of criminal justice that persuades many investigating officers to indulge in arbitrary arrests. Their logic is that if some really guilty persons get acquitted at the end of a trial, they should at least go through the pain and humiliation of an arrest on the basis of available evidence. They draw a distinction between moral conviction and legally sustainable proof. I personally believe that such rough prescriptions can lead to great injustice.

Playing with law is equivalent to playing with fire. The Pataudi episode is possibly a lesson for many responsible citizens who act against the law in the hope that they will somehow get away. They hardly understand that this requires extraordinary luck and strong connections. Public opinion is something that cannot be wished away.

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