Hindi Film 101: Salman Khan Part 5, the Blackbuck

Can I just say how proud I am of all of us for keeping a respectful tone on these posts? Even when we disagree with each other, we do it with the assumption that both sides are just trying to learn and be the best human beings we can be. I have pretty much stopped replying to comments, because I don’t need to, you are all having deep intelligent conversations on your own without my needing to leap in and make sure things stay civil.

Non-Usual Disclaimer: Salman Khan has done bad things. But he has also done good things, and had bad things happen to him. Just as the good he has done has not erased the bad, so has the bad not erased the good. I am trying to balance both sides in these posts with empathy and understanding for a fellow human being.

Lets talk moral versus legal. They are two very different things in my mind. The laws often follow and enforce a greater morality, and there is a general morality in obeying the law, believing the laws apply to you as well as anyone else even if you disagree with them, but ultimately they are not the same. For example, taking someone else’s parking space when they are maneuvering to back in is immoral, but not illegal. Parking your car on an empty street that happens to have permit only parking is illegal but not immoral. Parking your car in a handicap spot is both illegal and immoral.

In terms of Salman, he has 3 big sins in his life. The first, abusing Aish while they were in a relationship (and probably other women as well), is a moral issue but not a legal one. Abuse is illegal in India, but there is no case pending against Salman. Which says something, because Aish’s statement provided more than enough evidence for a “concerned citizen” to file an FIR, or for a police officer to decide to investigate. There have been plenty of trumped up cases created for publicity on far less evidence. But abuse within a relationship is more controversial than filing a case against Shahrukh for smoking in Wankhede stadium, no one wants to be associated with it. And so there is no pending court case related to Salman’s abuse.

There is a pending court case related to his car accident. That incident has both moral and legal implications. Which makes it hard, because the two get mixed together. Legally, Salman is liable for certain things. And morally, he is liable differently.

And then there is the poaching case. To my mind, this is a situation that is almost entirely legal, not moral. There is the general morality of following the law because it is the law, not believing yourself to be above it. But the actual act has no moral implications.

A common misconception is that Salman killed an endangered species. He didn’t. The Indian Blackbuck is a legally protected species within India. And its numbers greatly declined during the 20th century, partly due to overhunting but also due to habitat loss. The Blackbuck has died out completely in Bangladesh and is almost dead in Nepal. But is thriving in some regions of India (to the point of being a threat to agriculture) and in Texas, where it was transported in the 1930s. The Blackbuck is not on any endangered species list. It is listed in Appendix III of CITES, the international UN treaty on animals. This appendix is specifically about animals that are not endangered globally but are dying out in one particular member country, India. You can hunt as many Blackbucks as you want in Texas, but India wants to try to keep the few it has.

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This brings up a bigger question about conservation and animal survival. I grew up in hunting country. Serious hunters, ones who were raised doing it and properly trained and so on, take conservation very seriously. There are hunting laws in most states in America that are aimed at controlling the animal population while also allowing it to grow. You can’t shoot an animal under a certain age, you can’t shoot a female, you can’t shoot more than one animal a year, and so on.

In America, our deer population is enormous. They live in forests and and parks and preserves. And every year they are shot by hunters, hunters with licenses and laws who are supervised by park rangers and by their fellow hunters who all expect proper behavior. There are government agencies which track the local deer populations and determine whether they are at a normal level, or too low (cut back on hunting this year) or too high (extend hunting season). Hunting is not the problem, hunting is the solution.

This isn’t to say everyone has to be a hunter, or should be a hunter. For myself, I could never do it. But I have friends who do it. But I don’t judge my friends who hunt, any more than I judge friends who play hockey or are vegetarian. It’s not for me, but it’s okay if you enjoy it.

I see no universal morality against killing animals for sport or meat. And I also see no universal morality against killing the Blackbuck in particular, it is not an endangered species in general or a species that has a particularly important place in the ecology of India where it is dying out. In the greater realm of environmental concerns, hunting a Blackbuck in India is not a real problem.

