India riveted by drug case involving Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan's son

Fans holding a poster of Aryan Khan outside the residence of Shah Rukh Khan in Mumbai, on Oct 30, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW DELHI - The drug case involving Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan's 23-year-old son has dominated headlines in India, and triggered a debate on everything from the country's drug laws, drug investigating agency to celebrity children.

Some believe it has also exposed fault lines in Indian society.

The junior Khan, who has mostly kept out of the limelight till now, was arrested on Oct 2 during a raid by the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), which acted on a tip-off about drugs on board a cruise ship that was due to sail from Mumbai to the state of Goa.

No drugs were found on the 23-year-old but he was charged by the NCB for various offences related to possession, consumption and sale of illegal substances, all of which could lead to a maximum jail sentence of 20 years under the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (NDPS). Drug consumption or possession is a criminal offence in India.

The NCB found 6g of cannabis on Arbaaz Merchant, a friend of Khan.

Both men were granted bail on Thursday (Oct 28) but a lower court's observation that Khan had "conscious possession" as he knew about the drugs on his friend triggered heated debate on whether the NCB was overreaching, the role of the lower judiciary and whether a celebrity's offspring was being used to set an example.

"NDPS, of course, attracts stringent punishment and because of that, the quality of evidence required is of a higher standard. In this case, the prosecution said there is no recovery from Khan and only 6g were found on his friend. So, at the most, it is a case of consumption. The law distinguishes between consumer, supplier and cultivator/manufacturer. The consumer is supposed to be a victim," said Supreme Court lawyer Shilpi Jain.

Khan was released from a jail in Mumbai on Saturday morning.

Under the law, addicts can get immunity by volunteering to go for treatment.

"What seems to have happened is that this case is under the glare of the media, and investigation agencies, which feel more accountable to justify the arrest, seem to have invoked sections that do not ordinarily apply. It is straight out of a Hindi movie," added the lawyer.

Two witnesses used by the NCB in the case also appear to have fallen through. One took a selfie with Khan that went viral and his new-found fame resulted in the police learning that he is wanted in a cheating case.

The second witness accused NCB investigators of trying to extort 250 million rupees (S$4.5 million) from Shah Rukh Khan, leading to a probe into NCB lead investigator Sameer Wankhede, who has denied the charge and said he and his family are being harassed.

Ms Jain said the case had also taken on political overtones. The NCB officers involved in the case are under the federal government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Maharashtra state government, as the case took place in Mumbai, which is under the rival Shiv Sena party.

In between, theories over what is behind the case have come fast and furious.

Aryan Khan being escorted to court by Narcotics Control Bureau officials in Mumbai on Oct 8, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

Music composer Vishal Dadlani tweeted that Khan's family is being used as "a soft target" to divert attention from a massive drug haul at Mundra port, in Gujarat, a charge taken up by some opposition parties. Some 3,000kg of heroin was seized from a shipment on Sept 13 and the drug haul received scant media attention, compared with the Aryan Khan case.

The fault lines in society were clearly apparent online in the reaction to the Khan case.

Social media trolls gleefully concluded it was comeuppance for rich and privileged children of Bollywood stars.

Others said Khan was being targeted because he is a Muslim, underlining the deep religious polarisation within society.

Shah Rukh Khan is married to a Hindu and the couple is seen as a stellar example of religious unity at a time when Hindu nationalist groups have targeted inter-religious marriages.

Mr Khan himself has warned of religious polarisation, declaring in 2015 that it would take "India into the dark ages".

Shah Rukh Khan, a Muslim, is married to Gauri Khan, a Hindu, and the couple is seen as a stellar example of religious unity. PHOTO: GAURIKHAN/INSTAGRAM

"There are many threads in this case: Hindu-Muslim, rich-poor and politics. It shows the deep religious polarisation of society," said sociologist Shiv Vishwanathan.

Yet another question that has emerged is whether Bollywood has a drug problem. The film industry has been under the spotlight since the suicide of actor Sushant Singh Rajput last year. Fans believe that he was murdered even as NCB went after his girlfriend and fellow actor Rhea Chakraborty for obtaining drugs for him.

The case appears to have lost steam since she was offered bail but a host of celebrities, including Deepika Padukone and Ananya Pandey, have been questioned by the NCB recently.

"Ever since the Sushant Singh Rajput case, Bollywood has been seen as dysfunctional and disoriented. They are being thrashed," said Mr Vishwanathan.

"But this (Aryan Khan case) has become a sad spectacle."

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