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The hunter gets captured by the game | Aryan Khan, Sameer Wankhede and a political slugfest

Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan’s son Aryan Khan is brought to court from the Narcotics Control Bureau office in Mumbai on October 4, 2021.   | Photo Credit: EMMANUAL YOGINI

In the wee hours of October 3, a crowd gathered outside the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) office in south Mumbai. When an officer stepped out of the building and under the glare of television cameras, reporters, hungry for bites, pounced on him, many almost pushing their mikes into his mouth. “Yes, we have taken eight to 10 people in our custody,” said the officer, Sameer Wankhede, Mumbai Zonal Director of the NCB. “Investigation is in progress.”

“Eight or 10?” a reporter demanded to know, but this voice got lost in the volley of questions that were being thrown at the officer. Little did anyone in that crowd know that this question would haunt the NCB in general and Wankhede in particular in the coming days. But that is for later.

On that day, the famed NCB officer had everything under control. Aryan Khan, the 23-year-old son of Shah Rukh Khan, who is one of the biggest film stars in the world, was sitting inside the NCB office. He and his friends Arbaaz Merchant and Munmun Dhamecha were being probed by the agency for alleged drug abuse on board the Cordelia cruise ship the day before, at a party organised by Fashion TV. Of the 1,300 guests at the party, the NCB had picked up a few youngsters, later alleging that they were part of an international drug racket. The arrests of the three accused immediately caught the country’s attention. But no one would have expected it to spiral into what it has become today — a bewildering story of accusations and counter-accusations involving politicians, government servants and Bollywood stars.

In the limelight

Wankhede’s brush with fame, glamour and controversy is neither new nor surprising. The 2008-batch Indian Revenue Service officer from the Customs and Central Excise branch was posted at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport in Mumbai from 2010 to 2013. In 2011, he made headlines when, as Assistant Commissioner of Customs, he imposed a fine of ₹1.5 lakh on none other than Shah Rukh Khan, who had returned from a family holiday in Holland and London, for excess luggage.

Besides Shah Rukh Khan, Minissha Lamba and Anushka Sharma and team members of Katrina Kaif, Bipasha Basu, Ranbir Kapoor, Vivek Oberoi, Anurag Kashyap and Mika Singh have come under Wankhede’s radar during his stint at the airport and then at the Service Tax department for reportedly not declaring imported valuables such as watches, perfumes and footwear.

NCB officer Sameer Wankhede. Photo: Special Arrangement

NCB officer Sameer Wankhede. Photo: Special Arrangement  

 

Many say they were surprised when Wankhede went to the National Investigation Agency on deputation in 2013. In 2017, he was assigned to the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence. “What attracted the attention of many and resulted in him being deputed to the NCB was that he had a wide network of informants,” an official with the NCB says on the condition of anonymity.

 

In 2020, Wankhede began to probe the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput. It all began on June 14 when Rajput, 34, was found dead at his Bandra home. The Mumbai Police began an investigation stating that the death was being treated as a suicide. The autopsy report confirmed that the actor had died by suicide. Nevertheless, an unprecedented political storm occurred in the wake of his death, with the Bihar Assembly elections scheduled to take place a few months later. Rajput was a native of Bihar. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) saw an opportunity to denounce the tripartite Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government in Maharashtra, especially the Shiv Sena. Senior BJP leaders alleged that Rajput had been murdered and that the incident was being covered up to protect an influential, young leader of the Sena. An FIR was registered in Bihar. The allegations, all made without any evidence, received extraordinary media coverage. Rajput’s girlfriend and actor Rhea Chakraborty was blamed for his death and was then accused of killing him. Following the BJP’s claims, which were aided by Rajput’s family members, central investigating agencies were brought in to probe the case. A team of the Central Bureau of Investigation questioned all those related to Rajput, including Chakraborty. In July 2020, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) filed a money laundering case based on the FIR registered in Bihar and the allegations made by Rajput’s father against Chakraborty. According to sources, the ED’s audit showed references to drugs in Chakraborty’s WhatsApp chats. And so, the NCB was brought in.

The hunter gets captured by the game | Aryan Khan, Sameer Wankhede and a political slugfest
 

On August 31, 2020, Wankhede, who was in the DRI, was inducted into the NCB for six months. The NCB categorically denies that he was brought in especially for the Rajput case. A statement issued by Mutha Ashok Jain, Deputy Director General, South West region, NCB, read, “The vacancy circular for filling the post of ZD/DD was initiated in the year 2019. Sh. Sameer Wankhede applied for the post of ZD in NCB on deputation on 28.11.2019 through DG, DRI. The application was forwarded to NCB on 27.08.2020 by Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs. Sh. Sameer Wankhede, IRS was inducted as Zonal Director, Mumbai on 31.08.2020 on loan basis for the period of six months.”

