Four Bollywood stars, including Life of Pi actor Tabu, have been charged in a 14-year-old poaching case and will finally go on trial next month for their part in the shooting of an endangered antelope.
Another actor, one of Bollywood’s biggest money-spinners, Salman Khan – who shot the two blackbucks in the early hours of 2 October 1998 near Jodhpur, where all five actors were shooting a Bollywood film – has already been charged in the case for hunting a protected animal.
Besides Tabu, the other actors who had allegedly accompanied Khan on the illegal hunting trip are Sonali Bendre, Neelam Kothari and Saif Ali Khan, son of the cricket legend Tiger Pataudi who have been charged with abetment to committing an offence of hunting a protected animal.
If convicted, the actors could be jailed for up to six years.
Khan, who projects a macho image in his action-packed films as well as his controversy-ridden private life, is one of Bollywood’s biggest money-spinners with a huge fan following.
He has already been convicted in two other poaching cases during the same visit to Jodhpur. He was sentenced to a year’s jail for shooting two endangered chinkara deer, and to five years in prison for shooting another blackbuck just days before the 1998 shooting. He has appealed against both sentences.
The poaching case involving all five actors has undergone an intricate process of appeals even before the trial could begin. All five were initially charged with hunting a protected animal. The prosecution even introduced the charge of rioting. This allowed the accused to go to higher courts to appeal against the charges. In January this year, the supreme court told the Rajasthan government to drop the rioting charge. All that the government prosecutor had achieved was to delay the trial for years.
On Friday, according to Mail Today, two eyewitnesses testified before a magistrate in Jodhpur that when the hunting party sighted two blackbucks at 2am on 2 October 1998, four of the actors shouted in Hindi: “Salman, chhodna mat, maaro, maaro!” (Salman, don’t let them go, kill them, kill them!).
The four will now be tried only for abetment to committing an offence of hunting, while Khan faces the main charge of shooting the two blackbucks. The trial will begin on 27 April.
Khan’s poaching spree took place in an area inhabited by the nature-loving Bishnoi community. The Hindu sect was founded in 1451, and the Bishnois regard the blackbuck as a manifestation of their guru, who told them never to kill animals.
In 2005, the Bishnois were in turmoil when Tiger Pataudi allegedly shot a blackbuck in Haryana, a northern state bordering Rajasthan. Pataudi was arrested, but died in 2011 before the trial concluded.
“For us the hunting of a blackbuck is like the killing of our guru,” a Bishnoi leader had said after Pataudi’s sensational arrest.
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