Aryan Khan drug case: Is the NCB trivialising drugs menace in the country or politicising it?

Drugs worth thousands of Crores are being smuggled into India every year. But the drug cartels, the big bosses of the drug mafia who almost certainly patronize them continue to operate with impunity

Aryan Khan drug case: Is the NCB trivialising drugs menace in the country or politicising it?

Shalini Sahay/ Delhi & Presley Thomas/ Mumbai

Is the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) trivializing the drugs menace in the country or is it politicising it? The question has again begun to circulate following the arrest of Aryan Khan, son of Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan, and others from a ship that was about to sail on a two-day cruise last weekend.

Initial reports said that a team of 20 NCB officials boarded the ship as passengers—each one of whom had reportedly shelled out around Rs. 98,000 each for the two-day cruise—on a tip off and searched the ship. The NCB claimed later to have recovered 13 grams of Cocaine, 21 grams of Charas, 22 pills of Ecstasy and 5 grams of MD.

The Bureau detained Aryan Khan along with Munmun Dhamecha, Nupur Sarika, Ismeet Singh, Mohak Jaswal, Vikrant Chhoker, Gomit Chopra and Arbaaz Merchant. The ship sailed after a 12-hour delay with other passengers. While Aryan Khan was remanded to NCB custody till October 7, Khan’s lawyer claimed that his client had neither been found in possession of narcotics nor had he consumed it.

Suspicions have grown because the NCB on Sunday claimed to have detained Aryan Khan and others for interrogation. No charge was pressed against them on Sunday. The question people are asking is why charges were not pressed and the passengers arrested if they were indeed found in possession of illegal narcotics.

The suspicion gathered momentum when Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Nawab Malik held a press conference in Mumbai on Wednesday and alleged that a BJP leader, Manish Bhanushali, and a private detective had boarded the ship with NCB officials. When the duo posted a selfie with Aryan Khan, NCB hastily issued a press statement saying the men in the photograph were not NCB officials. Once they were identified as BJP workers, the NCB claimed they were independent witnesses taken by the raiding party.

The NCP leader caused even more flutter by claiming that there was a buzz in Mumbai over the past several weeks that central agencies would be targeting the Bollywood actor. While Shah Rukh Khan, unlike a large number of other Bollywood actors and directors, has not gone overboard posting selfies with BJP leaders or wishing them on their birthday, he has also been conspicuous by his absence at events attended by the senior functionaries of BJP and RSS.

The NCB, which had gone after junior actor Rhea Chakraborty, the former girlfriend of actor Sushant Singh Rajput who committed suicide, for allegedly procuring drugs for Rajput, appears to have spent enormous time and effort since then to bust the drug racket in Mumbai. But for its endeavours, it does not seem to have succeeded in choking the supply of drugs or in identifying the real big bosses controlling the supply. On the contrary it seems to have concentrated on headline grabbing raids of high profile parties and going after the consumers. The relatively small recoveries it has made also puts a question mark on its performance.

It is as yet unknown how many tip offs the BJP leaders in Mumbai have actually given to the NCB till now. What is the basis of their tips and have they or their background been investigated?

The buzz in Bollywood is that an NCB official in Mumbai is married to a Marathi actor and wanted to be a star himself. The buzz is that having failed to make a breakthrough he has a bone to pick with Bollywood and has joined hands with others to selectively target Bollywood actors. This grapevine, usually reliable, claims that this particular official has been involved in a public row with SRK at the Mumbai airport and that he has been on a mission to get even since then.

These Bollywood sources, admittedly sympathetic to SRK, are also asking whether SRK’s son is being accused of being a drug peddler or has been arrested for consuming one narcotic or the other? People who claim to know say that addicts do not mix drugs as NCB has apparently claimed. It is either one or the other.

So, like Rhea Chakraborty in 2020, could Aryan Khan be paying the price for being SRK’s son?

These questions have assumed importance following the seizure last month of heroin worth Rs. 21,000 crore from a container in the Adani Group-operated Mundra port in Gujarat. While the few grams of narcotics seized from the cruise ship in Mumbai last week caused a media frenzy, the far more serious haul of heroin in Gujarat has almost been buried. Both Mumbai and the Gujarat Coast are close to Pakistan’s coastline. And heroin is generally processed in Pakistan before being smuggled into India. As reported earlier, the containers in which the heroin was hidden, were officially carrying talcum stones and powder. Imported by an obscure firm in Vijaywada in Andhra Pradesh, the consign-ment was to be delivered to one Kuldeep Singh in Delhi.

The addressee has still not been traced, presumably because both the name and the address are fake. The DRI (Directorate of Revenue Intelligence) which claims to have stumbled on the consignment during a routine inspection, had taken an equally obscure couple living in Chennai into custody along with six Afghan nationals and an Uzbek woman. The couple had floated the importing firm last year and according to media reports, had received yet another consignment in June, which went undetected and uninspected.

Even as the National Investigation Agency (NIA) took over the investigation of the case, several questions remain unanswered. Would such a large supply be shipped by the suppliers without receiving a part of the payment? Since 10% of the international price of the haul would be Rs. 210 crore, who could have paid that kind of money, and how? Why risk the containers and a regular port rather than sending smaller consignments on boats or dhows?