Within a week of taking charge, Wankhede arrested Chakraborty, despite finding no drugs on her, purely on the basis of her WhatsApp chats which the agency then claimed were related to procuring narcotics for Rajput. The NCB’s investigations based on WhatsApp chats didn’t end there. Actors Deepika Padukone, Shraddha Kapoor, Sara Ali Khan and Rakul Preet Singh were also questioned in connection with an alleged drug racket in Bollywood. Kshitij Prasad, former employee at Dharmatic Entertainment, the digital arm of Dharma Productions, was arrested by the NCB. When he was later granted bail, Prasad claimed that the NCB led by Wankhede had harassed him and coerced him to falsely implicate actors Ranbir Kapoor, Dino Morea and Arjun Rampal. The NCB denied the claim.

 

With Wankhede’s arrival, the NCB’s drive to ‘clean up’ Bollywood seemed to gain momentum. “Messages used to go to certain reporters well before the NCB would go to interrogate a celebrity,” a journalist working with a leading private television channel says. WhatsApp chats were leaked to sections of the media, which helped create a narrative against the accused. An agency which was earlier investigating and probing drug cartels and suppliers started making headlines for probing alleged drug users, most of them celebrities, who were found in possession of small quantities of drugs or none at all. Reacting to the criticism that was being directed against him, Wankhede simply said he was following the law.

The officer who had come to the NCB on “loan basis” for six months has till now received two extensions. Since Wankhede’s induction, the NCB has set a record by arresting over 300 people. The agency claims it has dismantled around 12 drug gangs in Mumbai and Goa. But sources point out that none of the high-profile cases have stood scrutiny in court; in many cases, even the charge-sheets have not been filed. That WhatsApp chats alone are being used as evidence against celebrities has come under the scanner too.

Wankhede has said in interviews that his mother worked for street children and his father, who is from the uniformed services, always wanted to see him work for the nation. All these personal details have added to his image as a daredevil officer.

Nawab Malik’s salvos

Wankhede’s actions were countered for the first time when the NCB arrested comedian Bharti Singh and her husband Haarsh Limbachiyaa in November 2020 and allegedly seized 86.5 grams of ganja from their home and office. Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader and Minister for Minority Affairs and Skills Development Nawab Malik said then that drug addicts should be sent to rehabilitation centres and not jail. “The NCB’s duty is to track down drug traffickers but no action is being taken against them,” said Malik, a five-time MLA who is close to NCP chief Sharad Pawar.

NCP leader and Maharashtra Minister Nawab Malik. Photo: Special Arrangement

NCP leader and Maharashtra Minister Nawab Malik. Photo: Special Arrangement  

 

Two months later, on January 13, 2021, messages were sent to reporters about a “high-profile” interrogation at the NCB office. The accused, the reporters found out on rushing there, was Sameer Khan, Malik’s son-in-law. On January 9, the NCB had seized 200 kilograms of marijuana and arrested British national Karan Sejnani and two sisters — Rahila and Shaista Furniturewala — from Bandra. Sameer was summoned by the NCB after an alleged online transaction of ₹20,000 between him and Sejnani was found. Asked for his reaction then, Malik had said, “Law will take its due course and justice will prevail. I respect and have immense faith in our judiciary.” Sameer remained in jail for nearly eight months.

Months later, Malik paid keen attention to the visuals that were flashing on television screens of some men with Aryan Khan inside the NCB office. Malik decided to hear what Wankhede was saying in front of the camera. “He said ‘eight to 10 are in our custody’. What is this? A joke? It is either eight or 10. An officer always knows how many are in custody,” Malik said.

Malik’s eyes were also drawn to the footage of a bearded man on the cruise ship where Aryan Khan was also present. “An officer with a styled beard?” he wondered. Around the same time when Malik’s suspicions rose, a bald and hefty man’s selfie with Aryan Khan went viral on social media. Wankhede, who was now unknowingly being sucked into a whirlpool, quickly responded that the person in the photo was not an NCB officer. The media ran the clarification. But Malik decided to dig deeper. A photo search on Google led him to K.P. Gosavi, an accused in a cheating case in Pune. Through Gosavi, and using his own network of contacts in the Gujarati trading community, Malik also identified the bearded man on the ship as Manish Bhanushali, a BJP worker. Malik knew he had got hold of something.

 

Malik, who Wankhede says harbours a personal grudge against him, does not deny his past altercations with team Wankhede. He says he was quiet when his son-in-law was arrested as he believed that the law would take its course. But when the judiciary found no evidence against Sameer Khan and the court order stated that what was seized was herbal tobacco, he decided to speak out, he said. He alleged that the NCB had framed his son-in-law.

Following these revelations, the NCB aggressively defended the use of Gosavi and Bhanushali as independent witnesses on the first day of allegations and even hinted that Malik’s outburst was due to personal reasons.

Undeterred, Malik then addressed Wankhede’s vague statement that “eight to 10 people” had been detained. He said that 11 people, in fact, had been detained by the NCB during the October 2 raid but three of them — BJP leader Mohit Kamboj’s brother-in-law Rishabh Sachdev, Pratik Gabha and Amir Furniturewala — were let off.

