If there were any fears that millions of fans of Bollywood actor Salman Khan would have a miserable weekend agonising over their idol’s hardship in jail, those have been put to rest by an obliging Bombay High Court. The trial court’s verdict, sentencing Salman Khan to five years’ imprisonment after holding him guilty of running over pavement dwellers and killing one of them, has been stayed by the High Court till it disposes of his appeal.

Salman Khan’s fans celebrate outside his residence after the Bombay High Court suspended the actor’s five-year prison sentence in the hit-and-run case on Friday. Pic/PTI
Salman Khan’s fans celebrate outside his residence after the Bombay High Court suspended the actor’s five-year prison sentence in the hit-and-run case on Friday. Pic/PTI

It took 13 years for the trial court to pronounce its verdict. It is anybody’s guess as to how long it will take for the appeals process to be over. Years and more pass by as our creaky criminal justice system dawdles over whether to punish or not to punish those who are in breach of the law of the land. By the time justice is pretended to be done, or perceived to be done, the crime committed has been all but forgotten, airbrushed from the collective memory of the masses.

This is not the first time that we are witnessing what frankly amounts to preferential treatment by the courts of law. For long it has been an established practice in this wondrous land of ours. The law is cited not to punish and deter criminals, at least not often enough, but to provide an alibi for individuals like Salman Khan. It can then be said that ‘due process of law’ was followed without cutting corners.

I am reminded of the horrific ‘BMW case’ that shook the conscience of Delhi’s residents who are otherwise not known to be bothered about right and wrong, ethical and unethical, moral and immoral. Few would remember the cold January night in 1999 when a drunk Sanjeev Nanda ploughed through a police check post, killing six persons, among them three Delhi Police men in uniform.

Nor will many recall that in a mockery of justice, all that the son of powerful businessman Suresh Nanda was given by way of punishment was two years’ imprisonment. It may have been coincidental that the sentence equalled the time the culprit had already spent in jail. But not everybody was convinced that the highest court of the land had been fair in meting out punishment. Yes, there was a fine to be paid but that was loose change for the culprit’s super-rich daddy.

That is how the criminal justice system works. Show me the face and I shall tell you the rule is really not a cliche. This has been proved once again by the ease with which Salman Khan has avoided time in the slammer. It would be worthwhile to check how many men and women, held guilty of an assortment of crimes the day Salman Khan was pronounced guilty, have been as dextrous as him in securing judicial relief.

India today resembles George Orwell’s scathing satire Animal Farm. In Orwell’s mythical farm, all animals were equal but some were more equal than others. So it is with our country. The Constitution may loftily declare all citizens of the Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic of India as equal, in real life that equality is as non-existent as Saraswati River that we have all heard of but none has seen (though it did exist once upon a time).

This is really not about Salman Khan. It is about the social pecking order that determines extraordinary rights and privileges. Sanjay Dutt got off lightly with a minor prison term after being held guilty for his role in the hideous Mumbai bombings of 1993. He did not deny the charges. He merely pleaded he was young and hence did not realise the gravity of his deed. Younger men from the wrong side of the tracks have paid heavily for a similar crime. And even among the privileged class, few can hope for repeated and extended paroles.

Examples abound. Bihar’s former Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav is a free man after being held guilty in the fodder scam. True, he is disqualified from holding public office but that has not impacted his politics or his fortunes. What, then, was the punishment that he had to suffer?

The chattering classes often express dismay over the contempt with which the masses treat the law of the land, its enforcers and its interpreters. There really is no cause for dismay. The law and its keepers have long ceased to be fair and even-handed. Or else Lt Col Prasad Shrikant Purohit and Sadhvi Pragya would still not be in jail while the Supreme Court interrupts hearings to give bail to powerful and connected individuals like Teesta Setalvad. We have also seen the Supreme Court set free Syed Mohammed Kazmi, prime accused in the terror attack on an Israeli Embassy car in Delhi, primly declaring bail is a right. It meant bail is a privilege!

The writer is a senior journalist based in the National Capital Region. His Twitter handle is @KanchanGupta