Aryan Khan case: Stranger than reel life

Print edition : November 19, 2021

Aryan Khan being escorted to court by Narcotics Control Bureau officials for a bail plea hearing in Mumbai on October 8. Photo: PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP

Shah Rukh Khan’s son Aryan gets bail, but the drug-related case has taken on a new dimension involving the investigators and raising doubts about a larger conspiracy.

Detained for 25 days at Mumbai’s Arthur Road jail after being denied bail four times, Aryan Khan, Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan’s son, and two friends, Arbaz Merchant and Munmun Dhamecha, were finally granted bail by Justice N.W. Sambre of the Bombay High Court on October 28. The Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) had arrested 23-year-old Aryan Khan on October 3 in a raid on a cruise ship on charges of alleged possession and consumption of drugs by those on board. They also accused him of being part of an international drug conspiracy.

Although Anil Singh, Additional Solicitor General representing the NCB, made compelling arguments that Aryan Khan should be charged with “conscious possession and plan to consume” drugs, the formidable defence team consisting of Mukul Rohatgi, former Attorney General of India, and Satish Manishshinde, a well-known lawyer, presented a strong case. They argued that there was ample proof that Aryan Khan had not used drugs or had them in his possession on the night of the raid.

The small quantity of drugs found on his friend Arbaz Merchant was negligible and certainly not enough to make a case of non-bailable offence, they said. In addition, the defence team argued that Aryan Khan’s custodial detention was a “direct infringement of constitutional guarantees”. Both defence lawyers contended that the arrest memo “did not give true and correct grounds for arrest”, as required by Section 50 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPc) and thus the arrest was illegal.

Political twist

The case, which began with the NCB busting a party on a cruise liner just off the coast of Mumbai, quickly escalated into another controversy involving Bollywood, Central agencies, the local police and the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government in Maharashtra. Following Aryan Khan’s arrest, rapid developments revealed different angles of the case. One of them involves NCB official Sameer Wankhede, who led the search. His moment of heroism was short-lived as a couple of witnesses on the cruise accused him of extortion.

Nawab Malik, a senior leader in the Nationalist Congress Party, a constituent of the ruling MVA, lashed out at Wankhede saying he had a history of extortion. He accused the NCB officer of forging documents to prove that he was from a Schedule Caste community to join the force. Malik also accused the Centre of consistently meddling in Maharashtra’s affairs in order to discredit the MVA.

Also read: Trial by media flouts principle of fair trial

Aryan Khan repeatedly denied that he possessed or consumed “charas” as alleged by the police. The NCB’s argument was that Aryan Khan was an influential person and that he could tamper with evidence if released.

Industry observers say there could be more to the case than what meets the eye. According to them, there could not be a more vindictive way to send a message to Shah Rukh Khan, who has always lived by his own script. He is not from any film family in the industry, and his pure talent, charisma and professionalism were behind his meteoric rise in his career; he is now popularly known as the Badshah of Bollywood and King Khan. The actor, who has a massive fan base, is known for his individualism and has never toed any line, even though the current political climate demands it. A Padma Shri and international award winner who has represented the country on several global platforms, Shah Rukh Khan is paying a heavy price for this, they believe. According to these industry observers, whoever is behind the plan seems to have made their point by hurting his offspring, the weakest spot for a parent.

Another clear message to emerge from this case is that Bollywood may not be in an exalted orbit that it imagines for itself. Some draw a parallel between the cases of Aryan Khan and Sushant Singh Rajput. In the latter, the actor’s girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty was targeted and imprisoned. The NCB had foisted charges on her and a few others in connection with the death of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput last year. It also accused her of being part of a drug syndicate. (“The sordid tale surrounding Sushant Singh Rajput's suicide”, Frontline, October 9, 2020.) The controversy coincided with the Bihar election. Sushant Rajput hailed from Bihar, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) used a “Justice of Sushant” campaign ahead of the Assembly election as part of its strategy.

Similarly, several observers say that the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election looms large somewhere in the middle of the mess involving Aryan Khan. Uttar Pradesh is where the Hindu right wing does what it does best—use muscle power to oppress the minorities. Commentators warn that if Shah Rukh Khan, probably one of the most influential people in the country, can be hit, lesser mortals should beware.

The case

The NCB raided the cruise liner that was hosting a two-day party on October 2-3 apparently on the basis of a tip-off. Aryan Khan was an invitee to the party. According to news reports, Wankhede and his team found a variety of drugs in different rooms on the boat. They arrested 20 people, including Aryan Khan, Merchant and Dhamecha. The most well-known among them was Aryan.

The NCB told a special court that Khan had been named as the prime suspect in what they claim was a conspiracy involving an international drug racket. Investigators allegedly found WhatsApp chats proving his involvement in contraband trafficking. Aryan Khan was charged with offences under several sections of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act. He denied all the charges saying that they were all fabricated.

During the bail hearing in the High Court, the prosecution, led by Anil Singh, said that under the NDPS Act, Aryan Khan did not have to be in possession of drugs to invite charges under the Act but it was enough if he had been dealing with it commercially, which they believed he was doing. Anil Singh said the NCB was convinced that even if Aryan Khan did not have drugs on his person, it had records to prove he was going to consume it. With regard to the contention that the arrest was illegal and that the conspiracy was not mentioned in the arrest memo but invoked later as an afterthought, Anil Singh said the defence team was alerted of the addition within four hours of making the rectification in the remand order.

Also read: How the media reacted to Sushant Singh Rajput's suicide

According to a legal correspondent who was present in the courtroom in the High Court, Rohatgi’s response to Anil Singh was: “There was no conspiracy because there was no meeting of minds. There was no discussion that they will meet, that they will get the substance and smoke. If there are people in a hotel in different rooms and they smoke, are all people in hotel in conspiracy? There is no material for calling it a conspiracy in this case.”

As to finding drugs on Merchant, Rohatgi said the petitioner’s response was: “It was not in my control what was found in Merchant’s shoe…. He is not under my control so there is no conspiracy.”

Rohatgi said the WhatsApp chats used by the NCB to prove the conspiracy were invalid as they were from 2018. “None of the chats are from the cruise. The chats will have to be seen in the trial to be proved. The chats have nothing to do with the current scenario and, therefore, to use a general phrase like conspiracy is not right,” he said.

Sameer Wankhede’s role

Meanwhile, Sameer Wankhede, the NCB’s Zonal Director who conducted the raid, is in hot water. From being hailed as a hero for netting a prize catch, Wankhede is in a situation where he faces arrest and possible dismissal. Startling revelations with regard to his actions point to an agenda in going after the young Khan.

To begin with, Kiran Gosavi, a self-styled private detective, was involved in the NCB raid as an independent witness. Gosavi took a selfie with Aryan Khan and shared it on social media where it went viral. When his identity was discovered, Gosavi disappeared. The Pune police nabbed him and on interrogation found that Gosavi had a dubious background and that there were several cheating cases against him. He is also reportedly linked to a senior BJP leader.

However, it was Prabhakar Sail, Gosavi’s bodyguard, who was the turning point in the case. Sail told the Mumbai Police that he had overheard Gosavi talking to one Sam D’Souza on the cruise liner about paying Rs.25 crore to get the celebrity kid out of the mess. Of this, reportedly Rs.8 crore would go to Wankhede. Aryan Khan may have got bail, but the case has taken on a dimension that could reveal much more in the coming days.