Where the Blackbuck does have an important place is in the religion of some Indian groups. Not all of them, while the Blackbuck is mentioned in the ancient texts of Hinduism, reverence for it is not universal among all sects and castes and regions of India. To my mind the morality of hunting a Blackbuck would be similar to, say, finding a bar that was open illegally on a Sunday in a town with Sunday drinking laws. Yes, there is a law in place. Yes, it isn’t a bad law. But is it a law that seeks primarily for the greater good, or a law that seeks primarily to please a particular voting block?

Image result for blackbuck hunting India
One of the traditional ways to hunt the Blackbuck was to take a cheetah out with you and set it lose. Animal versus animal.

And that brings me to Blackbuck hunting in Jodhpur. Jodhpur has an ancient tradition of Blackbuck hunting. And it also has a particular tribe, the Bishnois, who revere the Blackbuck. It has become a bit of a local issue over the years, the Bishnois set sentries along the rout to the preserves watching for hunters and following them. Meanwhile the hunting guides have their own economy and system that relies on taking wealthy tourists illegally into the preserves to hunt. The courts can choose, depending on whether it is an election year (the Bishnois are a strong voting block) or if there is any other particular advantage or disadvantage, how hard they want to pursue these poaching cases.

While filming the movie Hum Saath Saath Hain in Jodhpur, Salman and his co-stars Saif Ali Khan, Tabu, and Sonali Bendre hired one of those hunting guides and were driven out to the preserve and shot and killed two Blackbuck. The Bishnoi sentries witness the car traveling, and then found the dead animals. Salman was immediately singled out, the Bishnois claim to have witnessed him holding a gun (giving him slightly more culpability than the others who could just claim that they were along for the ride). For 21 years, Salman and occasionally the other three have been dragged in and out of the courtroom on this same case. The following is some of what I wrote a year ago after Salman was sentenced to 5 years for poaching while his friends and fellow defendants were let off for lack of evidence:

[START QUOTE] Let me start big picture.  The court system in India is very very slow and very easy to circumvent.  I’m not saying you can bribe your way out of a court case, like the judges are corrupt or anything like that, I’m saying that the system is so slow that you can easily just keep throwing money at appeals until you run out the time and die with the case still unsettled.

For a “regular” wealthy person, a court case will probably never result in jail time.  You will appeal and appeal and appeal, eventually the prosecutors run out of time/money/energy/interest and just let the case drop.  In the worst case, you might finally be convicted and pay a fine.  Or go to jail for a night before being freed.  What you see in the movies isn’t much of an exaggeration, the wealthy landlord of a rural village, or the powerful businessman in a city can just walk in and out of jail.  And unless the media and the public make a big stink about it, the case will just sort of fade away.

The trick of it is, with movie stars, there is an advantage to keeping the case going.  The prosecutors and everyone else get attention from it, Politicians and other public figures weigh in with their opinions, “fading away” is a difficult option.  And so, yes, Salman Khan managed to avoid punishment for a very long time thanks to his privileges as a wealthy person.  But on the other hand, he has gotten more punishment than an equally wealthy person would have gotten because he is a movie star and his name has value.  And the same could be said for a lot of these cases filed against movie stars.  Yes, they broke the law, yes they are getting away with it because of their wealth, but they are also being punished more than a equivalent wealthy person would be.

So, what is this particular case?  Salman Khan and Sonali Bendre and Saif Ali Khan and Neelam and Tabu were in Jodhpur filming Hum Saath Saath Hain in 1998.  They hired a guide and went out to shoot a blackbuck.  The blackbuck is a sacred animal in Hinduism and ALSO has a long tradition of being hunted in India.  It is illegal to kill blackbucks now, but it was not always and it is not unheard of for them to be killed.  Obviously, if there was a guide and a hunting jeep and guns available, this is something that other visitors to Jodhpur have done before.

