Bollywood superstar Salman Khan’s difficulties began > 13 years ago when he was involved in an accident resulting in the death of one person and injuries to four others sleeping on a pavement in Mumbai’s Bandra area. It was widely believed that at the time of the accident, Mr. Khan was himself behind the wheels of his Toyota Land Cruiser. There were two others in the car: Personal Security Officer (PSO) Ravindra Patil of the Mumbai Police (since dead) and Mr. Khan’s friend Kamaal Khan, a singer. Immediately after the accident, Mr. Khan skulked away from the scene, without reporting the occurrence to the police or bothering to find out whether he had hit anybody.
After the trial was deliberately prolonged for several years, during which Mr. Khan questioned the applicability of culpable homicide (a stand upheld by the High Court and rejected later by the Supreme Court), the Sessions Court, to which the file had been transferred from the Metropolitan Magistrate, went ahead with the proceedings. The court delivered its judgment this May >imposing a sentence of five years rigorous imprisonment on Mr. Khan. On an appeal filed against this conviction by the actor, the Bombay High Court overturned the sentence last week and > acquitted him of all the charges . (The incident occurred in September 2002, and the Sessions trial began as late as December 2013.)
The PSO’s testimony We are not convinced of the correctness of Mr. Khan’s acquittal after a trial court had squarely found him guilty. To be specific, we are intrigued why the testimony of the principal witness — PSO Patil — who filed the FIR within hours of the incident, did not carry enough weight with the High Court.
The FIR is a sacrosanct document, especially when there is no abnormal delay in filing it. Even when it is delayed, there are judicial rulings that if the person filing it can explain reasons for the delay to the court’s satisfaction, the report retains its value. There was no delay in this case.
Second, the FIR need not necessarily be a comprehensive document explaining all circumstances relating to the incident, as long as it gives basic facts that make out a case. PSO Patil had deposed unequivocally, before the investigating officer and the Metropolitan Magistrate who conducted the initial trial, about how Mr. Khan was guilty of rash and negligent driving. Unfortunately, Patil died before he could be examined by the Sessions Court.
“ The sudden arrival of one Ashok Singh, late during the trial, stating that he was driving the vehicle was patently artificial ”
There is everything to show that Mr. Khan was at the wheels at the instant of the accident. Since it happened in the early hours, there were no other witnesses except the other two occupants of the car, Patil and Kamaal Khan, who, incidentally, made himself scarce by fleeing to the U.K. The High Court rightly came down heavily on the Mumbai Police for not making serious efforts to get at Kamaal Khan.
Perhaps the most bizarre twist was the sudden arrival of one > Ashok Singh , late during the trial, stating that he in fact was driving the vehicle in question at the time of the accident and not Mr. Khan. This was patently artificial, an introduction on second thoughts.
The initial hours The High Court found a number of holes in the prosecution story that the actor was drunk when the accident took place. The investigator’s lapses in the matter cannot be condoned — including the delayed production of Mr. Khan at a distant hospital although there was one close to the Bandra Police Station. We must, however, remember here that Mr. Khan himself disappeared from the scene for many hours before he was subjected to a blood test. This possibly explained why it took long for the police to send him for the medical examination. However, in our view, whether Mr. Khan was drunk or not on that night is not very material, so long as he is proved to have driven rashly and negligently. Of course, unassailable evidence that he was in fact driving under the influence of liquor would only have further fortified other evidence.
The defence stand that the accident took place because of a tyre burst was dismissed by the Trial Court. The Motor Vehicles Inspector who examined the car noticed only a puncture on one of the left wheels, something which could not have caused an accident. He did not refer to a tyre burst at all. It is true that the investigating officer committed an error in not sending the tyre in question for forensic examination to satisfy himself that there was no burst. This again, in our view, is not very material, because we are here concerned with the reckless driving, proof of which alone, when accepted, clinches the case against Mr. Khan.
Mr. Khan’s acquittal is untenable. The standard of proof required in such cases is not the same that we need to sustain a conviction under 302 (homicide) or 304. A conviction at least under 304-A would have been well merited on the available evidence. If the High Court believed that the police investigation was shoddy, it could have directed a further investigation to remedy the flaws and fill in the missing details. This was, no doubt, not obligatory. But, in the interests of the five victims (including the family of one who was killed in the accident), and in the cause of justice, such an order by the High Court would definitely have enhanced its stature as an institution that cared for the poor citizen. This is particularly because Mr. Khan has only been given the benefit of the doubt, and not a clean acquittal.
Anyhow, once the full judgment of the High Court is available, the court’s stand on several issues could become clearer.
(R.K.Raghavan is a former CBI Director. D. Sivanandhan is a former Commissioner of Police, Mumbai, and a former DGP, Maharashtra.)
For full coverage of the controversies plaguging the Bollywood star, >click here