It was an “early Diwali” celebration at the house of Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan on October 30, when his son Aryan Khan, accused of “drug consumption” and in custody for 28 days at Arthur Road Jail in Mumbai, was released on bail by the Bombay High Court (Mumbai, the erstwhile Bombay is the capital of Maharashtra).
Shah Rukh Khan or “King Khan” as he is known, is arguably the biggest superstar of India’s post-economic liberalization generation, and has massive following abroad as well. The arrest of his son saw Indian news channels frenetically covering every twist and turn of the case.
The case began on October 3 with the arrest of Aryan and his two friends aboard a cruise ship off the coast of Mumbai by officials of India’s Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB). That the issue was not just a routine case of alleged drug consumption became apparent when the NCB team headed by Sameer Wankhede leveled a string of specious charges, including possession of drugs and contact with an international drug racket, against Aryan to oppose his bail.
His stay in jail consequently was extended as his bail plea was rejected twice by the lower courts; this despite the fact that no drugs were found on him, India’s leading legal experts pointed out.
All through these weeks, Khan maintained a stoic silence while focusing solely on getting his son released. He visited his son only once in jail. India’s television news channels however ensured there was 24/7, paparazzi-like coverage marked by sensationalism and screaming headlines, projecting the star son and the film fraternity as entitled “drug junkies.” Expectedly, the film fraternity, unlike its counterpart in Hollywood, which is more vocal on such issues, chose to clam up.
Things became murkier when it came to light that a local Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politician in collusion with a private detective, Kiran Gosavi, had given the “tip-off” and participated in the NCB raid on the cruise ship.
The BJP has been at the forefront of pushing through its Hindutva and anti- Muslim agenda in all spheres of life in India. However, the Hindi film industry i.e. Bollywood has been largely outside its ken. The superstars of the film industry, incidentally, are three Khans, all Muslims — Salman, Aamir and Shah Rukh. Shah Rukh Khan is the biggest superstar of them all; his universal appeal cutting across the divides of class and religion. So it is not surprising that the entire episode came to be perceived as the targeting of a Muslim superstar for not aligning with the Narendra Modi government as several others in the film industry had done.
Even as such conjectures were rife and social media was bitterly divided over this, the political plot behind the raid, started unravelling at a frenetic pace.
Nawab Malik, a minister in the Maharashtra government, addressed several press conferences launching a direct attack against the NCB and its head, Wankhede. Incidentally, Wankhede was the same officer who had last year targeted a bevy of “A lister” Bollywood film stars. Actor Rhea Chakraborty spent a month in jail, on specious charges of drug smuggling in connection with the death of her boyfriend, actor Sushant Singh Rajput.
Malik has alleged a conspiracy by the centrally ruling BJP to destabilize the Maharashtra state government and Bollywood, using central agencies like the NCB. Significantly, the BJP has been at loggerheads with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP)-Shiv Sena coalition government in Maharashtra.
Malik further accused the BJP’s Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanth of maligning and harassing the film industry fraternity in order to get the industry to relocate to Uttar Pradesh where Adityanath is building a new film city in Noida. Mumbai is India’s entertainment capital and Bollywood is a significant money churner for its economy.
Soon after this, Bollywood actor Pooja Bhat thanked minister Malik in a tweet, “for taking a stand against the engineered campaign of hate towards the Hindi film industry. It makes us feel less orphaned. Bollywood & Bombay/Mumbai are Intrinsically linked.”
It did not escape anyone’s attention that Aryan was unwittingly paying the price for being superstar Khan’s son.
Shah Rukh Khan, epitomizes the secular ethos of Hindu-Muslim unity of India. Married to Gauri, a Hindu by birth, Khan has never been perceived as a Muslim actor. Instead, he has played a range of characters on screen from the affable Raj to mafia don Raees Alam. But he dared to address Islamophobia in a 2010 film titled, “My Name is Khan,” the tagline reading “and I am Not a Terrorist.” It is no coincidence that ever since BJP and Narendra Modi came in to power in 2014, Bollywood has increasingly been churning out jingoistic blockbusters pandering to Hindutva sentiments.
Not mincing his words, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray lashed out at the BJP-led central government, accusing it of “defaming Maharashtra” and “diverting attention” from a larger 3,000 kg haul of heroin at Mundra port in Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat.
Incidentally, Wankhede is now on the backfoot after allegations of extortion were made against him in connection with the Aryan case. The Mumbai Police launched a formal probe into the matter. Facing charges of personal and professional impropriety, a defensive Wankhede moved the Bombay High Court seeking protection from arrest.
The Mumbai Police assured the court that it will give Wankhede a three-day notice before arresting him.
Wankhede is also facing the heat from his own agency, which has launched a vigilance inquiry against him and interrogated him for four hours last week.
In all this political mudslinging to settle scores, Khan hired the country’s top lawyers, including former Attorney General of India Mukul Rohatgi, to get his son out of jail. After three days of arguments in the Bombay High Court, Khan junior was granted bail. However, it took him more than two days to be finally released due to procedural issues, including a metal bail box that was opened only at specific hours. This has justifiably put the spotlight on the archaic judicial procedures that Indian courts continue to follow in a digital era.
Meanwhile, the case lodged against Aryan under the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act will continue in the trial court. Aryan will have to abide by stringent bail conditions, including weekly appearances before the NCB in Mumbai.
The case has prompted citizens including public intellectuals like Pritish Nandy to highlight the issue of activists and students languishing unjustifiably in jail without access to lawyers to defend them. If it took a celebrity like Shah Rukh Khan 28 days to get his son out on bail, what chances do ordinary citizens have when they come up against the might of the state and its agencies?