On Wednesday, local television networks and social media platforms in India were abuzz with news of Bollywood actor Salman Khan’s conviction and sentencing for a hit-and-run case that dates all the way back to 2002.
From nitpicking about what a five-year jail term means for one of the subcontinent’s biggest entertainers, to absurd, almost offensive, commentary about the reasons and legitimacy of Mumbai’s homeless sleeping on pavements, it was a strange narrative to follow.
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But throughout the whole event, one thing appeared to be quite clear: That some sections of India’s elite still think they should be able to get away with doing the wrong thing, even when they acknowledge fault. There is a deep-rooted culture of entitlement here, that many are still resigned to, that perpetuates and encourages this view of the world.
In a country where status, power and money still get you a long way, this approach is understandable, because, put simply, that’s just how society, politics and business operate. But it also highlights just how much work needs to be done to achieve the great Indian utopia, one that leaders like Prime Minister Narendra Modi enthusiastically promise: Transparency, fairness and prosperity for all.
The ground realities of India’s class system, and as a result, who fortune, politics, and the legal system often favour, seem to be a leading reason why Khan’s five-year jail term caught so many people – including his own, mostly poor and middle class fans – by surprise.
For instance, had a poor or middle class Indian been driving drunk and run over six people, killing one, most people wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at a five-year jail term. Apart from the fact that the case wouldn’t have made headlines, many would have called for sentences to be harsher to warn other potential offenders of the dangers of driving under the influence and the importance of road safety.
Anyone you speak to in India can rattle off a list of cases involving high profile people: From politicians to celebrities and a plethora of wealthy and well-connected people in between. They’ll just as quickly tell you they suspect the accused will never be held accountable for what they may have done because they’re important and can pay their way out of trouble. Many will wrap up by saying, “But if I had done that …”
The underlying issue India struggles to deal with in cases like these, is not crime itself but rather, who commits it. This, as we saw again, still determines the outcome and the outburst that follows.