Gruesome hit-and-run in India puts spotlight on culture of impunity for rich and powerful

Gruesome hit-and-run in India puts spotlight on culture of impunity for rich and powerful

Indian police have arrested an influential politician’s son for allegedly mowing down a woman while returning from a late night party, putting the spotlight on how the country’s rich and powerful disregard laws with near impunity and manipulate the system to get away with it.

Mihir Shah, 24, son of Rajesh Shah, a member of the ruling faction of the Shiv Sena party in the western Maharashtra state, was driving back from a weekend party in Mumbai when he crashed his BMW into a fisherfolk couple on a scooter and sped away.

The victims were later identified as Kaveri Nakhwa, 45, and her husband Pradip Nakhwa, 50.

Mr Shah dragged the woman for almost 1.5km, stopped to remove her dead body from under the engine and switched seats with his driver who had been riding in the passenger seat, CCTV footage seen by the Mumbai police showed.

Mr Nakhwa was said to be recovering from his injuries.

After removing Nakhwa’s body from under the car and leaving it on the roadside, the police said, Mr Shah sat in the passenger seat while the driver reversed and ran over her once again.

He made frantic calls to his father in the early hours of Sunday and, with his help, evaded arrest for three days, the police said. The politician was released on bail. The driver, Rajrishi Bidawat, was arrested and charged with culpable homicide.

Mr Shah and his friends were inebriated, police said.

The hit-and-run case is the latest in a series of gruesome incidents involving the children of the rich and powerful that has sparked public anger over glaring procedural lapses in the prosecution of the accused.

In most of the cases the victims were poor people.

In 2022, an unidentified person ploughed their speeding BMW car, a status symbol of India’s rich, into several vehicles near Red Fort in the national capital Delhi and injured at least five people.

That year, according to the Crime in India report, about 148,716 people died in road accidents in the country. Nearly 44.5 per cent of them were riding motorbikes and scooters and 19.5 per cent were pedestrians.

In early 2023, Anjali Singh, 20, was dragged under a drunk driver’s car for over an hour following a hit and run on New Year’s Day. She was riding a scooter when she was hit and dragged more than 13km before one of the five occupants, including a politician from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, noticed her.

In an eerily similar case to Mr Shah’s, the teenage son of a prominent real estate magnate,Vishal Agarwal, in Mahrashtra’s Pune city killed two young software engineers after ramming his Porsche into their motorcycle on 19 May.

He was reportedly four months shy of 18, the legal age to drive a car in India, and was allegedly driving drunk.

The teenager, who was not named, was quickly released with a Pune judge asking him to undergo treatment for his drinking habit, take counselling sessions, work with police for 15 days and write an essay about the accident as conditions for his bail. The perceived leniency shown by the judge sparked outrage in the country.

In the wake of the outrage, the Pune police arrested his father, mother and grandfather as well as the owners of two bars that had allegedly served him alcohol. The legal drinking age in Maharashtra is 25.

The father and grandfather had pressured the family’s driver to take the blame for the accident by offering money and threatening him, the police claimed. The mother was accused of giving her blood to be swapped with her son’s which had been collected after the incident to test for alcohol.

The police also arrested doctors Ajay Taware and Shrihari Halnor from the city’s Sassoon hospital for allegedly destroying evidence.

In Mr Shah’s case, a police official told news agency PTI that his influential father was an “active participant” in ensuring his escape.

“I asked him to stop, yet he didn’t stop. He ran away. She must have been in so much pain. Everyone knows this but no one is doing anything. There is no one for the poor," Mr Nakhwa said, recalling the accident.

The incident sparked condemnation from state leaders who have asked the state government to not offer Mr Shah “political refuge”.

“I will not go into the political leanings of Mr Shah, the accused of the hit-and-run, but I hope the police will act swiftly to catch the accused and bring him to justice. Hopefully, there will be no political refuge by the regime," said Aaditya Thackeray, an opposition lawmaker from a rival faction of the Shiv Sena.

"The culprit has to be caught. We hope there will not be political support to the culprit.”

Maharashtra chief minister Eknath Shinde said he was “deeply alarmed” by the rise in hit-and-run cases in the state.

“It is intolerable the powerful and influential misuse their status to manipulate the system. Such miscarriages of justice will not be tolerated by my government. The lives of ordinary citizens are precious to us,” he said on social media platform X.

“I have directed the state police to handle these cases with the utmost seriousness and ensure justice is served. In addition, we are implementing stricter laws and harsher penalties for hit-and-run offenders. No one, whether rich, influential, or the offspring of bureaucrats or ministers, affiliated with any party, will have immunity as long as I am the chief minister of the state. I have zero tolerance for injustice.”

But, as an editorial by the news website The Print noted, “Shinde’s stern warning after the Mumbai hit-and-run is the least one expects”. “It won’t do the job of rooting out reckless, power-drunk killers at the wheel,” it added. “Their impunity comes from privilege the system provides. Laws that are not harsh enough, inadequate policing and atrocious parenting are to blame.”