Image result for hum saath saath hain

Also around Jodhpur is a Bishnoi community.  The Blackbuck is particularly sacred for the Bishnois.  They have started a practice of having spotters on the road, looking for hunters and following and reporting them.  Which, again, indicates that hunting the Blackbuck is something which Salman is not the first or last person to do.  In addition, the Bishnois are a bit of a voting block in the area, there is political advantage to passing and enforcing Blackbuck protection laws, for raising this issue.

What seems almost inarguable from witness accounts is that Salman and his friends, all wealthy outsider film folk, decided to go out Blackbuck hunting as an adventure one night.  A Blackbuck was found dead, presumably killed by them.  Where it gets murky is how this case progressed and was enforced.

The human being that Salman killed in a car accident was a homeless man with no strong community ties, no one to speak for him.  The animal he (supposedly) killed was part of an ancient breed with strong historical ties in the area and a large vocal political group to support it, not for conservation reasons (remember, not endangered) but for reasons of tradition and religion.  It is a respectable animal, a “worthy” animal, not merely a homeless person.

And now, today, the verdict has come down saying that Salman is sentenced to jail for 5 years (the highest possible sentence is 6 years, the lowest 1), while the other 5 people who were present (the other 4 actors and the guide) are let off.

I’m not saying Salman is “innocent”, I’m not saying he didn’t break laws, I’m not even saying he shouldn’t go to jail.  But it is possible to say all of those things and still feel that this case was pushed forward for political and PR reasons more than reasons of “justice”.  [END QUOTE]

To my mind, I see no moral issue here. Salman didn’t throw a bomb into the Blackbuck herd and try to kill them all, he didn’t force the guide to take him or his friends to go along with him, he didn’t start a poaching practice in Jodhpur. He just took advantage of a practice that was already happening and killed two animals. Or killed one and watched his friend kill another. Or it is always possible that he watched his friends kill both of them and is taking the blame himself to save them. And it is inarguable that the only reason this case has dragged on and on, and he has been threatened with 5 years in prison, is politics.

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We really don’t know what happened. It could be that Saif was the one who suggested and organized the hunting trip, Salman was just long for the ride. Or not, I’m just pointing out that in terms of culpability there is no real way we can know Salman was the ringleader, he was just the person seen holding a gun by a witness.

But on the other hand, he did break the law. No one should be higher than the law, no one should think themselves higher than the law. If you disagree with it, do it openly and try to force reform and change, don’t just break the law.

We can agree, I assume, that the far more culpable person is the guide who took Salman and his friends into the preserve, who no doubt has taken hundreds of other tourists in to hunt. But would prosecuting him really make a difference in solving the problem? He is doing this job because people pay him and he can make money at it. Prosecute Salman and the tourists will be scared off and the guide will no longer have a reason to take them hunting. If there is a high profile case against a tourist for hunting, might it scare off other tourists and thus eliminate the motivation for the guides?

Now let me swing back to the other side. Is it better to prosecute one high profile tourist for 21 years in order to scare of others, or is it better to use those resources to prosecute many tourists over many years? Which is a more effective scare tactic?

And is it really impossible to just arrest the guides? They are a smaller number than the tourists, and local, if they were all arrested or put under watch, might that stop the trade more efficiently?

Or how about regulation? Allowing very limited hunting of the Blackbucks on a heavily supervised legal basis?

Image result for bhang drink
For example, marijuana in India is regulated but not outlawed. What about using the same system for hunting?

These arguments should be familiar to those of you who are interested in social reform. The same arguments can be made about recreational drug use, or prostitution. Do you prosecute the buyers whose money provides the motivation for the trade, or the dealers who are actively encouraging it? Is it better to enforce the strongest laws possible and try to drive it out, or is it better to relax the laws and focus on regulation? And is it better to have a high profile case and set an example, or prosecute many people equally?

