Celebrity convictions are as rare as seeing a star in the day. Thus whenever this does happen, the conviction creates more news than is necessary with the celebrities garnering most of the news bytes, and the hapless victims nearly completely obscured. Take the TV news coverage of the recent conviction of the Bollywood actor, Salman Khan in the black buck and chinkara poaching case. After seemingly long minutes of coverage of Salman, the actor, and when I had almost given up on the hope of seeing one of these animals, the TV showed a far and stale shot of a herd of chinkaras. Projected thus, lay viewers might never be able to appreciate the reason for the conviction and much to our chagrin may actually be sympathetic to the conviction of Salman. Salman and a group of actors were charged with shooting the endangered animals, black buck and the chinkara, when they were out shooting a Bollywood movie in Rajasthan in 1998. In and out of the courthouses for the last 8 years, a clearly frustrated Salman pleaded “Hang me if I am guilty” to a court in Jodhpur that was trying him. No sooner had he said that, the court decided to convict Salman and sentenced him for a year of rigorous imprisonment.
Crime against wildlife (including poaching, ill treatment and displacement of their habitats due to encroachment) can often be traced to man’s eagerness to leave a larger ecological footprint. Over the years, a number of wildlife including animal and plant species have been systematically edged out of their native habitats, such that today they stand on a very fragile patch. Recognizing the extreme vulnerability of these species, global and national policies have been made to protect and conserve them. The black bucks and chinkaras are among a few hundred species listed as endangered in the country and whose hunting attracts non-bailable offence. Salman’s four legged victim also known as the Indian gazelle’s are widely available in Rajasthan and are worshipped by the local Bishnoi tribes. The Bishnoi hold the chinkara’s so sacred that they even bury the dead animals and erect memorial stones as a mark of respect. Unfortunately for Salman and his group, the animal they chose to poach was the endangered black bucks and the chinkaras; had they instead shot the street dogs of Jodhpur they might have in fact earned the praise of the municipality and the citizens at large.
Is there some lesson out of Salman’s conviction that can raise people’s consciousness at large, towards protecting the endangered wildlife? For sure, with a more mature media, the conviction and the publicity it carries along can enhance public awareness much more than what hundred thousand propaganda material can accomplish. In a way these could buy millions of passive supporters for the conservation of the Indian wildlife. Thus at the expense of Salman’s personal discomfort, the conviction could do a lot of good to instill a public concern for conserving the endangered wildlife.
On the other hand, handled properly, I think the Salman conviction can be used to a greater benefit for advertising and conserving India’s wildlife. Has anyone considered condoning Salman’s crime with a bargain that the star actually spends a part of his time over the sentence year in promoting the conservation of the endangered wildlife? For example, Salman could use his charismatic appeal for raising funds for the conservation of the endangered animals. He could publicly denounce the poaching of endangered animals or for the matter lead the crusade against the encroachment of India’s protected reserves. It is not uncommon for celebrities to plea deals with the judiciary to condone their crimes, for a social return. Recently the Hollywood director, Tamahori pleading no contest to a conviction, was asked by a US court to perform 15 days of community service for the Hollywood beautification project.
Unlike celebrity crimes, I feel celebrity convictions are too precious and far too few to be lost in routine sentences. Imaginative use and deployment of the sentence can not only have a public function but might also help the celebrity in developing a more compassionate approach towards a social or environmental cause, which in their rise to stardom could have become opaque.
R. Uma Shaanker