The deer hunter

In India, a Bollywood superstar is facing prison. The charge: killing an antelope so cherished that one tribe suckles its fawns

Peter Popham
Sunday 15 November 1998 01:02 GMT

A BOLLYWOOD GOSSIP column called Neeta's Natter once wrote off Salman Khan as the "puny, pony-tailed" boyfriend of a well-known actress. Today, after 10 years in the film business, he is arguably the hottest star in India, certainly one of the top three or four; one of the handful whose name on the credits can make even the silliest, frothiest film a hit.

He's done it by hanging on to the baby face that first brought him fame, then pumping his physique into the Bruce Willis league, and leaving "puny" far behind. The result is a walking contradiction: he has the saccharine smiles, long droopy eyelashes and goofy grins of a baby; but on screen he also manifests the vicious temper, the mean streak and the reckless brutality to go with those awesome pecs. Khan is India's bionic star, perfectly engineered for the modern Bollywood blockbuster; which typically is a sort of smorgasbord, a long, rambling concatenation of Love Story, Oklahoma, Carry on Camping and Diehard 2. He's the dream combination: River Phoenix, Bruce Willis and Norman Wisdom in a single package.

But if Harish Dulani, a jeep driver in the former princely state of Jodhpur, Rajasthan, is telling the truth, the mean streak is coming to the fore.

In September, Salman Khan and a number of other top Indian stars were filming on location in Jodhpur, putting up at the Umeda Bhawan Palace, once the Maharaja's vast and pompous palace, now a magnificent hotel. On the night of Saturday 26 September, according to Mr Dulani's statement, Khan and his co-stars left the hotel at 10pm in a four-wheel drive Suzuki Gypsy, Khan himself driving; accompanying them was Dushyant Singh, a local travel agent and guide and a relative of the former Maharaja, who is now wanted by the police. Equipped with two rifles and powerful searchlights, they drove through the town and out to the south. Here the straggling new suburbs soon give way to flat scrubland, punctuated by fields of powdery, amber-coloured earth.

They drove down the pitted, two-lane highway for several miles, then branched off on to a smaller, rougher road, then broke out into the scrub. The searchlights foraged and quested among the babul, the thorny bushes that infest the semi-desert, and soon they picked up what the party was looking for: a group of chinkara, the diminutive Indian antelope with straight, spiralling horns, a wagging tail and a cry like a sneeze.

Twenty or 30 years ago, these scrublands were full of chinkara, as well as blackbuck, nilghai, hares, peacocks and tortoises. But poaching and loss of habitat have cut the number of all the wildlife here drastically: now there may only be a thousand or so chinkara left in the world, all of them living in unprotected areas such as this.

Chinkara and blackbuck are as rare and endangered as India's other beleaguered living treasures, such as the tiger, the one-horned rhino and the Asiatic lion. Like them, they are in Schedule One of India's list of endangered species; anyone caught poaching them is liable to a maximum of six years in prision, under the Wildlife Protection Act. Unlike the poachers of tiger and rhino, however, which are confined to reserves and national parks, the Indian deer hunter does not have to contend with forest wardens who are armed and frequently shoot to kill. And chinkara and blackbuck are not hard to hunt: thanks to the tender treatment they receive from the Bishnoi, a community of farmers who live in these parts, they are virtually tame. Frozen in the searchlight, they make a simple target. They are also said to be very good to eat.

A short distance out into the wild the group spotted a chinkara. Salman Khan took a rifle from the bag, aimed and fired. The wounded animal ran; Khan leaped from the car and chased it on foot and shot it again. When it collapsed, someone took a knife and cut the deer's throat, draining the blood, while the animal uttered its dying wail.

Soon afterwards two more chinkara were spotted. Khan shot again, wounded one of them, then jumped out and slit its throat while the deer struggled and cried and finally died. They took the two carcasses back to Jodhpur, where staff at a hotel were roused from their beds and obliged to clean and cook them for the party.

If any of the villagers in the area of the hunt heard anything that night, they kept quiet about it. Likewise, the guide, the driver, the hotel staff and the cook. The party, again led by Khan, went out hunting again and again: on the 27th, the 28th, the 30th. No-one breathed a word. These, after all, are the kings of Bollywood, India's new maharajas, and they do as they please. By day Khan strolled around the Umeda Bhawan Palace topless, baring his glorious torso; management implored him to cover up but he ignored them. By night he and his friends hunted. Who could deny them? Who would have the courage to stop them?

