Wild ways

Print edition : May 05, 2006

The jail term awarded to actor Salman Khan shows that the Wildlife Protection Act is tough when implemented.

Salman Khan leaves the Jodhpur prison after being released on bail.-AFP

BOLLYWOOD actor Salman Khan probably felt every bit the superhero when he shot dead three chinkaras (Indian gazelles) in a Rajasthan forest eight years ago. It may not have occurred to him then that in real life some superheroes can commit blunders. On April 10, the law finally caught up with the actor. The court of the Chief Judicial Magistrate of Jodhpur sentenced him to five years' imprisonment for killing an endangered animal. His fans and the film fraternity suggested that the actor was being victimised because he was a celebrity and maintained that the severity of the sentence was unreasonable. Environmentalists and wildlife experts, however, argue that the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, prescribes stiff penalty for poaching and that the actor should have known the consequences before he broke the law. They say that though there is a strict law to protect India's dwindling wildlife, thousands of people continue to contravene its provisions. The Act hardly acts as a deterrent, mainly because the Forest Department lacks the resources and, in some areas, the basic equipment to check poaching. The Salman Khan case only highlights the massive task of protecting wildlife from poachers.

The actor faces three more charges: two for killing chinkaras and blackbucks (antelope), both in the same forest, and another under the Arms Act for possessing and using illegal firearms (chinkaras and blackbucks are listed in Schedule I of the Wildlife Act). The incidents took place when Salman Khan, along with some other colleagues, was shooting for the film Hum Saath Saath Hain near Bhavad and Mathania villages, 50 km from Jodhpur in September-October 1998. Apparently, Salman Khan made his first foray into the jungle on September 26, 1998. He hunted two chinkaras and slit their throats that night. The Bishnoi community, which inhabits the areas in the vicinity of the forest, holds the blackbuck sacred. The village residents, on learning about the hunting expedition, kept a tight vigil and eventually caught Salman Khan leaving the jungle with the carcasses. They filed a complaint against the actor.

Obviously, Salman Khan was not too concerned, for two days later he went into the forest again and shot another chinkara. And if that was not enough to satiate his appetite for hunting, on October 1, he took four other actors - Saif Ali Khan, Tabu, Sonali Bendre and Neelam Kothari - along with him and shot a blackbuck. All of them were charged.

Salman Khan spent a few nights in jail after the court awarded the sentence, but naturally he was let out on bail. "He is completely innocent," says his lawyer Dipesh Mehta. He was in the jungle but there were others too. Any one of them could be held responsible for shooting the animals. "They are attacking him because he is a popular actor. Recently he had a spate of hits and people are envious," he told Frontline. "His crime was not that big that he should be given such a sentence."

Well-known criminal lawyer in Mumbai, Satish Manishshinde, says, "The judgement is too harsh. The man has not committed some terrorist act nor has he hatched a terrorism plot that he should be given such a sentence." According to him, the crime is not as terrible as rape or taking a human life. "The judgment should be in consonance with the offence," he says, adding, "of course, the law should be uniform." A police constable was recently sentenced to 12 years' imprisonment for committing rape. Another person who was accused of shooting a young woman at point-blank range in front of people was acquitted. Crime must be dealt with evenly, says Manishshinde. Besides, since hunting was once considered a sport the punishment for this offence should be reformative, he says.

The chinkara is a highly endangered species of gazelles found in the grasslands and desert areas of India, Pakistan and Iran.-DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP

Instead of accepting Salman Khan's conviction as a triumph for wildlife conservation, there has been an effort to split hairs and divert the issue with questions that are irrelevant to the conviction. "What about the Pataudi case?" "What about Sansar Chand?" "What about corrupt forest officials?" are some of the challenges thrown against Salman Khan's conviction.

Both the case in which Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, the former captain of the Indian cricket team, is accused of killing a blackbuck near Jhajjar in Haryana, which is again a Bishnoi territory, and the case of Sansar Chand, the notorious wildlife trader, have not been closed. Pataudi's case is due for a hearing in May and Sansar Chand is already serving a five-year term in Ajmer jail for possession of leopard skins.

