Salman Khan, movie star, has been found guilty of culpable homicide, among other offences, and sentenced to five years in prison by a Mumbai sessions court. The verdict in the 2002 hit-and-run case sends out a powerful message, that the law will not bend for the rich and influential, that the impunity that comes with privilege and entitlement will not, in the end, prevail. It is a message that should travel from Mumbai to Moga, where individuals driving a bus owned by Punjab’s ruling political family seemed to have felt emboldened to molest and kill a teenage girl, and the local MLA called it “god’s will”. But for all its heartening import, justice has taken too long for the victims of the hit-and-run case.
On September 28, 2002, the actor’s car reportedly careened on to a pavement in Bandra, killing one person and injuring four. In the years to come, the victims would have to negotiate a judicial process that ran into roadblocks every step of the way. First, the application of Section 304 (ii) of the IPC, holding Salman Khan guilty of culpable homicide, was questioned. Included in the police chargesheet of October 2002, it was challenged first in the sessions court, then in the Bombay High Court and finally in the Supreme Court. It would be a decade before the additional chief metropolitan magistrate invoked culpable homicide again and referred the case to the sessions court.
Second, evidence showing the actor was drunk at the time of the incident was cast into doubt. Third, testimonies in the case painted a changing picture. A key police witness turned hostile and died in 2007. In 2014, case files disappeared from the Bandra police station and 63 original statements of witnesses were reported missing. In the last stages of the case, the actor’s driver suddenly came forward to say he had been the person at the wheel. It took 13 years for a judge to finally tell Salman Khan, “You were driving the car, without a licence and you were under the influence of alcohol”.
Yet this was a high-profile case, fought in the public eye and followed intently, which might have guided it towards closure, howsoever delayed. For every instance of closure, there are thousands of others snaking their way into judicial oblivion. In 2013, there were 9.71 million criminal cases pending before the judiciary, and the completion rate for cases was only 13.19 per cent. An understaffed judiciary creaks under the weight of cases, and tardy investigative processes have compounded the problem. The conviction of a movie star puts this reality in the limelight.