Monday, November 29th, 2021 17:40:42

Bollywood and Drugs Then and Now

By Gautam S. Mengle From Mumbai
Updated: November 24, 2021 9:11 am

Every time a Bollywood figure lands in the dock for alleged drug consumption, the news is always consumed by all and sundry with much interest. No matter how many times such cases are registered, this news never gets old. Very conveniently, it is the news media who is blamed for this. A lot of analysts say that it is because the media publishes these stories on prime time that the people’s interest is stoked. However, there is also a group of people who states that it is the other way round; if the media is going to cover the success stories of Bollywood stars all year round, they can hardly be expected to ignore it if a star runs afoul of the law.

 

Bollywood’s association with drugs is hardly a new one. For decades, there have been whispers about the stars using popular party drugs like cocaine and heroin in their lavish parties, and informal gossip sessions between seasoned journalists have always been abuzz with stories of how a particular actor can not shoot two scenes without snorting a line of cocaine first.

Still, every time a Bollywood figure lands in the dock for alleged drug consumption, the news is always consumed by all and sundry with much interest. No matter how many times such cases are registered, this news never gets old. Very conveniently, it is the news media who is blamed for this. A lot of analysts say that it is because the media publishes these stories on prime time that the people’s interest is stoked. However, there is also a group of people who states that it is the other way round; if the media are going to cover the success stories of Bollywood stars all year round, they can hardly be expected to ignore it if a star runs afoul of the law.

The earliest case in public memory is of Fardeen Khan, actor and son of superstar Firoz Khan, who was arrested in 2001 with one gram of cocaine. On the other hand, the latest case is that of another star-son, Shan Rukh Khan’s 23-year-old son Aryan Khan, who was arrested on October 3 by the Narcotics Control Bureau. The reactions on both the cases, however, were vastly different But then, so were the cases.

In Fardeen Khan’s case, he was arrested with the drugs on his person. According to the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, which is the law invoked for cases involving drugs, the quantity of cocaine found on his was a ‘personal quantity’. In other words, the law assumes that one gram of cocaine is only meant for personal consumption and not for sale to anyone else. In keeping with the procedure for such a quantity, Fardeen was offered a choice between going to a rehabilitation center or being prosecuted. He chose the former, went through rehab and was released after the stipulated period was over.

In Aryan Khan’s case, no drugs were found anywhere on his person. None of the NCB’s seizure reports – called ‘panchnamas’ in legal parlance – show any drugs being recovered directly from Aryan Khan. The closest that he came to possessing drugs, according to the NCB, was six grams of cannabis being found in his friend Arbaaz Merchant’s shoe. Merchant has since alleged that even those drugs were planted by the NCB.

Further, the total quantity of drugs seized in the entire operation is also a small one: 13 grams of cocaine, five grams of Mephedrone, 21 grams of cannabis and 22 pills of MDMA, popularly known as Ecstasy. All of these quantities fall under the personal consumption category, and hence, the accused should have been given the choice of going to rehab. Except that they weren’t. A total of 17 accused, including Aryan and Merchant, were arrested and Aryan stayed in jail for four weeks before he was granted bail. Even the bail was not easy in coming. The special NDPS court rejected his bail application and Aryan was first lodged in the NCB’s lock up and then in the Arthur Road central jail before the Bombay High Court released him on conditional bail.

During each bail hearing, the NCB maintained that it had found ‘incriminating WhatsApp chats’ from Aryan’s phone, and hence Aryan should not be released on bail. It was only while the HC was hearing his bail application that the NCB admitted that the chats were not directly pertaining to the cruise party on the Cordelia Cruise ship. Effectively, this meant that Aryan was arrested from the venue of a party, where drugs were not seized from him and when his WhatsApp chats did not point to him intending to consume drugs on the said party.

The other major difference between the Fardeen Khan and the Aryan Khan case was that unlike Fardeen’s case, Aryan’s arrest quickly became the subject of heated political debate. A day after Aryan’s arrest, Nationalist Congress Party leader and cabiner minister Nawab Malik started addressing a series of press conferences, during which he levelled a host of serious allegations against the NCB and its Mumbai Zonal Director Sameer Wankhede.

While Malik continued his onslaught against the NCB and Wankhede, the BJP was quick to jump to their defence. In television news debates and interviews, as well as on social media platforms, several BJP leaders accused Malik of ‘demoralising’ the NCB by making allegations against it. They also stated that the NCB was “doing good work by cleaning up the drug menace from Mumbai”, while NCP and other members of the Maha Vikas Aghadi wondered out loud how seizing a few grams of assorted drugs was going to achieve that objective. The BJP then fell to deflecting attention to other issues, raking up issues like the Sachin Waze case and asking where former Mumbai Police Commissioner Parambir Singh had fled to. Incidentally, a Mumbai court on Wednesday declared Singh an absconder after repeated attempts at tracing him by multiple law enforcement agencies failed. This development came after three different non bailable warrants were issued against Singh.

