(This piece was first published on 28 July 2016 after Salman Khan’s acquittal in the blackbuck case)
On 5 April 2018, a Jodhpur trial court will deliver its verdict in the blackbuck poaching case against Bollywood actor Salman Khan. Final arguments in the case, which has been going on for the last 19 years in the court of the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Jodhpur Rural, were concluded on 24 March 2018, after which the judge reserved his verdict.
This brings back memories of the lone surviving blackbuck, making me feel like I am a witness to the whole incident and how this was the ‘Hit and Run Part II.’ Salman was earlier accused of running down a human, and here for hitting the animals.
Flashback to October 2, 1998, when two Bishnois – Poonamchand and Choogaram – from Kankani village of Jodhpur allegedly witnessed actor Salman Khan standing on the jeep and shooting a blackbuck. They yelled and followed the actor on their bike. The villagers gathered, but Salman and the others managed to escape. It was later that the two cases of 26 September and 28 September 1998 also came to light.
A Bishnoi, who was part of the huge mob that had gathered that night had told me in 2006, “If we had got hold of them that night, the cases won’t have gone for so long.” The Bishnoi community not only worship the deer, but their women also breastfeed them.
Having covered the case in detail since 2006, when the actor was convicted for the first time, I realised that Salman was not fighting against the judiciary alone, but the entire community. When I visited the Bishnois first, they did not entertain me but rather looked at me suspiciously. I was coming from Mumbai, where the actor resided. I happened to meet a Bishnoi at the Jodhpur court related to the case and urged him to shell out details and help me meet the complainants. He threatened me and asked me to stay out of the case, as it was close to their heart. Being a Rajasthani helped me to finally convince the Bishnois.
I spent the next three days with them.
I was taken to all the crime spots in Mathania, Ghoda farm and Kankani, the hotel where the meal was cooked on the night of killing, and the grave of the two blackbucks that were killed on October 2, 1998. One of the animals allegedly killed on September 26 was the meal at Ashirwad hotel for the cast and the crew members.
Soon the journalist’s curiosity overtook me and I set out to find the people who had brought the whole case to light.
It was Poonamchand and Choogaram who witnessed the killing and then complained to the cops. I tried to find the driver of Salman Khan’s jeep, but he had gone into hiding by then. A number of witnesses had turned hostile, but a witness narrated the complete incident and also informed about a washbasin in a room at the back of the hotel, where the Chinkara was washed before being cooked and served. The forensic team had visited the place during investigation and had recovered blood stains of the animal then. The case was earlier looked after by the forest department, but as the pressure mounted, it was transferred to the local police.
My next visit was to the grave of the two blackbucks at Kankani, where they were allegedly shot on October 2.
On every death anniversary, the community mourns at the grave. What’s even more surprising is that a blackbuck pays a visit daily and spends hours sitting on the grave mourning his loss. The villagers say that the accused had shot at three blackbucks, but this one survived, while his companions were shot dead.
I soon managed to obtain a photograph of Salman Khan and Saif Ali Khan carrying air guns outside their vanity vans. Both the actors were arrested on October 7. A spot boy who is a prime witness, Dinesh Gawre, was allegedly sent with the gun used for the killing to Mumbai on October 8. He hasn’t been found till date, and this was the biggest setback in the case.
There was one similarity in the hit-and-run and the deer poaching case. In both, Salman Khan has been acquitted and the focus has been shifted to the driver. While in the earlier case, the driver Ashok appeared from nowhere and claimed to have been driving the vehicle, in the latter one, the driver Harish Dulani, who was the main witness in the case, suddenly disappeared.
While Salman has been acquitted in two cases which were based completely on circumstantial evidence, the third blackbuck case is stronger in terms of witnesses and proof. The Bishnois hope that the evidence in these cases will finally do justice.
(Ketan Ranga has worked as a crime journalist for a decade and is currently partner at the PR firm, I-Deators Communication)