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As Salman goes to jail, here's looking back at the blackbuck case

Akash Bisht | Updated on: 5 April 2018, 16:39 IST

A Jodhpur court Thursday convicted actor Salman Khan and sentenced him to five years in prison for blackbuck poaching case dating back to 1998. Since Salman cannot get bail from this court, he was straightaway sent to Jodhpur Central jail.

In 1998, while shooting for Sooraj Barjatya's Hum Saath Saath Main, Salman along with Saif Ali Khan, Tabu, Sonali Bendre and Neelam had gone hunting blackbucks, a protected species, when they were spotted by villagers who testified against the actor and his accomplices.

While the court found Salman guilty in the 20-year-old case, it acquitted all co-accused including a businessman Dushyant Singh. Calling Salman a habitual offender, the judge charged him under Section 51 of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, while giving the other co-accused the benefit of doubt.

Jodhpur's court verdict must have come as a major relief for Lalit Bora, former DFO of the Rajasthan Forest Department, also the investigating officer in these poaching cases.

Having spent sleepless nights gathering crucial evidence linking the actor with the poaching of protected animals, Bora had expected the blackbuck poaching case to have the same fate as that of the chinkara. In July 2016, the Rajasthan High Court acquitted Salman and others in two cases of poaching chinkara - a protected species.

The high court order came despite a trial court finding Salman guilty of the crime, and sentencing him to a one-year term and a five-year term in prison. The court had acquitted the actor owing to 'a lack of conclusive evidence' linking him with two separate incidents of poaching.

In fact, it was Bora, who first apprehended Salman from the sets of Hum Saath Saath Hain, after locals claimed to have seen Salman shooting blackbuck late in the night on 1 October 1998.

Bora's recollection of events

Speaking to Catch in 2016, Bora, who quit the forest service in 2002, narrated the sequence of events that led to Salman's arrest. The actor is also facing a concerted campaign by the Bishnoi community, who are the traditional protectors of living beings.

According to Bora, on 2 October, 1998, residents of Gudha Bishnoi, 23 kilometres from Jodhpur, visited the forest office, claiming two blackbucks had been gunned down. According to these eyewitnesses, the Gudha Bishnoi residents woke up to the sounds of firecrackers, and noticed a Maruti Gypsy suspiciously moving around the village.

Upon hearing the noise, Poonaram Bishnoi, one of the eyewitnesses, rushed out of his house and woke up Chaugaram Bishnoi, among others, who rushed towards the Gypsy and reached the spot. They saw two dead blackbucks and noted down the Gypsy's registration number (RJ19 1C 2201). Bora said villagers tried to stop the Gypsy, but Salman pointed a gun them and sped off. The villagers chased the vehicle on motorbikes, but to no avail.

It was the villagers who recognised Salman and others in the vehicle. Some villagers stayed at the spot while the rest rushed to the DFO's residence and narrated the entire incident, forcing the forest official to lodge a complaint.

On 7 October, the case was handed over to Bora, who swung into action and approached the Road Transport Officer.

The investigation revealed that the Gypsy belonged to one Arun Yadav, who claimed to have rented it out to the actor, who wanted an open vehicle. Yadav said the Gypsy was being driven by Harish Dulani, another key witness in the case, who was asked by Salman to sit in the back seat while he drove the vehicle.

After the investigation got over, Dulani disappeared for years, further weakening the case, which was used by Salman's legal team to his advantage. A forensic report said that the blood samples obtained from Salman's car matched with those of black bucks.

In the chinkara case, Salman's team argued that it was not able to cross-examine Dulani, and hence, his statement could be relied upon. The lawyers claimed the entire investigation was built on circumstantial evidence, with no eyewitnesses or material evidence against the actor, which led to the court acquitting Salman.

The High Court also observed that the pellets recovered from the vehicle were different from the ones recovered from Salman. "What was he doing with pellets and guns while shooting for a film?" Bora questioned.

