Salman Khan's Acquittal: Just What Are We Celebrating?

These below are some comments made by Salman Khan's colleagues in the film industry on his acquittal by the Bombay High Court in the 2002 hit-and-run case.

They celebrated, much like the fans outside the actor's residence, who burst crackers and danced to popular songs from his films.The film industry stood united for Salman as always and unlike in the previous weeks over debates on intolerance. Ironically, all those film stars and directors who rallied in Delhi against those who called India intolerant prominently supported Salman Khan.

Last night on a debate on NDTV in which I participated, Shaina NC, BJP Member of Parliament and family friend of the Khans, said Salman Khan had faced a media trial and paid the price of being a celebrity. She was responding to a comment I had made.

Earlier in the day, 'Dreamgirl' and BJP MP Hema Malini, seemed to be relieved that the road is now cleared for Salman Khan's marriage.

I have been trying to make sense of this euphoria. What exactly are we celebrating? A man lost his life, others were injured and Ravindra Patil, the key witness in the case, died in misery.

Isn't it very disquieting that the High Court verdict has exposed shoddy criminal investigation in a high-profile case that involved a star who is known to have a heart of gold?

So who exactly was driving the car? Was constable Ravindra Patil, Salman's bodyguard, who was in the car that night and who bravely went against the tide and reported the case, naming Salman Khan as the man behind the wheel, floating a conspiracy? Or did the staff at the bar where the actor went drinking that night, have an axe to grind with him.

Or then, did the families of the pavement dwellers who were killed and injured have a personal grudge against Salman Khan and so hatched a conspiracy?

The High Court lauded Salman's driver Ashok Singh, who miraculously appeared more than a decade after the incident to tell us that he was driving the car that night. It also described Ravindra Patil as not a "wholly reliable witness", and said his version needed to be corroborated with that of other witnesses.

In the last 13 years, heroes have become villains and villains heroes with every different version of the story. Much like Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon.

How does one possibly explain the absolutely contradictory judgements of the sessions court and the High Court? Imagine the common man watching the news of Salman Khan's acquittal and the message that reached him. Which court should he trust? And how can one court and its order be so right, and the other so wrong?

We are in no position to cast aspersions on the judgement of either of the courts, but certain facts cannot be ignored.  

Ravindra Patil, attached to the Local Arms II unit of the Mumbai Police, was assigned as Khan's bodyguard on September 27, 2002, as the actor reportedly faced a threat from the underworld. According to Patil's statement, he was seated in the front, next to the driver, in Salman's Land Cruiser. "They (Salman Khan and actor Kamaal Khan) came outside the (JW Marriot) hotel at about 2:15 am. Salman sat... (behind) the steering (wheel)... I sat near the driver's seat. I asked the accused whether he would drive the car," Patil said in his statement.

Patil said the actor ignored his question. Kamaal Khan, he said, was sitting behind the driver's seat. "He (Salman Khan) was drunk and was driving... at the speed of 90 to 100 kilometres per hour. Before coming to the junction of Hill Road, I told Salman to lower the speed," said Patil.

Stating that the actor ignored him again, he said: "He could not control his motor car while taking the right turn and it went on the footpath. The people were sleeping on the footpath. The motor car ran over (them)."

According to Patil's statement, the vehicle "climbed three stairs" and hit the shutter of "the shop" nearby. "The motor car broke the shutter and went inside about three-and-a-half feet," he said.

Ravindra Patil was examined by a magistrate court, which completed the process in March 2006. Patil, who was under tremendous pressure to change his statement, was later suspended by the police and died on October 3, 2007, in a state of absolute penury. What exactly explains Patil's "unreliability" then?

The Mumbai Sessions court had invoked Section 33 of the Indian Evidence Act to take Patil's testimony before the magistrate court on record. The High Court, in contradiction, observed that that when Patil gave evidence in the magistrate court, the actor was charged with causing death due to negligence. After the charge was amended to culpable homicide not amounting to murder, Patil could not be cross-examined, it said.

Look at the other key witness. Salman Khan's close friend Kamaal Khan was on the prosecution's list of witnesses, but his name was later dropped.

On October 4, 2002, Kamaal Khan gave a statement to the police stating:

"On the night of September 27, 2002, I went to meet Salman at his residence and we planned to have dinner outside. Salman, his bodyguard and I went out in a Land Cruiser to Rain Hotel at Juhu. His brother Sohail and his bodyguard came in a different vehicle. We had reached the hotel around 11 pm and it was very crowded.

Salman, Sohail and I had snacks at the service counter. After about an hour or two, we left for JW Marriott Hotel in the white Land Cruiser. After spending some time there, we left.

Salman sat to drive the vehicle, while his bodyguard sat next to him. I was behind the driver's seat...Salman was driving and we started to head to his house. We were heading from St Andrew's Road to Hill Road. While taking a right turn, Salman lost control of the car and it went on the steps of a building and crashed into a shutter. I heard shouts and people gathered around the car. The crowd was shouting 'Salman come out'. Some were trying to help the injured. When we got down, people pushed us. Salman's bodyguard told the people he was a policeman, which calmed down the crowd."

While we do understand the need for the film industry to stand behind Bhai, who started the great initiative called 'Being Human', their collective silence on justice for Ravindra Patil and the victims of the drunk driving is very loud. Wonder why not a single "family friend" of the Khans, each trying to prove their loyalty, has not asked why the star ran away from the accident site instead of helping the victims or going to the police.

Pause for a moment before you break into song and dance over Salman's acquittal and ask yourself what are you celebrating? The vulnerability of the poor, the boy who lost his father, another who was handicapped? Before you celebrate "justice" for Salman Khan, think of all those pedestrians killed on the road and the devastated families they leave behind with no financial aid either from the accused or our humanists.

(Rana Ayyub is an award-winning investigative journalist and political writer. She is working on a book on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which will be published later this year.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.