And of course the big personal question with Salman, is it justified to cheer on his prosecution for this offense simply because you wish he could be legally prosecuted for his other offenses? Should his killing of a Blackbuck be prosecuted simply because his killing of a human cannot be?

That question, for myself, I can answer: No. Any perversion of the laws for personal vengeance is blasphemy, prosecute him for the case he is on trial for without regard to any other part of his life. Not because of this particular situation, but because to bend the law and prosecution in such a way opens the door for far greater rot in society. Send Salman to jail for 5 years for poaching because you can’t do it for murder, and it is that much easier to do it to the next defendant who might actually be innocent of the higher offense you can’t prosecute. Send Salman to jail for killing a Blackbuck instead of a human being and you encourage the thinking that Blackbucks are more valuable than homeless people. Even worse, send Salman to jail for killing a Blackbuck because you don’t like his father’s two wives, his movie star life style, his Muslim faith, his many girlfriends, and suddenly you are prosecuting your own version of morality which has no place in a courtroom.

But you don’t have to agree with me! All I am doing is providing the information, you can make up your own minds.

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11 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101: Salman Khan Part 5, the Blackbuck

  1. Morality is variable, situational, and can change in a second. I don’t dare venture into an opinion on that.
    But as to legality…It’s almost impossible to “prove” a crime. Law language is complex and open to interpretation; witnesses make mistakes; perpetrators lie; evidence can be manufactured, tampered with, destroyed; and mitigating circumstances only create confusion. Plus, unfortunately, most lawyers want to win. Not all, Thank God.
    In our country, we trust a jury or, in some cases, the wisdom of a judge. In other countries, what the imam or ruler says goes. But either way, as with life itself, nothing is absolute.
    Nobody really knows what Salman did or didn’t do. He was THERE when the homeless man was hit and the bucks were shot. That’s quite possibly the only fact of both cases. Pour over transcripts and study the evidence and you still won’t know for sure who did the actual killing. So how to proceed?
    Common sense? Nope. Many of us don’t have any, and those of us who think we do, have to be pretty damn sure it’s not based on prejudice. If you like Salman, you’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt; if you don’t, the noose.
    For me, based on the only fact of both cases – that he was there – gun in hand or not, fleeing the hit and run scene or not – he was there and involved. He deserves neither a pass nor death, but some acknowledgment of culpability. I say give him a year in jail and a big enough fine to hurt.

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  2. Hey sorry for the random/stupid question as I’m not really a vivid follower of the Khans, was wondering what Srks upcoming movie is and is he coming back to films or doing age appropriate roles?

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    • There are no stupid questions! This is what the Monday Morning Questions post is for, you can always find the newest one and put your question there.

      Shahrukh is being strangely tight lipped and slow about his next film, it’s unprecedented. Usually he would have his next film set and officially announce it after the release of his current film. Zero came out 6 months ago, and still no announcement. He is the subject of a Letterman special that is still being put together, he picked up an honorary doctorate, he filmed the intros for his TED Talks India series, his charity work and his corporation and growing and growing and growing, but he hasn’t officially announced a next movie. At this point it could be anything at all, or it could be nothing. Maybe he is just done with movies?

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  3. I disagree with you on point (as would many Indians) – there are moral implications pertaining to hunting in India. I understand that the U.S. has a very different moral approach to hunting, but Hindus/Jains/Buddhists have strong moral objections to hunting – especially the revered animals. This case is a moral referendum on how we as the nation want to treat our animals. Being lenient on hunters/guides etc. means taking a “practical” approach to hunting (like the U.S.). But persecuting Salman reinforces the notion that we as a country revere our animals. This whole thing is also complicated by religion. If the Hindu right wing wants to uphold all the cow protection laws (and the cow lynchings) then they cannot let a Muslim star get away with a hunt…that leads to a slippery slope. And yes, they already proclaim that a cow’s life is more valuable than human life, so they would prefer Salman goes to jail over this than his driving case.
    Personally, I do want Salman in jail. First, he broke the law. No one is above the law, and especially rich people in India need to learn to fear the law. Second, there is poetic justice in sending him to jail for this if he can’t be convicted for his other crimes.

