Celebrating bail: just 'being human'?

A hero's triumphant return. That's what it seemed like when one watched hundreds of fans and others greet Salman Khan as he walked out of a Jodhpur jail after obtaining bail, amidst bursting of firecrackers and loud cheers. He returned home to Mumbai in a private aircraft shortly afterwards, to similar scenes of jubilation in that city. Nowhere did it seem like the return of a man who had been convicted of killing two black bucks and sentenced to five years in prison. The trial court in Jodhpur had found Salman Khan guilty under the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, as black bucks have been accorded Schedule 1 protection under this Act. Salman Khan's legal team has appealed to a higher court for leniency in the sentencing.

There is no doubt that this conviction offers more optimism to forest officers and guards across the country. They are constantly battling poachers and timber smugglers, under tremendous pressure at times from powerful people who have interests in such matters.

Wildlife numbers have increased significantly in sanctuaries over the past few years only due to the diligent work of many committed forest staff and wildlife conservationists, who have done their best despite such interference. Some have died in the process of protecting wildlife, especially in poaching encounters involving tigers, rhinos and elephants. And so, Salman Khan's conviction gives great hope for such forest department staff, although the ground realities of initially booking such offenders will continue to be tough.

In this case, the admirable tenacity of the Bishnoi tribe in pursuing the case helped tremendously, because they are fiercely protective of the animals and trees in their neck of the woods. There aren't so many people who would fight somebody who was so much bigger than them to protect wildlife and forests. The Bishnois resisted many attempts made over the past 20 years to urge them to walk away from pursuing the blackbuck hunting case.

Expert legal management has already ensured that every crack and loophole in the legal system was used to play this case out for such a long period of time. However, the thoughts here are not over legal nitty-gritty.

Lawyers from both sides will, in any case, adroitly and skillfully try to push forward their case, with many legal luminaries offering inputs to both parties.

But what is disturbing is the blatant and uninhibited public exhibition of support for the convicted actor after bail was granted. The utterances of the Hindi film fraternity made it seem as if they were living in a different world, where matters of crime and punishment didn't matter a whit. It would be understandable if those congratulatory public messages gave you the impression that the man had been acquitted of the crime and was not just someone out on bail.

It would be safe to assume that one of the main reasons for this uninhibited show of joy and relief from the industry is the huge financial implications of a longer jail sentence. He is currently involved in many projects that are a few steps away from completion. His recent films have grossed crores worth of business at the box office. Film circles are talking of how "nearly 600 crores of business is riding on Salman."

Others came out with statements of disappointment and dismay that the actor, who has involved himself in many social causes should face such a stern sentence. Rajya Sabha MP Jaya Bachchan said that she felt "bad," and that he should be given relief "as he has done a lot of humanitarian work."

The public voicing of such an opinion by an MP on a conviction charge of a case that is still not over is extremely disturbing on several levels. For one, by the same logic, it can be argued that the appeal for leniency from the law should also be allowed for shady individuals and members of organised syndicates if they are carrying out charitable work, when the law catches up with them. Many underworld dons were known to have done a lot of charitable work.

To add to the chillingly unreal feeling of watching all this from what seems like another world, legal experts have publicly argued about the quantum of justice, presenting examples of other crimes and the sentences awarded. This meant that the conviction of Salman in the black buck case as proven by law was acknowledged, but that they were merely quibbling about the number of years that he was sentenced to.

This, and the uninhibited public cacophony of voices that came out in adulatory support, with talk of prayers of fans being answered, adds to a feeling of disbelief. And a depressing reminder of the sense of entitlement that powerful people seem to enjoy.

This sense of entitlement has ironically been highlighted in so many Hindi films. What is frightening here is the public display of such power across various social media, with moral compunctions barely visible.

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