A fatal attribute of poor countries like India is that most people are forced to do stupid things. Poverty brings out the worst in us. The middle class and the upper middle class tend to make a virtue of it, so the small-change charity they do occasionally comes handy in their posthumous bargain with god. To a considerable extent, this is what has happened in the Salman Khan hit-and-run case: the deeper issues that the accident belies have been consistently ignored by the moral majority.
On a steamy September night in 2002, Salman Khan allegedly drove his Toyota Landcruiser truck over Nurulla Sharif, Abdullah Shaikh, Munnu Khan and Mohammed Kalim. All of them were sleeping on the footpath next to the popular American Express Bakery in Bandra, Bombay. Allegedly Salman Khan was drunk. At the time, the star was going through the last throes of his affair with Aishwarya Rai. Which lover wouldn't go berserk when those green eyes looked away in disdain? The accident killed Nurulla. The others were seriously injured. Abdullah lost a leg. Clearly, Salman - his lawyer said the star's driver was at the steering, but we would not buy that theory in a hurry - shouldn't have got drunk and taken the wheel.
Indeed, for ten years, that was the charge against him. That he consumed alcohol and drove recklessly. It was in 2012 that a metropolitan magistrate, no doubt in love with the popular - and stupid - idea of justice and the glory of handing it out to a high profile star to the applause of that wondrous cretin, the media, stuck on the case the tag of culpable homicide. And the situation for Salman became dire, and he had to step out from his largely hallucinogenic life. He has now been found guilty on the count of culpable homicide as well and faces five years in jail if he does not go in appeal.
The question is not just of Salman's guilt. It is also that the state of Maharashtra, more specifically the BMC (Bombay Municipal Corporation) is an equal accessory to the crime. The BMC is the richest civic body in India, with an annual budget of over Rs 40,000 crore, a substantial part of which is invariably never spent, but finds its way to a huge fixed deposit, and whose interest yields hundreds of crores. Against this backdrop, consider the fact that 60 per cent of its population lives in slums and pavements. The men that stopped that car that day in their sleep had nowhere to go but the footpath, just like so many hundreds of thousands of others in urban India.
In my book, the state's callousness to its people is the prime accused in cases like this. Through the long timeline of the Salman Khan case, not once did the BMC's partnership in crime come under scrutiny. Which is why when Abdullah said on Tuesday that he wanted compensation to get through his life, the judge talked at length about the need to punish Salman Khan. The stupidity of the justice will appeal to the Indian middle class. For them, giving Salman a fiver shows the great socialistic ideal of the law: everyone is equal before the metropolitan magistrate.
Unfortunately, that is not justice. Justice would have been to pull up the BMC and directing that opaque institution to keep its footpaths free of sleepers and squatters. That would go a long way in preventing American Express Bakery kind of accidents. Taking care of the victims' life post-accident would have met that end, too. Asking Salman Khan to bear the brunt of that pay-out would have been justice. And then perhaps sentence him to a few hundred hours of community service. The last would invite the wrath of the righteous: what about the ordinary citizen? And the answer partly is, do take care of him, sir. Abdullah is one.
Instead we are about to lock away at the taxpayer's expense a talent that entertained the same middle India that is baying for Salman's blood. I can think of better uses for my money. If you lost a leg in a car accident, you would be one of the first to agree.