They must have begun to feel invulnerable, beyond any law. That is perhaps the only explanation for what happened next. Until now they had been hunting across land which, while close to the communities of the Bishnoi, the special protectors of the deer, is peopled by other local groups which do not have this tradition of benevolent concern. That may explain why no alert was sounded, why Khan and his friends hunted with impunity. On the night of Thursday 1 October, though, they became reckless: they strayed on to the Bishnois' land.

The village of Gudda-Bishnoiya looks no different to the rest of the scrubland: dry, dusty, covered with the sprawling unkempt babul bushes, dotted with hardy trees. Houses and people are widely spaced. Some of the Bishnois' homes are structures which were built by the British many years ago for officials of the nearby aerodrome - structures which are now in a state of slow-motion collapse.

On this night, Salman Khan again took the wheel, and when they were 20km from Jodhpur they veered off the road into the country of the Bishnoi. Five kilometres into the wild they spotted a group of blackbuck, beautiful dark brown antelopes with white underbellies. Khan braked, grabbed the rifle, took aim and shot the deer in the leg. But before he could dispatch the animal with his knife, local Bishnoi farmers, roused by the noise, were out of their houses to find out what was going on. The jeep drove off at speed, but when they came across another group of blackbuck, Khan could not resist having another go. This time an animal was hit in the neck. By now the Bishnoi were giving chase on motorcycles - seven on three machines - and though one bike was knocked over by the jeep, the farmers were able to record the number on the plates.

The actors made it back to Jodhpur. There they may have hoped the matter would rest: for although India has an apparently tough Wildlife Protection Act, prosecutions under it are few and convictions even fewer - only two or three since the Act was passed 26 years ago. So when, seven days later, Khan and his friends were arrested for offences under the Act; and when, four days after that, Khan's application for bail was refused, and he was consigned to judicial custody, it must have seemed as if some gruesome Bollywood potboiler had come to life.

Khan's mistake was to have crossed the path of one of India's most singular communities. The Bishnoi is a caste of farmers with roots in the Jodhpur region. They look not unlike other farming castes in the area, the men tall and gaunt, their heads crowned by big white turbans, the women cowled in the unmistakeable Rajastani fashion with layers of dazzlingly coloured and patterned cotton, and with noses and ears strung with golden ornaments. In these dry, dusty fields they plant barley and mustard; they drive cattle and water buffalo to the sparse, rocky pastures.

But in the Bishnois' case, the poverty and simplicity are misleading. One of the community's prominent members, a Jodhpur High Court advocate called Mahesh Chandra Bishnoi, who I met among the clattering old typewriters and milling litigants in the court's chambers, found the phrase that fits them: "Plain living and high thinking." The Bishnoi follow the radically pacifist teachings of their 15th-century guru, Shri Jambheshwar, a syncretic teacher who extracted what he found most satisfactory from the creeds that cohabited in the region, Hinduism, Islam and Jainism, and added a special attitude of gentleness towards the environment which has defined the Bishnoi ever since. The Bishnoi were Gandhians 500 years before the Mahatma. The keystone of Gandhi's teaching, the injunction ahimsa -"do no harm" - has been ingrained in their thinking for centuries. It encompasses whatever they encounter in their lives: the animals, the plants, the trees.

In Rajasthan's harsh, semi-arid environment, it has proved a superbly far-sighted philosophy. North and west of Jodhpur lies the Thar Desert, where nothing of use to man grows, largely because of man's folly and mismanagement. Where the Bishnoi dominate, however, man-made deserts do not arise. They may not harm a living tree; and Jodhpur's gnarled and wiry trees help the soil retain as much water as possible. All animals are made welcome, even the nilghai, the tall, ungainly antelope which most other farmers despise. The animals may damage the crops, but they also fertilise the soil. So tenderly do the Bishnoi regard the deer that if a fawn is abandoned, a lactating Bishnoi woman may breastfeed it along with her own child.

Guru Jambeshwar, Jambhaji as they refer to him, laid down 29 principles by which the Bishnoi live - "a very practical and convenient code", as Mahesh Bishnoi puts it. Yet all might have been forgotten now, but for an incident that occurred in 1730 when the Maharaja of Jodhpur needed wood to build new structures in Jodhpur Fort.

