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‘A sadhu’s chillam holds more drugs than Rhea Chakraborty’s consumption’

A former senior inspector in the Mumbai police anti-narcotics cell explains why he thinks the charges against the actor are disproportionate to the evidence found

Bollywood actress Rhea Chakraborty (C) arrives at the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) office for inquiry regarding Sushant Singh Rajput case in Mumbai on Tuesday
Bollywood actress Rhea Chakraborty (C) arrives at the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) office for inquiry regarding Sushant Singh Rajput case in Mumbai on Tuesday (ANI)

On 8 September, the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) arrested actor Rhea Chakraborty on charges of procuring illegal drugs (such as marijuana) for the late actor Sushant Singh Rajput. Their investigations have led them to believe that Chakraborty was an “active member of (a) drugs syndicate connected with drugs supplies", the NCB said. If found guilty under the sections she’s been charged under, the actor can be imprisoned for up to 10 years.

Chakraborty was the 10th person arrested in the NCB probe in connection to Rajput’s suicide. But the circumstances around Chakraborty’s her arrest have been extraordinary. Initially, Rajput’s history of mental illness was said to have driven him to suicide at his residence on 14 June. Two weeks later, Rajput’s father KK Singh filed a police complaint blaming Chakraborty for his son’s death. He claimed that Chakraborty, Rajput’s girlfriend at the time, had taken control of his life, medicated him against his will, embezzled his money, and distanced him from his family. The breathless coverage by TV-news channels has turned the case into one the most debated topics since.

Currently, three central agencies are probing the circumstances around Rajput’s death: the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Enforcement Directorate (ED) and Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB). Chakraborty is being investigated on charges ranging from cheating and abetment to suicide to murder and money laundering. On Wednesday, she filed for a bail at the special court under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, saying that she was falsely implicated in the case. The bail plea will be heard today.

Mint spoke to Suhas Gokhale, retired senior inspector and former chief of Azad Maidan unit of the Mumbai police anti-narcotics cell (ANC), on the charges Chakraborty has been arrested for. Gokhale had served at the ANC for six years before his retirement in 2015. The involvement of premier investigation agencies in the case, he said, was starkly disproportionate to the available evidence against the actor.

Edited excerpts:

What do you make of the NCB’s case against Rhea Chakraborty?

I can’t understand why three central agencies are involved in this. The CBI (the first of the three agencies to take over the probe last month) has both economic offence and narcotics wings. They alone could’ve handled the probe instead of involving the other two. But I’d rather not speculate on why they’re doing it.

Now, the narcotics charges against Rhea Chakraborty are about the marijuana or hashish. There’s no evidence of other drugs. Even if she is found to be consuming it, under the NDPS Act, the accused person can be released under probation if he/she wants to undergo rehabilitation.

Charas and ganja are known as "conventional" drugs. In Bollywood, hard drugs or designer drugs are also consumed to a large extent. Are the government and central agencies so naïve that they didn’t know this until now? But the way this case is unfolding, it seems like the fundamental concepts are warped.

What is the purview of the NCB? How common is it for them do get involved in individual drug-possession cases?

The NCB is the parent body [of narcotics-related investigations]. It usually probes inter-state and international drug trafficking. I was in the anti-narcotics cell of Mumbai police for 6 years but NCB was the boss. If we found drugs over is above a specific limit, we’d report it to the NCB.

Ganja (marijuana) is a "light" or "conventional" drug. The limit for NCB to be reported is 50-100 kg. The recovery is categorized into "small quantity" and "commercial quantity". In this case, the recovery made (from fellow-accused Abbas Ramzan Ali Lakhani and Karan Arora) is 59 grams. It is a small quantity, and can be presumed that it was for personal consumption only.

The NCB claims Chakraborty was part of a "drug syndicate". According to its application, "Rhea revealed her involvement in procurement of drugs and financial transactions and also instructions to Miranda, Sawant and Showik [co-accused in the case] in this regard. Therefore, it is clear from her statement that Rhea is an active member of the drug syndicate connected with drug supplies."

By this logic, any person using marijuana is part of a syndicate! Syndicate is for those who actively procure the drug in larger quantities: transportation, storage and possession. Often, the people we find (couriers) don’t even know the extent of their crime. Their role is negligible. Rhea or customers like her procure. You can’t call them a "syndicate".

A study by Delhi-based Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy last month found that most who fall victim to the law are the poor and marginalized. What happens to the big fish or the "wholesalers"?

That’s true. In most cases, it’s the low-level peddlers that are held. The cases against "wholesalers" are rather less. Nowadays, the khabari network (network of informants) has also reduced. The police mostly depend on electronic information.

There are an estimated 5.5 to 6 lakh marijuana users in Mumbai. Assume each consumes 1gm of the drug, then the Mumbai consumption is 500-550kg. There’s no way we’re recovering quantities like this everyday. The real criminals go unpunished.

You said earlier that it’s common to find drugs in Bollywood parties. Has there ever been an effort to act against it?

The information doesn’t come easy in the film industry and fashion circles. Once a Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) had asked why we don’t crack down against drugs in pubs. Because, as cops, we stand out. There’s a certain rawness in our appearance or body language. If we are to wear the most stylish clothes, ek shembda porga dekhil olkhel (even a kid can call us out).

For example, there was a place in Byculla where there would be a lot of drug peddling. I’d once taken a new officer there, asked him to keep an eye. He’d report if he found anything suspicious and the rest of us would then close in. While he was waiting, a 10-year-old kid came to him and asked what he was doing there. The officer said, I am waiting for my friend. The kid returned in 15 minutes, pointed out at us standing at a distance and said, dekho saab aapka ek dost wahan khada hai, ek wahan (Look, sir, there are your friends: one there, another there).

A 2019 study on substance abuse by the Ministry of Social Justice estimated that 2.8% Indians consume cannabis. That comes to around 3 crore Indians. Several countries across the world have legalized marijuana. There’s been calls to do the same in India and monetize it too. What do you think?

Under the NDPS act, possession of marijuana and hash attracts a lesser punishment. It’s a way of admitting that these drugs are less harmful compared to the rest. But I don’t think it should be legalized. If legalized, kids can start doing it too, the way I’ve seen with mephedrone. Even if we are to regulate it, it’s enforcement will be a challenge. There’s also a chance of corruption coming in.

Given how commonplace it is, are there times that the authorities go easy on cases of marijuana consumption?

We have a lot of things that we look away from things because of links with religion. Say if someone goes to the annual Pushkar mela in Rajasthan, they’re asked to get charas from there. If you go to Varanasi, a sadhu’s chillam might have more [drugs] than Rhea’s consumption.

Have there been instances where you’ve been pressured to go easy if the accused is politically connected or has social currency?

Not that I know of. I never experienced it.

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