Above all, how have drugs affected the youth in Gujarat? How many raids has the NCB conducted in the state? With prohibition in force in Gujarat, are rave parties in the state rare? Charges of political patronage have also been made. Drug money is easy money and politicians seldom tend to look away from a gift horse. Has the NIA or NCB investigated the possibility of drug money finding its way to government officials, agencies and even political parties?

The Congress party last month alleged that huge money laundering was involved and asked why the Gujarat coast had become the favoured route of smugglers in the last few years. It is not that drugs have not been seized off the Gujarat coast or in Surat or other cities in Gujarat. But they have seldom received the kind of publicity that Rhea Chakraborty and Aryan Khan’s alleged complicity invite.

Wedged between the Golden Crescent and the Golden Triangle, India has traditionally been vulnerable to opiates both as a destination and as a transit route. Not surprisingly 22,700 cases were registered across the country under the Narcotics Drugs & Psychotropic Substances Act in 2020. And this despite the pandemic having hit drug trafficking hard, and the lockdowns.

The Golden Crescent, that over-laps Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan on the west and the Golden Triangle in the east consisting of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand continue to produce 90% of the world’s illicit opium. “Drug trafficking relies heavily on legal trade to camouflage its activities and on individuals being able to distribute drugs to consumers. The measures taken by governments to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic affected all aspects of the illegal drug markets, from production and trafficking of drugs to their consumption,” states the latest report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Referring to the failure to trace the addressee to whom the talcum consignment was to be delivered, officials from the Intelligence Bureau and anti-narcotic agencies say, “If such big quantities clear the port area, the consignment would normally be quickly broken down into smaller parcels at the closest possible place before being transported to avoid detection. It’s highly unlikely that the entire consignment would be transported to the final destination.”

The Afghan Opiate Trade Project (AOTP) of the United Nations in its 2020 report states that a courier is paid as much as US $2 per gram or $2,000 (Rs 1.5 lakh) per kilogram to smuggle heroin into India.

How did the heroin land at Mundra Port. Who ordered the drug? Was there any form of communication between the drug cartel which ordered for the drug from Afghanistan? We still do not have answers to these questions.

“There is nothing to dispute that the high-quality heroin is supplied from the Taliban controlled Afghanistan. But the drug cartels have evolved and use multiple routes through various countries for the heroin to reach the United States, Europe and Australia.

The sea route to India via Iran and Pakistan or through Mozambique are the favoured destinations of the drug cartel,” added a senior intelligence officer. Most of the heroin that is transported to Iran comes from Helmand, Herat and Farah province in Afghanistan, and were specifically destined for Zabol in Iran from where heroin is then transported to Iranian ports.

Although the drugs are being seized all over, but the cartels continue to operate with impunity. Could there be any truth to the suspicion that they enjoy political protection and patronage?

DRI officials had seized 191.6 kilograms of heroin worth Rs 1,000 crore from a container at Nhava Sheva, a seaport in Navi Mumbai, in August 2020 and had arrested the owner of the importing company that was facilitating the smuggling from Afghanistan to India under the pretext of the consignment being ‘Mulethi’.

In July 2019, the Special Cell of Delhi police had similarly seized 130 kilograms of heroin at Nhava Sheva. The consignment was linked to drug cartels in Afghanistan. Indian Coast Guard had held a Pakistani fishing boat ‘Nuh’ with 30 kilograms of heroin worth Rs. 300 crore off the Jakhau coast in April this year. In March, the Coast Guard had apprehended a vessel SLB Ravihansi with 300 kilograms of heroin off Lakshadweep Island. The same month the Coast Guard had apprehended SLB Akarsha Duwa carrying 200 kilograms of high grade heroin and 60 kilogram hashish. Coast Guard had also apprehended a Sri Lankan boat Shenaya Duwa off Kanyakumari with 120 kilograms of narcotics worth nearly Rs. 1,000 crore and five weapons.

NCB officials recently raided a two-bedroom flat in Dombivali in Mumbai to find that marijuana was being cultivated using hydroponics. Indigenous methods of producing marijuana have become popular during the lockdown, it would seem.

“Lockdowns have made smugglers and peddlers find different and unique ways of smuggling drugs. Foreign syndicates are sending drugs via speedpost and air cargo couriers. What is shocking is that consumption of drugs like LSD and Mephedrone has drastically increased in Mumbai,” an officer claims.

A Mumbai police officer says, “The first step to procure drugs like LSD or curated bud is by getting a software that is available on the web. Once you get the software, it allows you to access the dark net and then there are various websites which allow you to buy or sell drugs anonymously. Anonymous messen-ger services are also used and payments are made through bitcoin or by using services of middlemen on some websites.”

The Hemps Commission report of 1894, which found medicinal properties in hemp, could have been the reason why lawmakers in India did not find it necessary to enact an Act to curb narcotics, till the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act came in force in 1985.

It saw the formation of the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) in 1986, and in Mumbai the AntiNarcotics Cell (ANC) in 1989. But was it too little too late?

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