Salman Khan one of the top Bollywood superstars was recently convicted of manslaughter in the death of a pavement dweller and sentenced to five years in prison by the sessions court in Mumbai. The Mumbai High Court has suspended the sentence letting Salman remain free while he exhausts his appeals. The sessions court judge while announcing the sentence reiterated the following facts presented by the prosecution—Salman killed one pavement dweller and maimed four others when he rammed his vehicle into a roadside bakery and rode over the pavement. He was under the influence of alcohol and was also driving without a valid license.
It comes as no surprise that the Bollywood fraternity rose up to support him. There was talk of the 200 crores (30 million USD) invested in movies being wasted if Salman was imprisoned and there was a beeline of politicians including the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray and the Congress MLA Nitesh Rane to the house of Salman, a convicted felon to express their support. Singer Abhijeet Bhattacharya came up with the strangest allegation by tweeting that “roads are meant for cars and dogs not for people sleeping on them” thereby squarely blaming the homeless people sleeping on the pavement for getting killed and maimed as well as for Salman’s predicament!
I suddenly realized that singer Abhijeet’s point of view wasn’t all that crazy. In fact we have been hearing this all along. When dams were built and dozens of villages were submerged uprooting hundreds of thousands from their homes and land whether it was the Narmada dam in India or the three Gorges dam in China, the powers that be proclaimed the villagers are in the way of the dam and development, like homeless sleeping people were in the way of the Toyota cruiser racing over the pavement with a drunk by the name of Salman sitting behind the wheel without a driving license.
The mining companies advance the same argument when they want to mine the hills and mountains—the tribal communities living in the valleys are in our way. The South Korean steel giant POSCO and its friends in the state government of Odisha and the central government sang the same tune—the people whose houses, fields and lands were being swallowed by the company are in the way of investment and development.
Sometimes it is not the people but trees, gardens, educational and cultural institutions that are in the way. In 2013 the prime minister of Turkey wanted to convert Gezi park in Taksim square, Istanbul into a mall and shopping complex and when people protested and camped in the park they were brutally assaulted by the police. The prime minister declared that the park and the people gathered there were in the way of development.
Nearer home I witnessed this misguided enthusiasm of the Kerala government to convert a heritage school in Trivandrum, my alma mater which last year observed its 125th anniversary amidst the uncertainty to a bus park and shopping mall. The school occupies more than five acres adjacent to the East Fort and falls within the heritage zone comprised of the East Fort, Vettimuricha Fort and Sri Padmanabha Swami temple which was recently in the news for its hidden treasures worth more than twenty five billion US dollars. Famous poets such as Ulloor Parameswara Iyer, former chief minister of Kerala Sri Pattom Thanu Pillai, former chief justice Sri Padmanabha Kukkiliar and social reformer Sahodara Ayyappan once taught in this school. When the students, teachers and alumni of the school protested against the takeover the government said they are all in the way of development!
Democracy is supposed to be about equal rights and rule of law. But the rich and powerful want the whole country as their exclusive playground. They don’t want anybody or anything in their way whether it be people, trees, mountains or educational or cultural spaces and institutions.
Bollywood wants the poor people to spend their hard earned money and watch their movies and dance to the tune of their songs but the stars don’t want the people in their way when they drive their Mercedes Benzes, BMWs, Lexus SUVs or Rolls Royces on the road, pavement, park, shops or even into your homes if you are lucky to have one.