It is also pertinent to note that this is not the first alleged rave party to be busted in Mumbai. In 2008, the Mumbai Police’s Anti Narcotics Cell busted a party in the 72 Degrees East pub in Juhu, where several star-kids, including the son and daughter of a prominent Bollywood actor, were detained for alleged drug consumption. Four years later, in 2012, another alleged rave party was busted at the Oakwood pub in Juhu, where a large number of television actors and the son of a well known cricketer were detained. In both the cases, the first thing that the Mumbai Anti Narcotics Cell did was to take all the detainees to the nearest government hospital and take their blood and urine samples. These were tested for drug consumption and those whose samples tested positive were, like Fardeen Khan, offered the choice between rehab and prison. Further, their identities were never revealed publicly. Meanwhile, those who were arrested with drugs in their direct possession were charged according to the quantities recovered. Those with personal quantities were charged accordingly, while those with greater, or ‘commercial’ quantities were charged with  more serious sections of the NDPS Act. Noteworthy arrests of the 2008 rave party was Shay Ben Haiun, an Israeli national also known as DJ Technodrome, and a Goan drug peddler known as Dudu.

These two rave parties are significant in comparison because in Aryan’s case, his blood and urine samples were never taken. Instead, selective information was released to the news media saying firstly that his cell phone had incriminating WhatsApp chats and that he had “confessed” to having consumed drugs in the past and promised to never do it again. While the first claim has failed to hold any water in front of the Bombay High Court, the second claim is irrelevant, as a confession given to a law enforcement agency does not hold any value as evidence, unless it is recorded in the presence of a judicial magistrate by a Superintendent of Police rank officer. A supposed promise of reformation holds even less value, be it as evidence or otherwise.

Another small yet significant comparison between the Aryan Khan case and the two rave parties is the reactions it elicited. When the Oakwood rave party was busted, some of the television actors who were detained in the raid held a press conference and alleged that the Mumbai Police had not followed procedure while collecting blood and urine samples. The police did not react to the allegations and kept on with its investigation. No one accused the television actors of ‘demoralising’ the police by raising questions on their methods. In comparison, when Nawab Malik held press conferences against the NCB, the agency was quick to hold their own press briefings to counter his allegations, something that is rare if not unheard of for a law enforcement agency. To say nothing of the hordes of social media users who trended hashtags in supports of the NCB and Sameer Wankhede.

The only similarity that Aryan’s case holds when it comes to past cases of alleged drug abuse involving film personalities is with the Rhea Chakraborty case. After Sushant Singh Rajput died by suicide in April 2020, the NCB booked Rhea under the NDPS Act and arrested her. Like Aryan, she, too, was denied bail for weeks together till her lawyers approached the Bombay High Court. While granting her bail, the HC observed that the fact that she is a celebrity should not go against her when it comes to securing bail.

Like in Rhea’s case, Aryan’s arrest started a conversation about Bollywood and drugs, and names of many celebrities was dragged through the mud. In the same year as the Rhea Chakraborty case, the NCB also issued a notice to filmmaker Karan Johar over a video that went viral in 2019, where several film personalities were seen supposedly consuming drugs during a party at his residence. Similarly, after Aryan Khan’s arrest, actor Chunky Pandey’s daughter Ananya was also called in for questioning on suspicion of drug consumption. No wonder, then, that the NCB’s detractors have time and again accused the agency of conducting a ‘witchhunt’ against Bollywood. In Rhea’s case, too, after months of vilification in the media, no substantial evidence was found against her. Earlier this month, the special NDPS court ordered the NCB to defreeze her assets and return her laptop and cell phone to her.

Meanwhile, allegations continue to mount against the NCB and Nawab Malik isn’t the only one making them. Last month, Prabhakar Sail, who used to work as Kiran Gosavi’s personal bodyguard, came forward and alleged that he had overheard Gosavi talk about taking a bribe from Shah Rukh Khan’s manager Pooja Dadlani. Sail, who was also made an independent witness in the Aryan Khan case, had alleged that Gosavi and another person identified as Sam D’Souza were talking about demanding Rs 25 crore from Dadlani and not settling for anything less than Rs 18 crore, as Rs eight crore were to be paid to Wankhede. This was the first direct allegation of misconduct against the senior officer and the Vigilance Department has initiated an enquiry into Sail’s allegations.

