NCB chasing media hype, as drugs business booms in India

Rampant corruption, poor evidence boosts drug business

Politics

October 21, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

NCB chasing media hype, as drugs business booms in India

Two of the most high-profile cases that NCB has built and brought to court in the past 13 months both relate to leading Bollywood personalities

On Wednesday as the Special Drugs Court in Mumbai again rejected bail plea by Aryan Khan, Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan’s son, the focus shifted back to the role of Narcotics Control Bureau in curbing drug trade.

Just over a year after it had kept the national media attention and, by extension the national focus, on Bollywood actress Rhea Chakraborty, by arresting her on drug-related charges, the Narcotics Control Bureau is back at it, this time with Aryan Khan, the son of top A-lister of Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan.

The junior Khan was arrested, along with several others, by the NCB on October 3 on charges of an ‘international drug trafficking conspiracy’, when they were about to embark on a cruise from Mumbai to Goa.

Over the past three weeks as details emerge of the raid and with selective leaks by NCB officials, the story reads bizarrely similar to the events surrounding and following the arrest of Chakraborty. First, the quantity of the drugs that NCB says were seized in the raid. A total of 13 gm of marijuana and about 13 gm cocaine were allegedly seized from the persons on the same cruise. Nothing was found on or with Khan.

NCB prosecuting team in the special drugs court in Mumbai admits that it has only some WhatsApp chats found in Khan’s mobile to go with, but has built the entire case just on these, even though neither the word drugs nor any narcotic substances figure in these chats. Yet, NCB has named Khan as a co-conspirator in an ‘international’ drugs trafficking conspiracy.

It is not just the charges or the lack of any direct connection between Khan and drugs that is bizarre about this case. NCB’s raiding team also included at least two persons who are not part of the bureau and yet were prominent in the arrest as well as in the initial ‘interrogation’ of Khan. Both of them took selfies with Khan in the interrogation room and posted them on their social media handles, besides being in practically all the pictures and videos that were shot by the press when Khan was being taken to the court.

It emerged subsequently that one of them was a private detective in Mumbai and another was a local member of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The presence of ‘civilians’ in a raid and subsequent interrogation is not only highly irregular or violative of the code of conduct of the NCB and other law enforcement agencies, but also a clear violation of the privacy of the persons in custody.

Following the revelations, Mumbai Police has duly registered a case against both the persons and no surprise one of them, the private detective, has reportedly fled India, while the other is pleading harassment by political rivals.

Despite these developments, Khan has already spent three weeks in jail as the special court has consistently denied bail, in remarkable similarity to Chakraborty’s case who, too, was freed only after 28 days and that too upon the intervention of Bombay High Court, which ruled that prima facie none of the charges against Chakraborty held up the scrutiny of law.

“Therefore, I am satisfied that there are reasonable grounds for believing that the applicant is not guilty of any offence punishable under sections 19, 24 or 27A or any other offence involving commercial quantity. There are no other criminal antecedents against her. She is not part of the chain of drug dealers. She has not forwarded the drugs allegedly procured by her to somebody else to earn monetary or other benefits. Since she has no criminal antecedents, there are reasonable grounds for believing that she is not likely to commit any offence while on bail,” Justice Kotwal of the High Court had noted while granting bail to Rhea.

The fact that two of the most high-profile cases that NCB has built and brought to court in the past 13 months both relate to leading Bollywood personalities has not gone amiss and led to a string of accusations of NCB on a witch hunt against imaginary ghosts while not targetting the widespread growth of drug trafficking that has occurred in India over the years.

As recently as September 20, over 3,000 kg of Afghan heroin, that had been classified as semi-cut talcum powder, was seized from two containers that had landed at Mundra Adani port in Gujarat. The drugs were worth approximately INR 210 billion  in the international market, making it possibly India’s biggest ever single seizure of drugs.

The fact that NCB did not take the case, which is now being handled by the National Investigation Agency has led to allegations that while it is turning a blind eye to the real drug traffickers and dealers, the NCB is simply chasing media hype.

“It is a misuse of power by the NCB. They are choosing a selective few people because of media hype. Of course, if anyone is consuming or buying it is an offense, but in the case of Aryan Khan, this minimum amount would normally qualify as a bailable offense. The investigation being done should correspond with the nature of the crime,” Delhi-based lawyer Aman Osman tells Media India Group.

