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Wankhede was never the problem but a symptom of it

Now that the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) has conceded that there is no case against Aryan Khan, people have argued that this apparent frame-up shows us how much governance in India has deteriorated.

I disagree with them on two grounds. One, many others have gone through similar experiences in the past.


We just did not notice them because they were not as high profile. So I am not sure how much governance has really deteriorated:  in this respect it was always pretty bad.


   And two, I think when we focus only on governance; we neglect the other institutions which disgraced themselves during this episode. The media behaved appallingly and irresponsibly. The judiciary needs to take a long hard look at itself. And the film industry should mourn that it has gone from being among India’s strongest and most significant industries to become a rabbit warren of frightened bunnies.


   Let’s start with the case itself. We know now, from the NCB’s own admission, that procedure was flouted at every stage. We know that no drugs were found on Aryan Khan. The NCB arrested him anyway, arguing that a friend of his was found with drugs. When the friend said that the drugs had nothing to do with Aryan, he was ignored.


   No medical test was conducted to check if Aryan had drugs in his bloodstream. His phone was seized, without any of the necessary procedures, and his WhatsApp messages read. When some old messages, which the NCB took to suggest that he may have smoked a joint years ago when he was in America (where it was not a crime) were found, the NCB told the press that it had proof that he was part of an international drug syndicate!


   Then, there was the complete absence of any pretence of following the rule of law. Dodgy characters, some of them wanted by the police in other cases, were allowed to become part of the arresting process on the grounds that they were assisting the NCB officers. Some of these guys posed for selfies with Aryan at the NCB office. Nobody stopped them. And the pictures become public.


   Even before we get to the Sameer Wankhede factor there is the larger question of why the NCB exists. The local police are well equipped to handle drug offences. The role of the NCB is not to bust kids for smoking hash. It is to investigate large drug networks and to break supply chains. There is no doubt that even if Aryan had actually been carrying a few joints, it was not the NCB’s job to arrest him. The local police could have been tipped off and action taken.


   So why did nobody object when the NCB began to involve itself in these kinds of minor arrests?


The short answer: politics.


   Remember the Sushant Singh Rajput case? A campaign was launched to claim that the actor had been murdered.  This was later expanded to suggest that he had also been plied with drugs. Rhea Chakraborty was portrayed as the vamp in this case, as a licentious woman who got the virtuous Sushant hooked on drugs.


   Given the magnitude of that campaign and the money spent on it, there is no doubt that there was a political agenda. It may have been intended to influence the Bihar elections. Or it could have been motivated by a desire to terrorise Bollywood.


   To keep this campaign going, it became necessary to arrest Rhea Chakraborty on drug charges. Even her brother was sent to jail on the basis of flimsy evidence. Then, the NCB declared that it had found evidence of drug- taking in WhatsApp chats and began summoning film stars and other industry figures as part of its so-called investigation.


   The operation was not conducted by regular NCB personnel. Instead the government shifted a Revenue Services Officer called Sameer Wankhede to the NCB, despite his having none of the experience required to execute the job.


   Wankhede was the hit man and he performed his task well. Rhea Chakraborty was crucified and an atmosphere of fear gripped the film industry. The Sushant Singh Rajput story, which had run out of steam, was kept going because of Wankhede’s bogus investigations’ as he pushed the idea of a drug mafia in Bollywood.


   Many of the people who lived with this fear were among India’s most popular stars. They had millions of fans. They were not short of money to hire the best lawyers. Yet, they cowered in their homes, dreading the knock on the door or the call to turn up at NCB headquarters for interrogation.


"But now, too many judges do whatever it is that the police ask them to do."

   Why were they so afraid?


Three reasons. One: they believed, rightly or wrongly, that Wankhede was the agent of the government. He was so powerful, they thought, that he could do whatever he wanted.


Two: they were scared of the media. Nobody is surprised to hear that TV channels have now plumbed new lows. But I wonder if we realise how much they have become willing accomplices of the powerful?


   During Wandhede’s time at the NCB, they lionised him, treating him like some celebrity avenger. The NCB tipped them off about who would be called for interrogation next and TV news crews would turn up at the NCB office to shoot and shame whoever was summoned by Wankhede. There was never anything in the cases that were allegedly being investigated and the media knew it. But they played the NCB’s game anyhow.


   And then there is the matter of the angry anchors. I don’t think there is any precedent for the way in which Rhea Chakraborty was vilified on TV or the names she was called by the anchors.


And three: there was a time when, if you were victimised by an unscrupulous police officer or arrested on charges based on false evidence, a judge would, at the very least, give you bail. But now, too many judges do whatever it is that the police ask them to do.


   Consider the Aryan Khan case where it is now agreed there was no evidence suggesting possession of drugs. And yet, with all of Shahrukh Khan’s resources and his access to the best legal representation, it took over three weeks for Aryan to get bail.


   That’s why Wankhede was able to terrorise people in Mumbai and especially those in the film industry: because he could arrest anyone he wanted to, without any evidence and a judge would obligingly send his victims to jail while a pliant media would vilify them.


   It is now being suggested that some action should be taken against Wankhede. That’s a reasonable demand. As the allegations against him have mounted, he has come across as an increasingly dodgy figure.


   But sacrificing Wankhede suits everyone. Let’s not forget that somebody picked him out and parachuted him into the NCB. That when he conducted his campaign of vilification against Rhea to keep the Sushant Singh Rajput story alive, he must have had political backing. There was no other way in which he could have subverted the real purpose of the NCB --- to bust major narcotics gangs – and turned it into an agency that victimised selected individuals on the grounds that they had small quantities of drugs on them. (Or, not even that).


   If Wankhede had not been given a free run during the Rhea Chakraborty case, he would never have filed those bogus charges against Aryan Khan. He began to believe he could do what he liked, with the support of the political establishment, the media and most distressingly, the judiciary.


   By now every judge knows the dictum that bail is the rule and jail is the exception. And yet no judge bothers to take it too seriously. We have all gone hoarse telling the Supreme Court that the rule of law has been subverted and that individual liberty has rarely been in greater danger than it is today.


   And yet, the Supreme Court does little. It is content to let corrupt police officers and compromised agencies put people in jail on the basis of flimsy evidence. The arresting officers know that the cases will never amount to anything. But by keeping innocent people in jail, they ensure that the process is the punishment.


   So yes, I join in the general relief at the NCB’s decision to end a dark chapter in its history. And I agree that some action should be taken against Sameer Wankhede.


   But that’s not enough. Wankhede was never the problem: he was a symptom of it. The problem is the willingness of the political establishment (and that includes state governments) to allow individuals to be targeted through misuse of the law.


   The media, these days, do pretty much what the political establishment tells them to. Politicians don’t need to terrorise the media into submission: journalists long to do the bidding of the powers-that-be.


   But what about the judiciary? Isn’t it finally time that the Chief Justice asked himself why so many innocent people are denied bail? And shouldn’t he do more to rein in lower courts?


   It’s not about Rhea, Aryan or Wankhede. It is about all of us, citizens of India and our right to live with the liberty and dignity that were meant to be guaranteed by the Constitution.




  • Biswajit Dasgupta 09 Jun 2022

    We are witnessing a growing trend of high handedness, over zealous jingoism and a culture of not caring about anything. I do not think this is restricted to India alone but see the same trends here in the US.
    What happened to Aryan Khan was disgraceful - a child being hounded, imprisoned and witch hunted - did we forget basic decency? Are we so hungry for prosecution just for the entertainment value?

Posted On: 31 May 2022 11:30 AM
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