Bollywood actor Salman Khan Image Credit: AFP

‘A tiger can’t be kept behind bars.’ This was one of the many posters zealously displayed by a section of fans and followers of Bollywood actor Salman Khan last week, as the matinee idol’s bail plea was being heard at the District and Sessions Court in the western Indian city of Jodhpur, in Rajasthan.

Just two days ago, Salman had been sentenced to five years in jail for killing two black bucks during the intervening nights of October 1 and 2, 1998, while he was shooting for a film along with four other co-actors, who had been acquitted by the court in the same case. Salman was later granted bail, letting his fans and the industry breathe a sigh of relief.

In case you are still interested in making a note of the time when this incident happened, here it is, yet again: October 1 and 2, 1998. Yes, it’s been 20 years and by granting Salman bail, the judiciary has yet again affirmed one basic truth: That there is still no conclusive evidence to nail Salman as the killer of those black bucks.

READ: 20 year timeline for Salman Khan black bucks case

Twenty years and still counting … Indeed, how can a ‘tiger’ be kept behind bars when the counsel for defence and prosecution, even after two decades, are still finding enough ground to cross swords over a key component of the case: Did the Tiger Zinda Hain star really kill those endangered animals? Moreover, isn’t hunting a part of the natural instinct of a ‘tiger’? So what’s the big deal?

Then again, we all know that the same actor was certainly not behind the wheel of his SUV when it mowed down a pavement-dweller in the dead of the night on a Mumbai street in 2002. In that case too there was no conclusive evidence to ascertain who was driving the vehicle.

The only minor similarities between these two cases are: Firstly, both involved the loss of innocent lives. And second, both incidents somehow brought the same Bollywood A-lister to the dock. What a coincidence, really. But we have this tendency to make too much out of the deaths of innocents. Come on, as if this is the first such instance. And please, there’s a limit to being vindictive about a particular individual whose philanthropic side often goes unnoticed and unreported. Such bias … appalling.

Who knows, the pavement-dweller might have himself come under the wheels of the car. Suicide? Could be. Who knows? But could the black bucks also have committed suicide? Who knows? Has anyone been able to prove otherwise, in these 20 years? I don’t think so. See, I told you: It’s cold, hard facts that count. Nothing else.

There are eyewitness accounts, there are post-mortem reports corroborating those accounts, there are matching blood samples … In other words, there is little room for a debate on whose hand was indeed inside the cookie jar. But for 20 years, defence has insisted on lack of evidence as a ground for Salman’s acquittal, taking the ‘innocent-until-proven-guilty’ legalese to a new low. Or a new ‘high’ perhaps. Let’s not forget the ‘tiger’ analogy, please.

Just come to think about this: The Jodhpur District and Sessions Court judge, while pronouncing Salman guilty of killing two animals belonging to an endangered species, had taken a special note of the second post-mortem report on the carcasses, that had very definitively cited a bullet hole measuring one inch in circumference in a bone of one of the dead animals. That wound wouldn’t have been possible by any other means but a bullet. Yet, the defence counsel had very ingeniously proclaimed that the wound could have been caused by a piece of burning coal as well! The argument, though laughingly porous, shows the limitless extremes of litigative point counter-point and the ingenuity of a counter-argument, howsoever incredulous it may sound, in defending the indefensible.

See, once again, it is a matter of cold, hard facts. I told you. Who says it was a gun-shot wound? And who says animals can’t and don’t commit suicide? If only black bucks could speak the language of humans!

Jokes apart, there are two concurrent issues that are now front and centre in this whole episode.

Firstly, there is no doubt that because a top star from the commercial Hindi film industry has been found to be directly involved in this case, the death of two black bucks is now substance for front-page news.

But one wonders, what about all those illegal and grossly insensitive poaching activities that are rampant almost in many of the forested areas throughout the length and breadth of India? Have we ever been able to display the level of sincerity and awareness in seeking punitive measures against all such illegal and clandestine hunting activities like the way we have in the Salman Khan case?

According to a modest estimate, 1,664 leopards have been poached in India over the last decade. And that’s just one category of animals. In the world’s second-most populous nation and one of the most bio-diverse ones, poaching has always been a problem.

With the involvement of a big-ticket celebrity like Salman, the microcosmic nature of the deaths of a couple of black bucks has at least acquired a much-needed macrocosmic pitch. Had Salman not been involved, would I have even bothered to write this piece? Honestly, I have my doubts.

The second issue on our hands is one of propriety and morality. The judge at the Jodhpur court, while handing the five-year jail sentence to Salman, had rightly cited the actor’s celebrity status to justify the need for exemplary punishment.

However, by that same token, since Salman managed to get bail within 48 hours of his sentencing, it revealed the flip side of the debate: That a celebrity status can perhaps also help smoothen out all those rough edges, that wouldn’t probably be the case with an average Joe.

But an average Joe doesn’t have Rs6 billion riding on his shoulders, err biceps, right? And remember, a ‘tiger’ itself is a rare species. So, will you please get your facts right before you even try to be audacious enough to put a ‘tiger’ behind bars? Can’t you get this simple truth first up: That a black buck could have come in the way of a stray bullet that was probably triggered by a truant gun itself?

Yes, if only black bucks could speak!