How the three cases were connected

In fact, it was during the investigation of the black buck case that the forest department stumbled upon the actor's involvement in poaching chinkaras. It was Dulani who spilled the beans on how film's actors had killed chinkaras and later consumed them at a hotel.

During questioning, Dulani mentioned how Salman and Saif would sit in the front seat while Tabu, Neelam and Sonali Bendre would be at the back, with Salman's spot boy, Dinesh Gawre, further back.

"Dulani said Salman would stop the car on spotting a wild animal, and would rest his gun at the top of the vehicle and start shooting indiscriminately. Further, if Salman missed the target, Saif would tease him and ask him to focus," said Bora.

Armed with Dulani's confession, Bora went to arrest the actors, who were shooting a song sequence for the film. When informed about the incident, Salman pleaded innocence, while the actresses started crying.

As expected, the actors denied any involvement, but were kept in the forest department's custody, where statements were taken. They were also informed about Dulani's statement that the actors had gone on hunting expeditions on two more occasions - 26 and 28 September - and killed chinkaras.

Interestingly, Bora video recorded these statements, and the court has asked for these tapes when the black buck case comes up for hearing on 6 August. In fact, short clips of this recording have been uploaded on to YouTube.

Further, Bora checked Salman's gun licences - a .22 bore rifle and a .32 bore revolver - and found they had expired.

"Later, he presented a temporary journey permit, and since these two cases were under the jurisdiction of the police, I don't know how the case progressed. After I gave my statement, he was convicted for these two incidents," Bora told this reporter.

What happened to the weapons?

With the intent to seize the weapons, the forest department raided Salman's hotel room and found them missing, while the actor's legal counsel argued he never had them. However, Bora was not satisfied, and soon found out that arms had been sent to Mumbai with Salman's spot boy Gawre - a fact corroborated by Indian Airlines.

Bora even visited Mumbai in search of Gawre, only to find him missing. During his visit, he claimed to have met Salim Khan, Salman's father, who claimed he didn't know Gawre's whereabouts. Bora even asked the hotel staff to furnish the names of all those who came with the film crew, which included Gawre. "The staff informed us that he had left," said Bora.

When the local court issued notices, the weapons were then sent from Mumbai and finally handed over on 18 September 1998 to the investigating team. "The court gave us four-day custody of Salman, and the weapons were handed over on the second day of the remand," he added.

In the chinkara case, the court ruled out the possibility of killing and skinning an animal with a pocket knife, leading to the actor's acquittal. Bora said the knife was handed over to him by Sohail Khan, Salman's brother.

Interestingly, Salman, during questioning, told Bora to let him go and said: "Agar main arrest ho gaya, meri Somi Ali se shaadi kaise hogi (If you arrest me, how will I marry Somi Ali?)"

Saif's threat

Bora describes Saif as "problematic and intelligent in a notorious way". He recalls that during questioning, Dulani had said that the ritual of halal was preformed on the dead chinkaras, and when asked about the knife, Saif asked: "What does halal mean?"

When Bora's juniors tried to explain it to him, and Saif became aggressive and started throwing things around and accused them of using 'communal language'.

"I told him that we were just repeating what Dulani had told us. Then, Saif threatened me; that he would go to the Prime Minister, President. He said, 'do you know Veerappan'? I said, yes. He said, 'if you are a forest officer, then I am Veerappan'. Salman repeated it and said the same thing to me," said Bora.

Attempts to cover up

After the first post-mortem report on the animals, it became evident that attempts were being made to hush up the case. On 2 October 1998, the doctor who conducted the post-mortem claimed that the animals died because of "overeating and jumping".

"It was weird. No deer dies of overeating and jumping, so we asked a board to be constituted to conduct another post-mortem, which revealed bullet marks on the skin with burn marks on the perimeter," Bora added.

An FIR was lodged against the doctor who tried to fudge the report.

Bora had to face consequences for such a detailed investigation, with senior officers accusing him of unnecessarily hounding film stars. He claims there were times when he felt that it was he who was being interrogated.

First published: 5 April 2018, 16:39 IST