It feels like the Jessica Lal case all over again, though the particulars of the Salman Khan drunken driving case from 2002, in which one person was killed after the actor’s car ran over five people sleeping on a Mumbai pavement, are vastly different. The Bollywood heavyweight, after being convicted and sentenced by a district criminal court in May, has been let off by the Bombay High Court—the court found the prosecution deficient in proving that Khan was both drunk and at the wheel of the car. Though the verdict can still be appealed before the Supreme Court, that a person of considerable influence—the actor was granted interim bail by the Bombay High Court in May, hours after being convicted by the trial court—has managed to get off the hook for a serious crime, whether committed with intent or not, shows how the delivery of justice can be so inequitable.
For the the victims, the acquittal is the latest in a series of demoralising setbacks in the quest for justice. It took a decade for the charge of culpable homicide, under Section 304 (ii), to stick to the actor—included in the October 2002 chargesheet, it was challenged all the way up to the Supreme Court. Evidence that the actor was drunk was also repeatedly cast in doubt—the High Court, in the latest judgment, too, did not feel that a restaurant bill, charged to the actor, that included alcoholic drinks, was adequate. A key prosecution witness turned hostile, disappeared, resurfaced with serious mental and physiological illnesses and died, all the while claiming that he was being hounded for speaking up. Case files and original statements from witnesses, too, went missing a year before the May conviction of Khan. There was also the curious incident of Khan’s driver suddenly claiming that he was at the wheel, towards the closing of the hearing of the case by the trial court. And now, the prosecution, despite strong evidence, has failed to convince the High Court of the actor’s culpability.
Thirteen years after the accident, where a life was lost and four persons were maimed by the drunk driver of a heavy-duty SUV, you would expect justice—whether it was the police or the prosecution that failed the victims in the High Court is hardly of concern to the common man. While a similar exoneration of the accused, at the sessions court level, was challenged successfully in the Jessica Lal case, this had a lot to do with Lal’s family’s ability to push for justice and mobilise public opinion. With no such backing in the case of Nurullah Mehboob Sharif, who was crushed under Khan’s car, both the Maharashtra government and the central government owe it to him—and India’s citizens—to appeal the verdict and fight the case in the Supreme Court with the best lawyers available.