“Narcotics is a dirty business,” is a dialogue made popular by Malayalam superstar Mohanlal, who terms himself “the complete actor”. A decade-old illegal ivory possession case has now returned to haunt Mohanlal after the Kerala High Court dismissed his plea challenging a lower court decision against dropping proceedings against him.
Mohanlal is not alone in the legal battle. The state government is supporting him, saying no violation was involved in the actor possessing the tusks.
Ivory case against Mohanlal
Many in Kerala view the state’s intervention in the case in support of Mohanlal as a “dirty business”.
The case pertains to the alleged illegal possession of four pairs of tusks, found in the actor’s residence at Thevara in Kochi during an income-tax raid in June 2012.
The government has been dragging its feet ever since the “discovery”. The state Forest Department took seven years to charge sheet the National Award-winning actor, and that too after the high court pulled it up for the delay.
The state government moved the Perumbavoor Judicial First Class Magistrate Court, requesting it to nix the case against Mohanlal. The court dismissed the petition, and the actor approached the high court, challenging the trial court’s order.
On 22 February, the high court refused to entertain his petition for want of locus, but partially allowed the state’s plea. It asked the magistrate to consider the case afresh.
The state argued in the court that no violation was involved. The government will now have to submit evidence to prove that the actor had not violated any law while possessing the ivory.
It is a Catch-22 situation for the government since it will have to find means and arguments to weaken the case its Forest Department had filed.
Mohanlal’s adversaries, however, argue that illegal possession of ivory is an offence, which, if proven guilty, could get a jail term of up to five years.
The government’s move has baffled legal experts as well. They felt there is no parallel for such a move in the country.
The high court directive in Mohanlal case
In its order, the high court observed that lack of evidence should not be treated as an excuse for the prosecution to demand the withdrawal of the case against Mohanlal.
It directed the trial court to facilitate a detailed and comprehensive review of the withdrawal plea, and the reasons and grounds of the demand must be closely analysed.
In what could be construed as a reprieve for the 62-year-old actor, the high court observed that the trial court could allow the withdrawal only on relevant and convincing grounds.
The court also directed the trial court to ensure that the public prosecutor does not misuse his powers to interfere with the normal course of the judicial process.
The high court also ordered that the proceedings should not thwart or stifle the process of law and the review should be in good faith without conflicting with public policy and justice.
Mohanlal and the ivory trail
Mohanlal claimed he purchased the ivory from two individuals without violating any law. Besides the actor, the Forest Department had also named the sellers in the charge sheet.
The income-tax officials, who found the ivory at his home, had then alerted the Forest Department.
An initial probe by the department found that the actor did not have the mandatory permission to possess the ivory. This was mentioned in the charge sheet.
However, the same department made a volte-face in 2015 and issued an ownership certificate to the actor.
It said no rules were violated in the purchase of the ivory, and the process of withdrawing the case against Mohanlal began.
The trial court rejected the department’s demand and proceeded with the case, observing that all are equal before the law.
It also asked the department the premise on which the rules were relaxed for a particular person, who incidentally, is a film star.
But the department continued to claim that proceeding with the case would be a futile exercise and a waste of time as there is no violation of any law.
What experts say
Meanwhile, legal experts believed that possessing any wildlife trophy without bona fide inheritance is illegal.
Normally, such inheritance could be established only after proper and effective inquiry followed by statutory declarations in the state’s official gazette.
They said that there is no such declaration in this case. Hence, the certificate of ownership had no legal sanctity.
Mohanlal fans on social media justified the whole deal saying the actor is rich enough to buy any such trophy and there is nothing wrong in buying it from two sellers.
For them, it is a normal business process.
But the two litigants, who initiated a legal war over the issue, social workers AA Poulose and James Mathew, quoted a Supreme Court judgement.
They said only cases of communal feuds and labour unrest could be withdrawn if the issue is settled amicably out of the court. It is to avoid further legal proceedings reigniting trouble, they said.
Meanwhile, the prosecutor told the high court that the case against Mohanlal ended with the Forest Department issuing ownership certificates with retrospective effect.
The prosecutor argued that the certificate ensured immunity from prosecution under the Wildlife Protection Act.
The factors that prompted the department to change its mind are yet to be known.
With the case beginning afresh in the trial court, Mohanlal must yet again pass through public scrutiny in the coming days.