Speaking at a Dussehra rally last week in Mumbai, Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray said the NCB was only interested when serious cases involved celebrities. “They catch a celebrity, click pictures and make noise around it. Our police only work, while the news is about whether someone got bail or not,” he said.

NCB’s apparent disinterest in chasing big drug dealers is especially troubling in a country like India, where from 2017 to 2019, over 2,300 people died due to drug overdose, and according to the Magnitude of Substance Abuse survey in 2019, about 2.1 pc of India’s population (at least 22.6 million individuals) uses opioids, up from 2 million as estimated in a 2004 report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and India’s Ministry of Social Justice.

Another UN report (2018) claimed that drug use in India had increased by 30 pc in the last decade. Reports stress that drug abuse runs especially deep in states like Punjab, which was once a transit point on the drug route from Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2020, the state once again topped the country at 22.9 pc cases registered under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, with Himachal Pradesh a close second at 20.9 pc.

While NCB has been busy targetting high profile personalities on evidently weak evidence, if any, availability of drugs of all kinds has grown flagrantly across the country, with dealers selling their wares openly, often under the very nose of the police.

Ease of drug business

Residents allege that corruption is so deeply entrenched in the system that even filing complaints against drug dealers, especially for smaller seizures, yields no action from the police, and even brings death threats against those who try.

“It is very easy to find any kind of drug in India, ganja (marijuana), or even hard drugs like cocaine or heroin, if you have the right contacts and they are in small quantities. The police officers get monthly amount of INR 15-20,000 from each dealer. So even if someone complains, and the dealers are arrested, they are kept behind bars for one or two weeks and then released. It’s common in metropolitan cities and in Delhi, in places like Dwarka, Subhash Nagar, Paharganj, locals and foreigners openly consume drugs, and sellers come specifically to ask if anyone wants maal (drugs). Even the spiritual leaders like saints also consume drugs openly, like bhang is popular in Varanasi,” Jatish (*name changed), a college student who has purchased marijuana and opium-based drugs during his solo travels around India, tells Media India Group.

“I travel solo around India a lot, so I see it happen everywhere: Himachal, Pushkar, Rishikesh, Kasol especially is known only for hash and hard drugs. A lot of foreign drug dealers come to India, from countries like Israel, find a small community where they can bribe local police so they won’t be bothered and stay here from 4-5 months, because they know very well how rampant corruption is in India, so they can easily get a market here, and easily bribe officials and get whatever they want,” says Jatish.

“Everyone is already so involved in the racket, so it will be very difficult to eradicate drugs from the market,” he adds.

Upsurge in drug usage

NCB data itself backs up the worrying upsurge in drug use. In 2017, NCB Chennai had recorded a 128 pc increase in number of narcotic seizures, compared to the previous year. And the Covid-19 pandemic, despite the lockdowns and strict control of movement for several months across the nation, not only failed to deter the drug trade, but also saw a sharp jump in consumption and trafficking of drugs. This has continued in 2021 and NCB says that in the period January-July, police and various agencies have seized 2,865 kg of heroin, with 4,101 cases being registered. In 2020, Delhi police said 700 kg of drugs were seized and 882 persons were arrested under the NDPS. Despite the growth in seizures, it seems the investigating agencies rarely land up arresting kingpins of the trade and often make do with small-timers in the business as an average seizure is less than a kg.

Though the NDPS is a very stringent law that carries the ultimate punishment of death penalty, besides several years of imprisonment even for small quantities of drugs, the long delays in trials has led to a clogging up in the courts as nearly 210,000 drug-related cases were pending trials in India in 2019, up from 190,000 cases in 2018.

“The conviction rate under NDPS is quite high but not for minor cases, because proof is difficult to give. Many people get acquitted due to lack of evidence and failure in follow-up procedures, like when the drug test is not done within the required timeframe of the arrest. Trials continue for 7-8 years and another 3-4 years for the court to hear appeals. And ultimately, as lawyers we know these things are being sold with the nexus of the police,” says Osman.

Given NCB’s claim of “generating quality intelligence leading to detection and disruption of organised drug trafficking groups” over the years, it is ironic that the record haul of drugs at the Adani port has been handed over to the NIA. This leads to questions over the perception that the government itself has of the efficacy of its dedicated drug enforcement agency as well as whether the agency is acting independently or simply being used as a tool.

“It goes without saying that these are central agencies and businessmen like Adani have got connections with Centre and the Prime Minister, so they would not do anything that harms their reputation. They should have given permission to NCB to probe the case because still no one really knows [how the shipment came in,]” says Osman.

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