Ten years ago, on one of my wild wanderings, I found myself in Jodhpur in a Bishnoi village. The first sight that greeted me when I wandered in was a few chinkara grazing peacefully while people walked around them and a statue of a Bishnoi man who had died taking a bullet to protect a gazelle from a hunter.
The Bishnoi sect was founded by Guru Jambheswar sometime in the 15th century. His world view was written in 29 tenets. 8 of those 29 tenets deals with the protection of biodiversity. The Bishnoi frown upon the killing of animals and the felling of green trees and believe that all life forms are equal in the eyes of God.
They are immensely proud of their history. In the 18th century, Amrita Devi, a member of the sect, protested the felling of Khejri trees that grow wild in the region by the then maharaja of Jodhpur, Abhay Singh. The Bishnois say she was joined by over 300 other women. Abhay Singh, required wood to build his palace. The women hugged the trees and legend has it that several hundred of them fell to the axe. The raja on hearing about this rushed to the spot to prevent a further massacre and promised that the trees would not be cut.
Some of the Bishnoi who were killed were buried in Khejarli and four pillars were erected to commomerate them. Every year, in September, the Bishnois assemble there to honour the sacrifice made by their people to uphold their beliefs.
Salman Khan has been accused of killing two black bucks or rare antelopes and two chinkara as well in that September-October period of 1998 while he was Jodhpur to film Hum Saath Saath Hain. Four other actors, Saif Ali Khan, Tabu, Sonali Bendre and Neelam Kothari were present in his jeep at the time of the black buck killings and had nothing to do with the chinkara killings. After much meanderings, delays, even a dismissal of the chinkara cases, he was convicted yesterday of killing the black buck, while the other stars were acquitted.
The chinkara is a gazelle, while the black buck is an antelope. Both are on Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act of india, accorded the highest protection under the law. To put this in perspective, the tiger too is on Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act. Imagine if it were the tiger that had been shot?
While support for the star has filled the air waves with great concern over whether he will eat rotis or cabbage in prison, and whether it is fair to put him through this ordeal 20 years after the fact and if he should have been convicted at all as, after all, he is now a benign "Being Human" advocate, the witnesses to the killing of the black buck were, unfortunately for the star, were more concerned about the antelopes' right to life.
Here it is more a question of the kind of privilege that people in rarified lives enjoy assuming that they can do what they want. It is impossible to be in Jodhpur around Bishnoi villages and not know of their devotion to wildlife. It is either willful ignorance or such complete disengagement from the world that the star assumed he could be in that jeep and could target those antelope.
Khan's defence over the years of the antelope dying from dog bites to keeling over in starvation have been absurd. More absurd, his claim that he found a young fawn trapped and hungry and fed it biscuits. This is a man probably overly cut off from the realities of the real world, who has been accused of worse (hit-and-run in Mumbai) and acquitted. A man who wears the mantle of a victim as "I am a star, so I am more persecuted." A man who has also been accused of being violent to the women in his life. That he is immensely generous with his crew and cast, very helpful and encouraging of young actors, a dream actor for producers and that he gives to charity, is not mutually exclusive with the more negative aspects of his personality.
That he can be a good friend to some does not mean he was a good friend to the black buck that night. It does not take rocket science to know that a late night drive in a jeep with gun, with the intention of shooting something is just wrong on so many levels in a country that declared hunting illegal in 1972. Assuming that he could do it because he is Salman Khan somehow makes it worse. And the fact that we are today a society who is willing to hero-worship stars to the exclusion of a logic and good sense also makes us culpable.
(Swati Thiyagarajan is an Environment Editor with NDTV and author of 'Born Wild', a book about her experiences with conservation and wildlife both in India and Africa)
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