It was a day of two verdicts.
Salman Khan acquitted on all charges of a hit-and-run in 2002 in Mumbai.
All the men charged in the Park Street rape case convicted in Kolkata.
One has spurred jubilation and the other has spurred outrage. It’s seen as a case where the rich and famous can get away with murder. As @ShankhPaad tweeted sardonically. “No blackbuck was killed, he committed suicide by coming in the way of bullet – Judge in 2016 #SalmanVerdict.” And the relief in Bollywood was palpable. “He should now settle down and get married,” said Hema Malini since marriage is the answer to everything. “Truth prevails. Even if it takes 13 long years. J” tweeted Anupam Kher.
Of course the victims of that hit-and-run who have also waited 13 long years might have a different take. But Rs 200 crore of industry money do not ride on their backs.
On the other hand, the Park Street rape case was a victory against all odds. When Suzette Jordan was raped, even the chief minister Mamata Banerjee dismissed the crime as “sajano ghotana” (fabricated events). When the verdict came down she had to say “I welcome the court verdict” which is as close to eating her words as the chief minister can come. Her minister had questioned the morals of a mother of two who was drinking in a nightclub. That minister is himself in custody in connection with the Saradha scam. The fact that Suzette Jordan was Anglo-Indian only added to the character-assassination. Two of prime accused in the case are still absconding. The police raided nine places to try and nab the main accused Kader Khan but he eluded them every time. A Times of India report says it’s likely Khan has contacts within the police force who are tipping him off. When Suzette died of meningitis in March many feared the case too would die without her as its face. Activist Harish Iyer wrote that when the news of her death broke, the families of the accused distributed sweets.
Those who are now embittered and disillusioned by the Salman Khan verdict are also focused on justice. But as the judge’s statement shows it was never about justice. It’s about whether the accused can be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s not whether Salman Khan was behind the wheel and driving drunk (someone clearly was) but whether the prosecution could prove that beyond reasonable doubt. That’s as it should be and the judge decided it had not. What went in Salman Khan’s favour finally was money and celebrity and the time that it can buy. Remember the court stayed opened beyond normal hours so he could file his bail application and not spend a night in jail. In the thirteen years that elapsed since the hit-and-run, the case sputtered its way through the legal system, affording plenty of time for witnesses to change their story and turn hostile. Only Ravindra Patil, the former police bodyguard who was in the car that night stuck to his story that Salman was drinking and Salman was driving. For his obstinacy, Patil ended up hounded and ostracized, dying of drug-resistant tuberculosis in 2007, abandoned by even his family. “I stood by my statement till the end. My department did not stand by me,” Patil told Mid-Day. And now in a final damning epitaph the judge in the case has described him as “wholly unreliable”.
Perhaps he was. Perhaps he was not. But what is “wholly unreliable” for sure is the process by which justice is served in this country. That much is clear from both cases. In the Suzette Jordan case the very administration that was supposed to stand up for her and prosecute her case, chose to regard it as more an embarrassment than a crime. Their leaders had once told the public that there was a great difference, a moral difference basically, between the Nirbhaya rape case and the Park Street rape case. Perhaps the one thing that made a difference was that this was a fast-track court. And though a newspaper timeline of the case described it as a “Long Road to Justice”, by Indian standards it was a short road indeed. Suzette was raped in February 2012. The conviction was pronounced in December 2015.
Contrast this to the Salman Khan case. From 2002 to 2015 is a long road to justice indeed. Whether Salman Khan is guilty or not is not the question. Who was driving the car if Salman was not is apparently not the question either. Will family driver Ashok Singh who suddenly and belatedly admitted to it, now be charged? What rankles is the feeling that had this case not taken so long, one would have known with more certainty what happened that night. Ravindra Patil died in 2007, a full five years after that fateful night. Had this too been a fast-track case, it might have been a different story.
Today the media is hailing Suzette Jordan as “braveheart”. Brave, she certainly was, to come out in public but when I met her at her little house in Kolkata she said it was her grandmother Matilda who gave her the courage. “She said you are going to the police no matter what anyone says. I am going with you. She is 76. She is a model of pure pure strength.” After the verdict that grandmother told Indian Express, “I feel bad for the three boys, they are so young. Already they have spent three years behind bars. Suzette didn’t really want revenge. She wanted justice.”
This was perhaps Matilda Jordan’s victory as much as it was Suzette’s though the prime accused are absconding and there is no doubt there will be an appeal. And it’s important that on a day when many felt justice was not done in one case, another case held out hope that the system can work even for those who are not powerful.
But what is indisputable from both cases is that the longer justice is delayed, the more chances it will be denied.
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