Malik kept the heat up on Wankhede. Two days later, he raised questions about the involvement of a man cited by the NCB as an independent witness in as many as three cases. He asked whether the man, Fletcher Patel, was an independent witness or a close aide of Wankhede’s. The NCP leader also took to Twitter to post a screenshot of an Instagram picture of Fletcher Patel with a woman described as “lady don”. The woman in the picture is Yasmeen Wankhede, Sameer Wankhede’s sister. A few days later, Malik claimed that Wankhede was extorting money from Bollywood celebrities by threatening them and released photos of the NCB official’s trip to the Maldives.

 

Malik also alleged that Wankhede is originally Muslim and used a fake caste certificate to get his government job. On the same day, another independent witness, Prabhakar Sail, who was a bodyguard of K.P. Gosavi, filed an affidavit claiming that the NCB had demanded ₹25 crore from Shah Rukh Khan of which ₹8 crore was to go to Wankhede. Sail also said that Wankhede asked him to sign on blank papers. The next day, Malik released the ‘nikahnama’ of Wankhede’s first marriage with Shabana Qureishi where the officer’s father’s name is mentioned as Dawood instead of Dnyandev as per his caste certificate. The Qazi who officiated the marriage in question said that both families involved in the wedding were Muslims.

 

The NCB has been on a defensive mode. For the first time, it has been forced to issue a string of clarifications. Things came to a head with Sail’s affidavit which left the NCB with no option but to form a five-member vigilance team to probe the allegations against Wankhede. The NCB’s Deputy Director General (Northern Region), Gyaneshwar Singh, appealed to Sail to come and depose in front of the agency, but Sail has gone underground.

Facing the heat

Meanwhile, the NCB officer’s family says they are being harassed and have been receiving threats ever since Malik claimed that Wankhede’s caste certificate is fraudulent. Wankhede says he is Hindu by birth and was married to Qureishi under the Special Marriage Act. “The nikahnama was done as my late mother, who was a Muslim, wanted Islamic rituals,” he said. His father claims that he never converted to Islam and was lovingly called Dawood by his wife.

Also read | Sameer Wankhede alleges cops monitoring his movement, lodges complaint

Wankhede’s wife Kranti Redkar-Wankhede, an actor, has also denied all the allegations. She says Wankhede is a Hindu and an honest officer. She has written to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray demanding “justice” while invoking her Marathi roots.

“I do not have a problem with him being a Muslim or a person from any other religion. We have the freedom to practise the religion of our choice. However, Wankhede, by faking his caste certificate, has denied the right of a hard-working child from the Scheduled Caste community by usurping a seat,” Malik said.

Malik’s tweets every morning have kept the pot boiling for the NCB. The BJP has targeted Malik, claiming that the MVA government has been working hard to save Shah Rukh Khan’s son. BJP MLA Atul Bhatkhalkar complained to the Kurla Police station alleging that Malik, by claiming that Wankhede was a Muslim, was creating communal disharmony. Union Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment Ramdas Athawale held a press conference where he termed Malik’s allegations baseless. “Wankhede is a Dalit officer, who is doing good work... and it is not right to target him,” he said.

A political slugfest

Following Rajput’s death as well as the bomb scare in Antilia in February this year, where a car laden with explosives was found parked near the house of industrialist Mukesh Ambani, the BJP strongly advocated the use of central agencies for investigations claiming that the Maharashtra Police were being misused by the MVA government. The Union government ensured that central probe agencies took control of the investigations in these cases. All three parties in the MVA government have alleged several times that the BJP is using central agencies to tarnish the State’s image and destabilise the government.

The BJP’s outburst against Malik came after he exposed the party’s direct connection with the Aryan Khan case. The party could not deny Bhanushali’s presence during the raid. BJP leader Mohit Kamboj, whose brother-in-law was let off by the NCB, has threatened to file a defamation suit against Malik.

After spending more than three weeks in jail, Aryan Khan was granted bail on October 28. Gosavi, who was on the run after his identity was revealed, has now been arrested by the Pune Police in a 2018 cheating case. Bhanushali is nowhere to be found. Wankhede has approached the Bombay High Court seeking protection from possible arrest by the Mumbai Police on the charge of extortion. A departmental inquiry has been initiated against him too.

 

In the midst of the political slugfest, social media has flared up with one section supporting Shah Rukh Khan and the other, Wankhede. Several social media accounts have been running hashtags personally targeting Shah Rukh Khan, demanding rejection of bail to his son and calling for a boycott of all the products he endorses. Attacks were also mounted against Malik using hashtags such as #SendNawabMalikToJail.

In the blockbuster film Om Shanti Om, Shah Rukh Khan’s character famously says, ‘Picture abhi baaki hai, mere dost (The show is yet to get over, my friend)’. The Aryan Khan case has created ripples everywhere and brought many under the scanner. The son of the famous actor may be out on bail, but with Malik continuing to make allegations against Wankhede and the officer now running to court for protection, the show is yet to get over.


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Printable version | Jan 16, 2022 3:44:01 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/aryan-khan-arrest-sameer-wankhede-and-a-political-slugfest/article37243182.ece

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