What if Salman killed one of them? Bollywood hates homeless, but wants their money
The staple of traditional Bollywood is the triumph of the underdog against the rich and the powerful, but on Wednesday, when it stood behind a drunken super rich man to slam the underdog, what was on display was its real character - completely rotten and immoral.
The drunken man, superstar Salman Khan, that most of the Bollywood bigwigs stood by had blood on his hands - he killed a poor homeless man and injured four others by driving his luxury car over them in 2002 while they were sleeping on a city pavement. Thanks to an effete criminal justice system, he could drag the case for 13 years and play some legal tricks, but in the end, there was enough evidence for the court to declare him guilty and send him to jail for five years.
More than the judgement, what shocked the nation was the reaction of his lackeys and cronies from the film industry. Singer Abhijeet called the people who slept on the footpath “dogs” and said “roads don’t belong to the dads of the poor”. He went on to ask the poor on the footpaths in Mumbai to go back and sleep in their villages so that no vehicles will kill them.
Jewelry designer and DJ Aqeel's wife Farah Khan Ali too betrayed similar disgust for the poor and the homeless. She tweeted: ‘The govt should be responsible for housing ppl.If no 1was sleeping on d road in any other country Salman wuld not have driven over anybody.It's like penalising a train driver because someone decided to cross the tracks and got killed in the bargain”. Parliamentarian and veteran actor Hema Malini, one of the first to react on TV, said she felt very sad about Salman. She even said that she would pray for “less punishment” for him.
Every single person who tweeted from Bollywood, or reacted to the verdict, said more or less the same thing, that they stood by Salman and felt sad for him. And none of them bothered to think about the victim, a symbol of widespread destitution that stare us in our faces from every street corner. There was no sympathy for the person who died or those who were inured.
And it also didn’t matter to them that in the court’s eyes, “it was a culpable homicide”, which according to the Indian Penal Code means this: "Whoever causes death by doing an act with the intention of causing death, or with the intention of causing such bodily injury as is likely to cause death, or with the knowledge that he is likely by such act to cause death, commits the offence of culpable homicide.” In other words, Salman knew that his action was likely to cause death. The death of a poor, homeless man.
The man who died at the wheels of Salman’s car is among the millions of people (1.77 million according to the 2011 Census while NGOs estimate a much higher number) who sleep in the open in India. A large number of them are in Mumbai - about 58,000, according to Census, and 11 lakh, according to a report by the Supreme Court Commissioners who tracked the implementation of interim orders of the apex court on right to food in 2002. And they are everywhere - on Sandhurst road, Tilak Bridge in Dadar, Mahim beach, Church Gate and Parel, with the highest number in Zone 1, followed by Zone 2.
Nobody wants them because the general perception is that they are beggars and criminals although several studies have noted that many of them contribute gainfully to the economy. An affidavit by the Maharashtra government before the Supreme Court (SC) reflects this public perception and apathy. It said that homeless in Mumbai are beggars and should be locked up in the state’s beggar homes. The SC in its directive had stated that the homeless had to provided with shelters. However, successive governments have chosen to ignore the directive. Even the new chief minister Devendra Fadnavis is silent on the welfare of the homeless although he could tap into the resources under the National Urban Livelihoods Mission.
Besides the monstrous wheels of rich and famous people like Salman, the people on the streets are also vulnerable to State oppression. They are undefined and hence benefit from none of the welfare schemes of the State and are criminalised because, according to a 2007 study by Harsh Mander (Living Rough - Surviving City Streets, Centre for Equity Studies) “authorities are distrustful of homeless people as parasitical, lazy, unhygienic, illegal and largely criminal. Homeless people return the compliment by regarding the government as implacably uncaring, hostile, corrupt and neglectful.”
The situation is similar across the country. In 2002 winter, police had recovered 3040 corpses from Delhi’s streets. And police routinely round them up and send them to jails whenever they think there is a need for preventive detention.
The pro-Salman tweets showed how much we hate the urban homeless. We edit them out of our sight and, if possible, will send them to hell with or without realising that they are the most marginalised among our fellow citizens - migrants, internally displaced, Dalits, landless labourers, people with illnesses, drug-uses and so on. By choosing to ignore them, the State fails to acknowledge that right to shelter is a universal human right, and denies them many of their fundamental rights (Article 14, 15, 16, 19) and protection under directive principles of state policy (Article 39, 42, 47, 51).
This sharp observation of the eighth report of the SC Commissioners, headed by noted economist NC Saxena, summarises the pro-Salman attitude: “Homeless people on city streets are invisible to public policy, though they are visible daily to policy makers as they drive the same city streets.” This is exactly what the tweets by Abhijeet and others like him reflected, although a lot of the money they take home for their on-screen foolery come from these millions on the streets.