No one killed the Black Bucks
Salman Khan goes scott free. Bhai fans across the country rejoice. So the question is: Who killed those black bucks then? An article from our archives which sheds light on what really happened
Akash Bisht Delhi
In an informal discussion on the sad state of affairs in the Rajasthan forest department, a top forest official shared the story of an honest forest officer who was hounded by the Rajasthan government for investigating Salman Khan in the infamous poaching cases in Jodhpur in 1998. The officer said that he had forgotten the name of the man who undertook “brilliant investigations” to nail Khan. This information led to a series of phone calls and hours of research and groundwork. Finally, Hardnews was able to trace the man, Lalit Bora, through a social networking website. Sitting in his cosy office in Delhi, Bora has come a long way since his days as an Assistant Forest Ranger in the Rajasthan forest department. Today, he is the manager of a leading renewable energy company based in India and vividly remembers the details of the case involving Bollywood stars who have faced a concerted campaign by the Bishnoi community of wildlife and nature worshippers. He left the forest service in 2002 after successfully gathering crucial evidence. A civil engineer, Bora underplays the hounding by the Rajasthan government; he seems to be scared of the consequences. He even refused to be photographed for fear of being identified. However, he enthusiastically narrated the sequence of events to Hardnews that can drastically impact Khan’s fate in the days to come.
How did the forest department come to know about the blackbuck killings and Salman’s involvement?
On October 2, 1998, on Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary, people from GudhaBishnoi village near Jodhpur visited the forest office and claimed that two blackbuck had been hunted down. GudhaBishnoi is 23 kilometres from Jodhpur and its residents claimed that, early morning on October 2, they saw a Gypsy making circles of the village. The people became suspicious after they heard sounds like firecrackers bursting. PoonaramBishnoi came out of his house in the night and saw the vehicle. He woke up ChaugaramBishnoi and they woke up others and reached the spot. They took note of the Gypsy’s registration number (RJ 191C2201).
The villagers then tried to stop the Gypsy, when Salman Khan pointed his gun at them. The car then sped off. They tried chasing the vehicle on two motorcycles, but in vain. Villagers claimed that the occupants in the vehicle included Bollywood actors Salman Khan, Saif Ali Khan, Tabu, Neelam, SonaliBendre, along with two other men.
Some villagers stayed at the spot while others went to Jodhpur to register a complaint. Around 7-8 am, they met the District Forest Officer (DFO) at his residence and narrated the incident. The DFO lodged a formal complaint and went to the spot. On October 7, the case was handed over to me and I came to know that these actors were returning on October 9.
How did you realise that Salman and others were involved in the killings?
On October 7, I seized the Gypsy and identified the owner. The owner had given it on a daily rental basis. With help from the Road Transport Officer, I discovered that the vehicle belonged to ArunYadav. When we searched it we found bloodstains on a mat. We took Yadav’s statement. He informed that the actors had asked for an open white Gypsy and since he had one he agreed to give it on rent.
Yadav mentioned that the driver was Harish and that Salman would ask him to sit at the back. Even Harish corroborated the claim. Salman and Saif sat in the front, the women at the back while Harish and Salman’s spot boy, DineshGawre, would sit further back. Harish claimed that Saif would sit on the left while Salman drove the vehicle; whenever they saw a wild animal, Salman would get up, rest his gun on the bars, and shoot. He told us that Salman missed the target a few times and the women and Saif made fun of him and asked him to shoot accurately. This is how the charges of abetment in the crime were put on them.
When I went to arrest them, they were shooting a film song; they were informed that forest officials had arrived. They were heard saying, What have we done? I went on October 7, five days after the incident. Salman was without a shirt. He said that they had done nothing. I told him to put his shirt on and come with me. The actresses started crying.
What happened next?
We questioned them. They refused to speak about the incident. We decided to arrest them and produce them in court. Thereby, they agreed to give a statement. In their statement, for obvious reasons, they denied everything.
It was late in the evening and we took them to the magistrate’s house. He said that since the next day was a holiday we could keep them in custody. We kept them in a room in the forest department’s office and took their statements. Harish in his statement had mentioned that Salman and others had gone on a hunting spree on September 26 and 28 as well. On these hunting trips, they had killed chinkara — the state animal of Rajasthan.
So the blackbuck killings led you to the chinkara poaching?
Yes. This was news to me. I was a low-ranked officer and all top officers were making several inquiries about the incident. The Chief Wildlife Warden and ADG Police, NamoNarainMeena, came and questioned me. I asked Harish to narrate the sequence of events. Since the forest department can’t lodge an FIR, we filed an Offence Detection Report. We were now aware of the incidents of September 26 and 28 and, after consultations with senior forest officials, it was decided that we should register the case with police. Hence, these two cases of the chinkara poaching were registered with the police. Meanwhile, I checked Salman’s gun licence. Interestingly, it had expired. He was carrying a .22 bore rifle and a .32 bore revolver; these were used for hunting. 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. He was handed a one-year and a three-year sentence for the killings of chinkara.
The blackbuck incident led us to the chinkara killings, but the legal proceedings in the former have begun only now after a long delay. It happened in 1998 and only now the proceedings in the blackbuck case are moving forward. Interestingly, there are only one or two males in a herd of blackbuck and the two blackbucks killed by Salman were males.
So you apprehended all the accused?