On the invocation of the Wildlife Protection Act to come down on corrupt forest officials, Ashok Kumar, vice-chairman of the Wildlife Trust of India, an organisation that provides legal support to the prosecution in the Salman Khan case, hints at a plan to expose the "few bad eggs" but does not divulge the details at the moment.

Apart from questioning the conviction and calling it severe, there is also an opinion that the conviction should have come with a reformative punishment rather than a jail sentence. Says Ashok Kumar: "There is a statement reported by the media that Salim Khan, father of Salman, found an injured deer on the road near his farm outside Mumbai. He took in the deer and treated it, but the animal was seized by the Forest Department and it died on way to Mumbai Zoo. This is misinformation. There was a raid on the farm in 1998, several spotted deer and blackbucks were seized. Maybe eight or 10 of them. Salim Khan went to the Bombay High Court which suggested that he should make a film about wildlife protection. No such script was written to the best of my information, and that is the answer to those suggesting a reformative rather than a punitive punishment."

Neither is there any validity to the accusation that the Salman Khan case was fast-tracked to make an example of him, says Ashok Kumar. The crime was committed in 1998 and the conviction came in 2006. The case followed due process.

"To me it reads like a sentence [which was awarded] after thorough the application of judicial mind and is a `speaking' judgment. The defence was given every opportunity to present its case, and this is recorded in the judgment, which took seven years to come to judgment stage. It cannot by any stretch of imagination be called a kangaroo court judgment," Ashok Kumar observes.

The blackbuck. It is held sacred by the Bishnoi community.-C.V. SUBRAHMANYAM

The Wildlife Protection Act, he says, is a clearly defined Act, enacted solely to conserve wildlife. "The Act was passed unanimously in 1972 by the Indian Parliament. It was not the whim of some bureaucrat. Before the Act became a Central Act, each State had its own laws [for the protection of wildlife]. These ranged from weak to irrelevant. India was coming out of the hunting era and the need was felt for a stronger, more comprehensive law."

Section 51 of the Act prescribes a punishment of one to six years for an offence against a Schedule I species and a fine, which may go up to Rs.5,000. If a person is found guilty, a jail sentence is mandatory. By an amendment in 2002, the minimum punishment was raised to three years and the maximum to seven years. Chapter III of the Act prohibits hunting.

It reads: "No person shall hunt any wild animal specified in Schedules I, II, III and IV except as provided under Section 11 [Hunting of wild animals in certain areas] and Section 12 [grant of permit for special purposes]."

Neither Section 11 nor Section 12 applies to Salman Khan's case. Allegations that the actor is being targeted because of his celebrity status are unfounded.

A fourth case is pending against the actor for shooting and killing a blackbuck. It is worth noting that Salman Khan used a wheeled vehicle and blinding lights to target the deer - both practices that were considered illegal even when game hunting was permitted under licence.

Poaching is just one of the many cases Salman Khan is involved in. He is constantly mired in controversy. In January 2002, the Mumbai Police questioned him for suspected links with the underworld. In September that year, his vehicle allegedly ran over some slum-dwellers who were sleeping on the pavement. One man died and three were badly injured in that incident. Both cases are pending in court. Then, of course, there are instances of roughing up media people and allegations of getting aggressive with girl friends and threatening people.

It is difficult to know the total number of cases that have been filed under the Wildlife Act in the country since they are filed in various districts in trial courts. Many cases have been under trial for 10 to 12 years. Ashok Kumar says the conviction rate is possibly 1 to 2 per cent but of late it has speeded up because of fast-track courts. In Delhi alone, about 180 wildlife cases are on trial. In March, a sentence of three and half years was awarded to Ashok Nath for bringing two leopard skins to Delhi for sale. The offence took place in 2005 and hence the enhanced punishment, the minimum being three years, became applicable.

A big problem in handling poaching cases has been the lack of legal training to the prosecuting authorities and the absence of special prosecutors. Ashok Kumar says that in the past five years, his organisation has trained over 5,000 wildlife guards in national parks and sanctuaries. With a total of 15,000 guards in the country, there is still a long way to go.

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