On one hand, there is the illegality involved in the possession of elephant tusks. On the other hand is document forgery for tax evasion during the registration of new vehicles.
Albeit not new, these are two topics of hot debate in Kerala this week, as Malayalam superstars Mohanlal and Suresh Gopi approached the Kerala High Court last week seeking discharge from separate criminal cases pending against them for over a decade.
The court has reserved its verdict on Mohanlal’s plea for discharge in the infamous case in which two pairs of elephant tusks and 13 ivory artefacts were seized from his Kochi residence. The date of the verdict has not been announced.
Meanwhile, the petition of Suresh Gopi seeking exoneration in the case of fabrication of documents to register his luxury cars outside the state, thus causing financial loss to the government, has been posted for further hearing in the face of stiff opposition from the Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF government. Again, a date has not been set.
While Suresh Gopi is a former Rajya Sabha member on a BJP ticket, Mohanlal is a longstanding admirer of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
He is also one of the people the BJP leadership considered as a candidate in the last Lok Sabha election from the Thiruvananthapuram constituency to challenge Congress leader Sashi Tharoor.
LDF’s differing approach
While Mohanlal’s approach to the BJP looks balanced, Suresh Gopi is now the party’s state executive member, and his track record so far involves contesting unsuccessfully to the state Assembly and Lok Sabha on multiple occasions.
Curiously, the Vijayan government favours withdrawal of the case against Mohanlal while seriously challenging the appeal of Gopi, who, according to BJP insiders, is likely the party’s chief-ministerial candidate in Kerala in the future.
While the government counsel argues that Mohanlal just possessed the ivory of a dead elephant and did not violate wildlife protection laws, those who have waged a decade-long legal war with him argue that illegal possession of ivory is an offence that would invite imprisonment of up to five years.
At least twice in recent days has the court asked the state government whether it would exhibit the same kind of liberal attitude if an ordinary person were found possessing ivory.
In the case of Gopi, the same government has told the court that any relaxation would damage the concept of equal justice, and the actions of Gopi were, in fact, an insult to law-abiding and tax-paying ordinary citizens.
The Mohanlal case
Both high-profile cases have been pending in trial courts for a long time in the absence of substantial efforts to speed up the process.
According to Mohanlal, he purchased the two pairs of elephant teeth legally from two different persons, who were also arraigned as accused in the wildlife crime case.
Income-tax sleuths spotted the ivories during a raid at his residence at Thevara in Kochi in 2011, and a case was registered against the actor after they informed the Forest Department about their find.
The department, when filing the case, said the actor did not possess the mandatory permission to keep the ivory.
However, the same department issued an ownership certificate to the actor in 2015 and claimed before a trial court that the actor violated no rules. It also wanted to withdraw the case.
However, the court rejected the demand and proceeded with the case, saying all are equal before the law.
Now, Mohanlal has approached the Kerala High Court seeking the quashing of the case.
While hearing arguments in the case, the Kerala High Court also raised the question of relaxing the rules for a particular person who happens to be a film star.
The Suresh Gopi case
Meanwhile, going by the case now pending with the special court handling offences involving MPs and MLAs, Gopi forged documents used as address proof to register two luxury cars with the Regional Transport Office of Puducherry, a Union Territory, so he could evade motor vehicle tax worth lakhs of rupees.
The actor purchased his first luxury car from a dealer in Kochi in 2010 and the second in 2016, but they were registered in Puducherry, causing a loss of approximately worth ₹19 lakh to the Kerala government.
The prosecution submitted before the court that Gopi was a long-time resident of Kerala capital Thiruvananthapuram and never resided in any part of Puducherry.
It added that the actor dishonestly managed a life insurance policy at a temporary address in Puducherry and used the policy as supporting evidence to create the fake address proof.
To stress the argument, the prosecution also pointed out that the actor made only one remittance to the insurance policy and ignored any further payment.
This proved Gopi’s fraudulent intention in obtaining the document, the prosecution charged.
When Gopi approached the Kerala High Court seeking orders against the trial, the state government contended that the actor intentionally obtained false documents and produced them as genuine to evade taxes while registering the cars.
Gopi’s counsel BN Shiv Shanker claimed that anyone could register at any address across the country where he wants to use a vehicle or keep it safe.
“No car was seized from his Kerala address, and so no question of tax evasion arises. The police report accompanying the prosecution charge also does not state that the vehicles involved were kept at his Thiruvananthapuram address,” said the advocate.
The actor claimed before the high court that he produced a lease deed, life insurance policy papers, and an affidavit to prove that a flat in the UT had his tenancy title.
The court is expected to consider the case very soon.
Soft on Mohanlal
In the case of Mohanlal, the ivory was recovered from his home in 2011, and the case under the Wildlife Protection Act was filed only in 2012.
But he managed to get an ownership certificate. Now the state government argues before the high court that continuing the case against the actor would be a futile exercise and a waste of the court’s precious time as there is no violation of any law by the actor.
Legal experts say that possessing any wildlife trophy without bona fide inheritance is illegal.
Such inheritance can be established only after proper and effective inquiry followed by statutory declarations in the state’s official gazette.
They say there was no gazette notification in the case, and hence the certificate of ownership had no legal sanctity.
In the Malayalam tinsel world, getting implicated in criminal cases is a rarity.
And these cases, with two super stars facing trial, have their fans confused.
Whenever court developments related to the cases surface on social media, fans strongly defend the two actors, arguing that they are rich enough to buy anything of their choice legally. The fans rarely seem bothered about the intricacies of the wildlife offence and tax evasion.
As for the actors, they have remained tightlipped about the cases they are facing. But with high court orders imminent, their fates could forever remain intertwined.