The questionable “drug bust” involving Aryan Khan has reinforced fears that no one — particularly critics — is safe in an environment where majoritarianism reigns.
Indian jails are grossly overcrowded with the ill-kempt facilities packed with nearly half a million prisoners, an overwhelming majority of whom have not yet been convicted. But it is the plight of one jailed person awaiting trial that has average Indians extremely agitated these days.
Aryan Khan, the 23-year-old son of Bollywood’s biggest star, Shah Rukh Khan, is in jail facing a host of accusations relating to drugs and many in the country are fretting and fuming over what they believe is the latest in a long line of brazen instances of vendetta by apparatuses of the state.
Under normal circumstances, charges as serious as those related to the abuse and procurement of drugs should have alarmed a largely conservative country such as India. But India is experiencing abnormal times.
Ever since Narendra Modi led his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power, first in 2014 and then resoundingly again in 2019, the world’s biggest democracy with 1.3 billion people has become more polarised.
Amid fears that the current rulers are hell-bent on replacing India’s time-tested egalitarian ethos with their own narrow vision of creating a country that gives primacy to Hindus, almost everything that happens in India is now fiercely contested. The present travails of the Khans, beginning with Aryan’s arrest for his alleged involvement in a planned drug party on a cruise ship off the shore of Mumbai earlier this month, is no exception to this fast-developing and worrisome pattern.
Among many things, the case against the younger Khan, invoked under the draconian Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act of 1985, which absurdly shifts the onus of proving one’s innocence on the accused than the accuser, seems to suffer from gaping holes. For one, no drugs were found on Aryan when he was detained by personnel of the dreaded Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), who have often faced accusations of engaging in fishing expeditions for the purpose of headline hunting.
Last year, they triggered a media frenzy by arresting starlet Rhea Chakraborty for allegedly procuring a minuscule quantity of marijuana for her actor-boyfriend, whose death by suicide created a furore. A year later, no visible progress has been made, and Chakraborty remains in limbo. Though freed from jail where she spent a month, she has neither been acquitted nor convicted. Meantime, her dreams of making a career in films crashed even before it took off.
The case against Aryan suffers from very many similar inconsistencies. The tip-off for the raid on the cruise ship came from a person with proven links to the BJP. A witness to the case built by the NCB is ironically a fugitive himself, on the run in a slew of cheating cases.
Another star witness has dropped a bigger bombshell, accusing NCB officials and some of their associates of attempting to extort large sums of money from Aryan’s father, by far India’s richest and most successful matinee idol.
But more than anything else, what has alarmed a sizable section of Indians is that many of the agencies of the state are showing signs of having gone rogue, doing whatever they wish and currying favours of those in power.
In a recently published book titled The Silent Coup, journalist Josy Joseph has catalogued in great detail how many of the government apparatuses – the police included – zero in on innocent victims to serve the larger interests of their masters and line their own pockets. To many, Aryan is at the receiving end because of his father – a Muslim icon in a country where the religious minority is suspected to be under siege.
At a time when interfaith marriages are actively discouraged, members of minority communities are coming under physical attacks, and Islamic names of important sites are being changed to ones that sound more Hindu, an academic has argued that the case against Aryan could be a plot against Shah Rukh – to dismantle the ‘monument’ of amity and excellence that he had come to represent in a polity currently high on religious hatred.
That even the fame and wealth of Khans have failed to protect them has had a chilling effect. Though the abuse and over-reach by state agencies have not been only a recent phenomenon – they happened even before Modi became the prime minister – the case involving Aryan has reinforced fears that none is safe in an environment where majoritarianism reigns. Disagreeing or dissenting can have dire consequences, and India’s judiciary tasked with upholding the rule of law is increasingly floundering in the face of the changed circumstances.
Aryan, spending time behind bars despite a magistrate finding the case against him extremely sketchy, is just yet another victim of what is being viewed as an insensitive and vindictive system.
Dozens of activists and academics across the country are similarly paying a heavy price. The charges against them vary – from engineering riots in Delhi to plotting violence in the Maharashtra town of Bhima Koregaon. But the common thread that significantly binds them together is that they are critics of the government.
Buttressing the charges against them are some ludicrous claims. An activist has been deemed communally divisive for beginning a speech with the Islamic salutation – Assalamu Alaykum (peace be upon you). A journalist is in prison on the suspicion of being dangerous for primarily writing on Muslim affairs.
No wonder, the case against Aryan Khan has many pondering whether India that boasted of rule of law has changed. Or, is changing for the worse.
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