When celebrity status is in conflict with the law, public sentiment will revolve around two narratives. The narrative of power and wealth would suggest high status is a burden, a disadvantage before the judiciary because judges will be chary of being seen as favouring them. The more popular narrative, however, is that the slow criminal justice system is always skewed in favour of celebrities. It will include folk wisdom that even the otherwise fair and strict judiciary will cave in to power and pelf. When an occasional verdict brings down a famous personality, it will be seen as a victory for the citizen and a blow for justice. May 6, 2015 saw such a moment when Mumbai sessions judge D.W. Deshpande handed down a five-year prison sentence to Bollywood star Salman Khan in a hit-and-run case. But cynicism took over before the day was out when he was given bail. Now, before the year is out, a clean acquittal has been recorded in the Bombay High Court, and faith in the justice system has been rocked again — or reaffirmed, depending on which of the two narratives one subscribes to. For the rarefied world of Mumbai stars and socialites, a superstar can do no wrong, and even if he does, the gravity of his offence should be balanced with whatever charitable or humanitarian work he may have done, and the most lenient course adopted. The judge, in this milieu, is a lonely man who has to apply the law and pass a verdict without being swayed by either the status of the individual involved or public opinion.
The judgment of Justice A.R. Joshi >acquitting Khan may be sound in law. Yet, it is likely to revive cynicism about the administration of criminal justice in the country. It raises a host of questions, not least of which is about who killed Nurullah Sharif in the September 2002 incident. The judge has termed a key eyewitness, Ravindra Patil, a police bodyguard who is now no more, unreliable. Has it now been accepted that it was Ashok Singh, the actor’s driver who claimed responsibility in the latter stages of the trial, who was driving the car that night? If so, is he going to be proceeded against? However, the questions are not limited to the judgment. The police have been exposed for their shoddy investigation. An honest investigation is unlikely to have resulted in doubts being cast on as basic an aspect as the identity of the person at the wheel. Crucial lapses in the handling of the blood samples have been recorded. The judge has ruled that it was not proved either that Khan was driving the car or that he was drunk. Why then does the verdict raise uncomfortable questions? It may be because after three recorded convictions, Salman Khan is yet to be punished.