Further, Malik has also received an anonymous letter, supposedly from an NCB officer, which talks in details about several cases where Wankhede and his officers have framed people in made-up cases. This includes the Aryan Khan case. What makes the letter significant is the amount of detail it has, including names of investigating officers and particulars of the cases registered. Malik has submitted the letter to the NCB and sought in independent enquiry.

However, as all politics tends to be, the slugfest between Malik and Wankhede turned murky when Malik got personal and started talking about Wankhede’s family members. Ever since Malik brought Wankhede’s sister and his marriage into the picture, the wave of support that he was enjoying has waned somewhat. The general sentiment is that, regardless of any lapses in procedure on part of the NCB, it is important to remember that it is not Sameer Wankhede who is on trial here.

One more aspect in which earlier cases of alleged drug abuse by Bollywood personalities differ from the Aryan Khan case is the role of social media. There was no Twitter back when Fardeen Khan was arrested or when the two rave parties were busted by the Mumbai Police. However, in Rhea and Aryan’s case, not only were common citizens using social media, they were also well versed with laws, thanks to the internet, and vocal about their views. The fact that many learned lawyers and other experts are now actively using social media platforms has also played a part in this phenomenon. In both Rhea and Aryan’s case, there was a marked wave of sympathy and support for both of them on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. While the NCB’s supporters tried their best to trend hashtags and portray Rhea and Aryan as villains, social media users spared no effort in pointing out discrepancies in the NCB’s version and lapses in procedure.

Another significant question being raised against the NCB, and a very pertinent one at that, is this: Why is the NCB going after cases where the seizures are in grams? The NCB’s own website describes it as the apex agency for anti drug law enforcement in the country. As such, the NCB is expected to go after drug smuggling rackets that extend beyond state borders and operate on a country-wide level. In the past, the NCB has conducted raids on factories manufacturing illegal drugs under the guise of pharma businesses and arrested major figures in the murky world of drug smuggling. Any and all tip offs about small time drug dealers were passed on to the local Anti Narcotics Cells or even police stations by the NCB, so that it could focus on the big fish. Why, then, has the NCB recently started registering cases where the seized drugs are in the range of a few grams? How does this fit into the NCB’s mission statement? It can not be argued that the local police are not equipped to deal with cases involving celebrities, as the Mumbai Police have proven in several instances that they are perfectly capable, including the two rave parties busted in 2008 and 2012. What, then, is the reason behind the recent trend, where Bollywood celebrities are paraded in and out of the NCB’s office in Ballard Pier but the substance of the case only comes down to personal quantities of a few drugs? It is important to bear in mind that this is the same agency that had in June 2009 arrested a Punjab police officer with 25 kg of Methamphetamine in Mumbai. In 2010, the NCB had conducted raids at two factories in Maharashtra and Gujarat, where Ephedrine, a precursor of methamphetamine, was being manufactured and 431 kg of the drug was seized.

Today, however, the big seizures are being made by the local police. This year alone, the Mumbai Police have registered three big cases, seizing 45 kilograms of cannabis in one case, arresting a woman with seven kilograms of heroin worth Rs 21 crore in the second and seizing mephedrone worth Rs 2.35 crore in the third. In 2019 and 2020, the Maharashtra Anti Terrorism Squad had raided pharma factories in Maharashtra where mephedrone was being illegally manufactured. Funnily enough, all those concerned about the ‘drug menace’ when it comes to cases like Aryan Khan’s are completely silent when such cases are registered. No hashtags are trended on Twitter in support of the investigating agencies, no statements are made against the accused and no one commends the police for ‘cleaning up’ the city.

It is a fallacy that the NCB’s action has ‘cleaned up the drug menace’ in Mumbai, like some would have us believe. Much of the drug trade has now moved to the dark web, with consumers now being able to place orders online and receive delivery at their doorsteps. Further, the very fact that drugs like heroin and cocaine are being seized in India means that they are being smuggled into the country. Both these drugs are not grown locally, unlike cannabis and mephdrone. Heroin is manufactured in Afghanistan and Cocaine in Latin America, and these drugs are smuggled into India on a daily basis through ports and airports. It would be unfair to not mention here the seizure of 3000 kilograms of heroin from the Mundra Port in Gujarat, a case that should have warranted far more media attention than Aryan Khan. However, the last we heard about it was that the case was transferred to the National Investigation Agency. Since then, there has been no further word about the case at all.

It is also a myth that the city’s college students are free of drugs. Several police officers have confirmed that drugs like cannabis and mephedrone are very much consumed by college students even today. Mephedrone, also called the ‘poor man’s cocaine’ is particularly popular, as it enables the use to stay awake for long periods of time – useful for studying for long hours – and helps lose weight – every teenager’s dream.

As Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray had quipped at a recent public meeting, heroin does not get the same attention that heroines do.

 

By Gautam S. Mengle From Mumbai

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