No. DineshGawre, Salman’s spot boy, was absconding. I had even gone to Mumbai to detain him. I was told in Mumbai that he lives in NoorkiChawl in Bairampada and we took help from the police commissioner. We tried to find him, but in vain. I gave the statement in the court that Dinesh could not be located. We also went to Salman’s house and met Salimsahab, his father, and he said, When you didn’t spare Salman, how can you expect to find Dinesh? I have mentioned this in the court. We also asked for a list from producer SoorajBarjatya about who came with them for shooting and their place of stay. That is how we came to know about Dinesh and the hotel staff also informed us that he had left.
Was it easy to seize the weapons used in the poaching cases?
After returning from Mumbai, I came back to Jodhpur and took Salman into custody. I told him that till the time you don’t hand us your weapons, we won’t let you go. The court gave us four days’ custody of Salman. On the second day of remand, he handed over the weapons. After questioning, we were told that the dead chinkara were taken to Ashirwad Hotel where they were cooked for consumption. The police in their investigation conducted a forensic investigation of the blood found in the Gypsy and the blood found in the hotel and it matched. The meat was cleaned and cooked in the hotel.
There is a series of video recordings on YouTube in which Salman is being questioned. Whose idea was it to record these statements and how was his conduct?
In the blackbuck case we had three eyewitnesses — Harish and two Bishnoi villagers. Salman had pointed his gun at one of these Bishnois when they were fleeing from the spot. When we took Salman into custody for the second time, I made a video because I knew that this case would go to the Supreme Court. These celebrities think that they are above the law and have a battery of top lawyers to prove them innocent. According to Wildlife Protection Act Section 50, Subsection 8, if a statement of a witness is recorded in the presence of the accused then it can be admissible in court. The whole idea was that they shouldn’t deny it in future or claim that it was recorded under duress. Salman said that he did not agree with the statements of the witnesses.
Did Salman ever intimidate you or seek advice?
Salman once asked me what he should do. I told him to surrender before the court as the case was in the initial stage and if he confessed he might get a lighter sentence. He agreed, but his lawyer told him not to do so. He also told me that if I helped him he would change the fortunes of our department. In the YouTube footage one can see the dilapidated condition of our office.
How was Saif’s conduct?
Saif was very problematic and intelligent in a negative way. When I took the statement Harish told me that the ritual of halal was done on the chinkara with the help of a knife. I asked Salman about the knife; Saif asked, So what does halal mean? My juniors tried explaining it to him, and Saif started throwing things around and alleged that we were talking a communal language. He said, how can you ask such questions? I told him that we were just repeating what Harish 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. Saif created a ruckus and I was worried that they might tear up case files and all my hard work would go to waste. But, we insisted on recovering the knife. Finally, Sohail Khan, Salman’s brother, handed it over. We seized the knife, guns, the Gypsy and recorded Salman’s statement and that of three witnesses — PoonamChandBishnoi, ChaugaramBishnoi and Sheraram Bishnoi.
Were there anomalies in the post-mortem reports of the blackbuck?
On October 2, 1998, post-mortem was conducted on the blackbuck by a doctor. In his report he mentioned that the blackbuck died because of overeating and jumping. This was weird because no animal dies of overeating and deer are known worldwide for their jumping prowess. We were not satisfied with the report. We challenged the report and requested that a board be constituted to conduct another post-mortem. The blackbuck were buried at the same spot where they were found dead and CheemaramBishnoi was asked to protect the graves from scavengers and any other threats. He kept a close watch on the graves. The board conducted another post-mortem and confirmed that there were bullet marks on the skins of the blackbuck. There were burn marks on the perimeter. I lodged an FIR against the doctor who had conducted the post-mortem and mentioned that he had tried to dilute the case. I also registered a case under the Arms Act. I registered four cases with the police.
Were there any other hurdles?
Salman and others kept filing applications over how the forest department could be given such powers when they don’t have the expertise to handle such cases. I suspected that they could allege that the forest department had played dirty and got some dead blackbuck from somewhere else and were thereby building a false case. After the carcasses were exhumed for the second post-mortem, we took the skin and buried the remains at the same place. Then I took a portion of the meat from the place where the blackbuck were buried and a portion of the skin and sent it for DNA sampling to Hyderabad. It occurred to me that a similar technique was used in the Naina Sahni murder case. It was confirmed by the DNA report that the two samples were the same.
We sent the weapons to the forensic laboratory in Jaipur. Its report claimed that the barrel residues indicate that they were used recently but the exact date and time could not be ascertained. The trial kept on moving and my last statement was recorded in 2002. In 2003, they were convicted in the chinkara case. Now, if I am asked to give a statement to the court, I will have to go there.
What has been the progress in these cases?
I went on leave in 2003 after a provision was introduced that anybody can go on a five-year vacation. I took a three-year leave and was unaware of what was happening because I got no summons. Since then I have been approached by no one. The Bishnois were adamant that some action needs to be taken against Salman and others. After he was arrested, they were happy and many others came forward to testify.
Was there any pressure on you to go slow on investigations?
There were many top forest and police officials who were backing Salman and there was a battery of lawyers to protect them. Each of these celebrities had different lawyers and they were putting all kinds of pressure. At times I felt as if I was the one who was being interrogated; some officials alleged that I cooked up these charges. If you are under such duress, how can you work for justice? I left the job because I was being transferred on a regular basis.
There were two officers who constantly taunted me and said that I had unnecessarily apprehended these filmstars. A forest official repeatedly taunted me, saying that I didn’t know how to take a statement and I was asking stupid questions. I felt that I had done so much hard work and, instead of praising me, my motives were being questioned. I was afraid that if someone got bail, I would be blamed for it.