A still from one of Salman Khan's movies [Bodyguard] Image Credit: Supplied

On Thursday, Chief Judicial Magistrate Dev Kumar Khatri of the trial court in Jodhpur convicted Salman Khan in a poaching case that is now 20 years old.

He has been sentenced to five years in prison.

Salman Khan was accused of killing two blackbucks in Bhagoda ki Dhani in Kankani village near Jodhpur on the intervening night of 1-2 October, 1998, during the shooting of the Bollywood movie Hum Saath Saath Hain.

Co-actors Saif Ali Khan, Sonali Bendre, Neelam and Tabu were also charged under Section 51 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act read with Section 149 (unlawful assembly) of the Indian Penal Code – however they were acquitted on Thursday in Jodhpur. 

Saif Ali Khan is seen here losing his temper with the driver when he arrived in Jodhpur for the trial. 

[Credit: Republic World - YouTube]

Two other accused were Dushyant Singh, who was allegedly accompanying the actors when the poaching took place, and Dinesh Gawre, said to be Salman Khan's assistant.

What is the case?

In October 1998, the Bollywood movie Hum Saath Saath Hain was being filmed in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. Allegedly, Salman Khan and his co-actors drove through the Kankani Village on the night of October 1 and the early hours of October 2. Travelling in a gypsy car, the group reportedly came across a herd of blackbucks and Khan allegedly shot down two in the herd.

Blackbucks are sacred to the Bishnoi tribe in Rajasthan, and the tribe considers preservation of nature a way of life. This explains why Poonamchand Bishnoi, a local who protects the species for religious reasons, was allegedly witness to the group driving through the village. He reportedly spotted the group and identified the actors, and testified that the group fled the scene leaving the killed animals upon realising that they had been spotted.

About Blackbucks

Blackbuck, (Antilope cervicapra), is indigenous to the plains of India. The blackbuck is an antelope of the same tribe (Antilopini) that includes gazelles, the springbok, and the gerenuk. What sets the blackbuck apart from the rest is the adult male’s horns, which are long (50–61 cm [20–24 inches], the record being 71.5 cm [28.1 inches]), spirally twisted, V-shaped, and covered with pronounced ridges nearly to the tips. In addition, there is a striking contrast between the black-and-white coloration of mature male blackbucks and the reddish yellow coloration of females and immature males.
- www.britannica.com

A timeline of 20 years

1998 – Bishnoi locals register a complaint against Salman Khan and his co-actors with regard to the blackbuck killings, reportedly witnessed by Poonamchand Bishnoi. Khan is arrested and subsequently granted bail.

2006 – Khan is convicted in the hunting case by one of the trial courts under the Wildlife Protection Act. The actor is fined Rs 25,000, and, also sentenced to 5 years of imprisonment. 

2007 – Khan is sentenced by the Rajasthan High Court to 5 years in prison, but this sentence gets dropped after his subsequent appeal. He spends a week in jail.

2012 – Charges get finalised by a bench at the Rajasthan High Court, to start new trial processes.

2014 – A notice is sent to the actor after the high court appeals to the Supreme Court in India, challenging an earlier suspension of the actor’s conviction (2007).

2016 – When the Rajasthan High Court acquits the actor of all charges, the Rajasthan government files an appeal to the Supreme Court challenging the high court’s decision. The Supreme Court rules to expedite hearing in the case.

2018 – Case argued at the trial court in Jodhpur in front of the Chief Judicial Magistrate Dev Kumar Khatri. On April 5, the final verdict of the court is announced and Salman Khan stands convicted of poaching while his co-actors walked free on charges of unlawful assembly. The Bishnoi Sabha are reportedly planning an appeal against this acquittal.

The Bishnoi Sect

Bishnoi is a religious group, believed to be more than 500 years old, founded on 29 tenets laid down by Guru Jambeshwar. Conservation of nature is their way of life and nature is of significant religious importance to the tribe. The tenets of the Bishnoi include a prohibition on felling trees and killing animals, with a focus on protecting all wildlife. They are even directed to make sure that the collected firewood is devoid of small life forms such as insects before use. Bishnoi temples and villages double up as rescue shelters and havens for endangered or widely hunted animals including blackbucks, chinkaras, peacocks and nilgai (blue bulls) etc.

Arguments of the public prosecutor

"All of them were in a Gypsy car that night, with Salman Khan in the driving seat. He, on spotting a herd of black bucks, shot at and killed two of them," Public Prosecutor Bhawani Singh Bhati had said.

 "But on being spotted and chased, they fled from the spot leaving the dead animals there," he said, adding that there was adequate evidence against them.

The case also involved two more accused, Dushyant Singh, who was allegedly accompanying the actors when the poaching took place, and Dinesh Gawre, said to be Salman Khan's assistant. "Gawre never appeared in court and was made to disappear by the main accused. Had he been around, there could have been more information available in the case," Bhati claimed.

Statements in Salman’s defense

Refuting these allegations, Salman Khan's counsel H M Saraswat said there were several loopholes in the prosecution's story and it had failed to prove its case beyond any doubt. "Prosecution has failed to prove the allegations. It engaged in tampering and fabricating evidence and documents as well as roping in fake witnesses to prove its case," he said.

 "It even failed to prove that the black bucks were killed by gunshots. Hence, such investigation cannot be trusted," Saraswat said.

What next?

Khan could face 6 to 7 years in prison. However, this conviction is subject to appeal and if history repeats itself, he could be acquitted by an appeals court.

In 2016, the Rajasthan High Court had acquitted him stating that there was no proof that the blackbucks in question were shot by the actor’s licensed gun. The same year, the government of Rajasthan appealed against this acquittal by filing a plea with the Supreme Court of India.

Other run-ins with the law

Salman Khan was also accused of poaching chinkaras. Chinkaras or Indian gazelles are native to Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Iran and Iraq. He was accused of killing three of these gazelles in September 1998, during the shooting of the same film in Rajasthan. He was acquitted in both case.

Another high-profile case involving Khan is the hit and run case of 2002. Salman Khan had allegedly run over a group of persons who were sleeping in front of a suburban bakery on the pavement on 28 September, 2002. His police bodyguard Ravindra Patil initially testified against Khan, stating that Khan drove under the influence of alcohol despite Patil’s warnings.

In a curious turn of events, he changed his statement and was declared a hostile witness. Patil was suspended from the police force and later died of tuberculosis. Other witnesses also turned hostile and changed their statements. Khan was acquitted in this case, due to lack of evidence. Appeals are still ongoing for the case at the Supreme Court level.  

- Inputs from agencies