The only locally available stand of trees was a wood of kejri trees that grew under Bishnoi protection on Bishnoi land. The Maharaja's officials set off to cut the trees down, but when the community saw what was about to happen to their cherished trees, they clung to them, forcing their bodies betwen the trunks and the Maharaja's men's axes. So not only were the trees cut, but the Bishnoi too - men, women and children. As they fell dead, more ran forward to take their place. In all, 363 Bishnoi were massacred before word of the atrocity reached the Maharaja and he called a halt. Shocked and penitent, he vowed never again to harm the Bishnois' trees. And thus an extraordinarily potent myth was born: a myth of self- sacrifice for the sake of nature that is at once archaic and strikingly modern.

"Bishnoi revere all the birds and animals on their land," says Mahesh Bishnoi, "the hare, the tortoise, the peacocks and the partridge as well as the deer." But it is over the deer, especially the desperately rare blackbuck and chinkara, that Bishnoi have repeatedly been called on to make good their pledge. If poachers show up on their land, they do everything in their power to thwart them. Many Bishnoi have died in the process - some 17, I was told, in recent decades. In 1978, for example, a farmer called Birbal Bishnoi was eating dinner at home in Lohawal village near Jodhpur when he heard gunshots outside. He rushed out and chased the two poachers, but when he managed to bring one of them down, the other took a shot at him. Birbal was badly injured, but clung to the poacher until help arrived. He later died from his wounds.

In other cases it was the poacher who died, destroyed by the villagers' collective fury. The seven Bishnoi who, on the night of 1 October, leaped on motorcycles and chased Salman Khan's jeep, were keeping faith with a remarkable tradition. Khan and his friends were lucky to get away unharmed. As it was, the jeep arrived back at the Umeda Bhawan Palace covered in mud and with both front tyres punctured. The damage has yet to be accounted for.

Poaching endangered animals, for profit or fun or both, is rampant in India today, because, although there is a good law on the books which outlaws it, it is not properly enforced. In the rare event of a poacher being caught in the act, he has numerous opportunities to get off the hook: by bribing the forest guards, who are paid starvation wages; bribing vets who perform post mortems; pulling political strings to have the case aborted. Even if a poacher is charged, the case can disappear into the bowels of India's grossly underfunded legal system for years. Very rarely do cases come to a conclusion.

Salman Khan's case looked as if it was headed the same way. A hurried post mortem carried out on the two blackbuck at the site of the shooting declared, fatuously, that one died from "injuries suffered during leaping", one from "overeating". The deer were buried at the spot. The weapons used to kill them were spirited away to Bombay. The case looked like ending before it had even started. Bollywood rules.

Two things made that impossible. First, the Bishnoi would not let the matter rest. In the days after the killings, they held demonstrations in Jodhpur demanding justice. Furthermore, it is election time now in India: polls for state assemblies all over the Union were due in a few weeks. The Bishnoi community in Rajasthan is numerous - no-one knows how many, but an educated guess puts them at two per cent of the state's population, about one million people. They are tight-knit, too, capable of voting as a block. Bishnoi leaders made it clear that the political parties' stand on Salman Khan would powerfully influence how they voted.

It took seven days - days of fevered meeting, long phone calls, smoke- filled rooms, VIP "air-dashes" - before the political will to proceed was mustered. A new post mortem was ordered, the deers' carcasses exhumed, and a body of learned men declared that they actually died from gunshot wounds. The vet responsible for the faked report disappeared, and is sought by the police. Finally, a full 10 days after the event, Khan and his friends were arrested and charged.

The case is far from over yet, and the outcome is far from certain. Like all trials in India, it will drag on for many months, possibly years. Dushyant Singh, the guide who is alleged to have arranged the poaching trips, has yet to be arrested, and there are dark rumours that he is being protected by the powerful Rajputs who used to rule Jodhpur (Singh is a Rajput himself), and who still wield great power.

But already something has changed. As a result of the case, poaching has been all over India's front pages for weeks. The right of Bombay's rich punks to butcher at will has, for the first time, been seriously questioned.

An unexpected casualty of the affair has been the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). The mammoth organisation's Indian branch has been criticised lately for ineffectuality. But this was much worse: just as Salman Khan was being produced in court, accused of one of the worst wildlife crimes one can think of, the Fund's glossy 1999 calendar was rolling off the presses - with 12 artful photographs of the hottest Bollywood stars, one for each month.

