Salman Khan’s Acquittal and the Conceits of a Homicidal Mindset

Actor Salman Khan leaves Bombay High Court after he was acquitted in a 2002 hit and run case, in Mumbai last week. Credit: PTI

Actor Salman Khan leaves Bombay High Court after he was acquitted in a 2002 hit and run case, in Mumbai last week. Credit: PTI

The huge crowd gathered outside the courthouse cheered as the Bombay High Court delivered its verdict acquitting Salman Khan in the death of one person and lifelong injuries to four others when his Toyota Land Cruiser ran over them way back in 2002. A TV reporter, a young woman from one of our leading media outlets, mike-in-hand, shed any pretension of impartiality as she enquired of the crowd if they were happy for Salman. And then amidst their cheering roar, she breathlessly turned back to the anchors in the studio announcing that it was one overjoyed crowd that was celebrating the actor’s acquittal.

Meanwhile, Salim Khan, father of the actor, had this to say on Twitter: “People are saying he has just walked away. He has been in the jail for few days. He has spent over Rs 20-25 crores (on the case). Besides this, what about the tension that he and everyone went through all this time?” Film director Subhash Ghai noted “The case had an impact on his personal life. He could have married at 34. Now he is 50.” The actor-politician Anupam Kher intoned that justice had at long last been served.

While it’s perhaps understandable that a Bollywood superstar should evoke such sympathy among his millions of fans, the utter disregard for the lives of men so poor they have to sleep on a sidewalk at night is striking. Many who have rushed to express their delight and relief at the verdict have had nothing to say about the dead man, the injured, or their survivors who’ve yet to see a paisa by way of compensation. It would be easy to dismiss comments by family and those in the film industry who had much to lose had the actor been found guilty, or even by the star-struck millions of fans. It’s the wider climate in which the lives of the poor are seen to matter so little that gives me pause. The tougher, and more interesting, question to ask ourselves is: are the Khans, Ghais and Khers the exceptions or the rule when it comes to our attitude towards the poor in India?

It is a commonplace in social gatherings for Indians to express the view that the bane of our society is ‘over-population’ and that it might not have been all that bad if Sanjay Gandhi had been given a freer and longer hand back in the 1970s. We look enviously at China’s draconian policies to limit their birth rates. If we could only miraculously “disappear” a significant section – say about 50% – of the population, our cities would be so much more liveable. Our gardens, beaches and parks would become available for our enjoyment once again, and we could drive down our roads with the speed and ease of those in the West. There would be no danger of driving over sleeping bodies if only things were ‘normal’ around here. Notice that the repeated pronoun “our” confines ownership of the nation to a small subset of itself: those who have deemed themselves the centre of society, the representatives of the larger whole, the only ones who are truly worthy of living here to begin with. The rest are disposable people.

It never occurs to us to ask: “Okay, if we are to become half our current population, who should survive: my mother or my father? my brother or me? my older son or my younger daughter?” Because, in our minds, the disappearable 50% of our population is always out there and never in here. Its all that superfluous riffraff – pavement sleepers, beach shitters, slum dwellers, hordes hanging on to belching buses, faceless people in thousands of little towns and villages we used to speed through on trains like the Rajdhani and Coromandel in the old days and now simply fly high over on Indigo and Spicejet.

While the ubiquity of destitution all around us in India ought to evoke a sense of “there, but for the grace of God (or luck) go I,” it more commonly elicits a strange justification based on “merit” – both this worldly and other. The poor are often seen as deservedly so – people fundamentally deficient in smarts or energy or pluck – while we who are better off see our good fortune as just desserts for having brains, discipline and the wisdom to defer enjoyment. Once in a while, the self-serving stupidity of such conceit overwhelms even us, and we shamefacedly confess that perhaps our good fortune in this life is an undeserved result of punya accumulated in previous lifetimes, and … well, the poor must have screwed things up in past ‘janams’ and there’s not a whole lot one can do about it, can one?

There may be good sociological reasons for the callousness we display at times like these when a verdict exonerating a film star 13 years after a poor man was run over in his sleep is seen as a cause for celebration. I suppose if one grows up constantly surrounded by destitution and misery, one also grows inured to it and rationalises one’s own good fortune by whatever means possible. We can console ourselves by saying it’s not our Indian-ness that makes us this way; in such circumstances most people from any part of the world might react similarly.

I have no idea if such callousness is part of the human condition or if it is an instance of a peculiarly Indian way of thinking. I do worry that the difference between all too many of us appalled by the verdict and those celebrating Khan’s acquittal may be one of degree and not of kind.

Sankaran Krishna teaches political science at the University of Hawai`i at Manoa in Honolulu, HI. He tweets at @sankarankrishn and can be reached at [email protected]