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      • Oh yes, it’s been a problem since at least Gandhi’s time because he spoke out against it. If a rumor starts that a Muslim man, or a lower caste man, might have killed a cow, a crowd will show up at his house and lynch him. It’s increased in recent times, which is part of how I am judging the “morality” of the Salman Khan case. How much of the reaction is wanting him to follow the law, and how much of it is a high profile case of taking down a Muslim man for killing an animal? Especially since it is Salman who is being most prosecuted, versus Saif Ali Khan (also Muslim, but less obvious about it and with a high profile Hindu mother). Tabu is also Muslim, Sonali Bendre is not. It was not a crowd of Muslims going out hunting, rather a crowd of wealthy tourists of mixed religions and backgrounds. And yet the focus on Salman makes it a religious issue.

        To me, “morality” does not mean blindly following the beliefs you have been taught, but always questioning and considering the greater good. Is it “moral” to kill people for falling in love simply because that is how things have always been done? If I were the judge in Salman’s case, and I wanted to make a moral rather than a legal statement, I might be tempted to set him free with a strong speech from the bench about the importance of placing human life over anything else and not allowing our prejudices to blind us to a higher justice.

        On Wed, Jun 12, 2019 at 4:12 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

        >

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  4. Being there is not the same as being involved.
    For example, there had been a third man in the car when there was the accident, a singer if I remember rightly. He clearly wasn’t involved in the accident. If Salman did not drive the car (I’m sure he was but that doesn’t make it a fact), he was there but not involved.
    As for the hunting…if he only hold a gun/rifle while the car was nearing the area of the blackbucks but he gave it to Saif for doing the shots, he was there (like his colleagues) but not involved in the killing. All of them clearly acted against the law which should have been punished rather quickly. The one who was breaking the law again and again is the guide who allowed weapons (just looking out and observing the animals would not be against the law).

    I second Margaret when she writes that the celebrity status of Salman is exploited – although from both sides, imo.

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  5. That’s why I can’t take a position on morality, Shreyans. It’s different depending on where you are. Obviously, India’s regard for animals is very different from the hunters who roam the Hudson Valley from the day after Thanksgiving to December 31, shooting willy-nilly at anything that moves. They shot and killed my dog while we were out for a run, both of us wearing orange vests. I reported it but they had licenses.
    And I understand where you’re coming from, Claudia. But what do we KNOW? It’s reported that Salman was drunk, returning home from a party, disconsolate over Aish. Maybe the other singer was also drunk and they were passing a bottle back and forth, singing, laughing, not paying any attention to the road. To me, that’s guilty.

    I’m a dumb mix-race gal who can’t decide whether OJ was innocent or not. My husband, a stone-hard black man says, “I don’t know what he did but he was there and he did something.”

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    • Yes, indeed, he did something…but what exactly, that is the question or are the questions.
      My own thinking about both incidents is that Salman is guilty of having driven a car in a drunken state and that he avoided punishment by not being available to the police…and that he shot at least one animal. But my thinking is not relevant for the law and the jurisdiction obviously isn’t able to come to terms with final verdicts.
      I also think that Salman has a very questionable moral behaviour in more than only these two cases…and that “being human” has a double sense.
      Consequence for me is that I don’t watch his movies anymore (exception, if ShahRukh is in it).

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    • I have just been following along pretty indifferent to Salman and his travails. It just seems like he is getting a very little of what he deserves for his actions. He is a grown man and responsible for his actions.

      On the other hand, oh my god, how scary for you! It seems like something should have happened to those hunters. I remember growing up in the Hudson Valley, hiking all over them, but never during hunting season. People go out there drunk as a skunk. Stay safe.

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