Salman Khan's month was February. There he was, moody, sensitive and stripped to the waist as usual. "Travel your way to good health," twittered the copy at the foot of the page. "Use bicycle or better still, walk whenever you can." WWF issued a furious denunciation of the poachers and arranged for February to be pulped and replaced.

In the field that surrounds a tumbledown Bishnoi house in Gudda-Bishnoi, a couple of kilometres from the scene of the final night's poaching, Bishnoi elders gathered recently to give a ceremonial send-off to a local girl who had just got married. Under the bright shamiana in the mellow October sunshine, the towering white turbans and divided whiskers and hawk-like brown profiles were assembled. What, I asked them, would they consider a suitable punishment for Salman Khan? The reply was instantaneous and vehement, and a bit surprising if one takes the Bishnois' pacifism at face value. "He should be hanged." "His ears and nose should be cut off," said another, "and he should be beaten black and blue."

Gudda-Bishnoiya is Edge City: the suburbs where middle-class Bishnoi like Mahesh Bishnoi the advocate build their pink stone villas are only a few miles away. The perimeter fence of the British-built aerodrome borders the road. Other groups with no special concern for wild animals or the enviroment live in close quarters with the Bishnoi. To see the Bishnoi lifestyle in its purest form you must travel far from the city and out into the fringes of the desert, to villages like Osian, Phalodi, Jamba and Mukaon, which the contamination of city life has yet to reach. But in fact this proximity to the city makes what one sees here all the more striking. Rural Indian life goes on all around. A line of Bishnoi women pass with big brass water pots on their heads, others crammed into a tractor trailer, a family of five squeezed on to a scooter. And over and over again we see deer, placidly cropping grass a few yards away. A group of chinkara dashes away at our approach, then stands there staring, wagging their broad, flat tails. A full-grown male blackbuck steams across the road, head and long, twisting horns lowered, almost under the bumper of an Ambassador. At the spot where Khan made his last killing, another male blackbuck chases the eight or 10 does in his harem back and forth, the does shooting almost vertically up into the air as if on pogo sticks.

A few miles away is a grove of sacred kejri trees: 363 of them, for the 363 Bishnoi who died nearly 270 years ago protecting their community's woodland. When I arrived the sun was poised above the horizon, and the trees were dense with the cries of returning birds. At the end of the avenue between the trees stands a simple whitewashed shrine; inside, a flame burnt before the portrait of Guru Jambaji. As the sun set, the priest, clad in orange, beat a tattoo on drum and gong in memory of the Bishnoi martyrs.

Back in Bombay, life for the stars is getting back to normal. Salman is out on bail, as are his alleged accomplices, Saif Ali Khan, Tabu, Nee- lam, Sonali Bendre and the comedian Satish Shah - hot Bollywood properties all, and back into the hectic Bombay film round, sprinting from set to set of half a dozen movies in production simultaneously.

What the Jodhpur escapade will do for Salman Khan's career it is too early to judge. In Jodhpur after his arrest, the two films of his that were showing in the town were promptly pulled from the screens. But thousands of fans besieged the court to catch a glimpse of him, while inside his supporters and the Bishnoi traded slogans and nearly came to blows.

At the arraignment, Khan himself was full of rich brat conceit, lolling in his chair and joking with his co-accused. But his questioning lasted seven hours, and after a few nights on a hard cot in the forester's hut which was his makeshift prison, the stuffing had come out of him. In court now he was meek and tame. To the press he declared his innocence - "I love wild animals," he bleated, "how could I harm them?"

It must have been hard for him to judge how to play it; for now the contradictions in his screen persona were coming home to roost. For Khan the on-screen bully boy, a reputation for slitting furry animals' throats in real life might be almost helpful; and Blitz, a Bombay tabloid, duly weighed in with anonymous "film industry sources" describing Khan as "a very violent person" and a former girlfriend calling him "a maniac". But what help will such a reputation be for Khan the shy lover, Khan the bumbling clown, Khan the Indian Norman Wisdom?

And then of course Salman Khan might be convicted and go to jail - whereupon not only his fans but the producers who have tens of millions of rupees invested in his half-finished films would be seri- ously distraught. But few Indians believe that this is how the story will end. For the Bishnoi and the blackbuck it might be the only just outcome. But Indians have become resigned to the fact that the rich and powerful very rarely serve sentences in prison. The motto at the base of India's national symbol, the three lions of the great King Ashok, reads Satyamev Jayate, "Let Truth Prevail." But in India today, that is an increasingly rare occurrence. !

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