The death of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput in June in his home in Bandra, Mumbai, and the recent arrest of his girlfriend, actor Rhea Chakraborty, for allegedly procuring drugs, has had ramifications not just in Mumbai, but in Bengaluru too. The gaze of the police turned to the Kannada film industry and to high-profile parties where socialites and actors allegedly mingle with drug dealers to procure and consume narcotics.
With two female actors arrested and more being questioned for their alleged links to a narcotics syndicate, the Kannada film industry is in the midst of an unprecedented drug scandal. This has led to a prolonged media trial that has come under severe criticism for not only its sensationalism but also misogyny.
Also read | Scope of CCB probe into drugs racket may stretch beyond film industry: Karnataka Home Minister Basavaraj Bommai
The scandal has had political ramifications too, with Opposition leaders accusing the State government of diverting public attention away from real problems such as the pandemic, rising unemployment, and floods that have affected parts of Karnataka.
A can of worms
The Bengaluru Central Crime Branch (CCB) polices investigation into the drug racket followed raids in Bengaluru conducted by the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), which is also investigating alleged narcotics use by people associated with the Rajput case. The NCB busted a drug ring in Bengaluru, and in doing so opened a can of worms.
During the raids in the last week of August, the NCB arrested three peddlers in Bengaluru for dealing with synthetic drugs like ecstasy pills and LSD blots. At the time, NCB Deputy Director (operations) K.P.S. Malhotra said in a media statement that preliminary investigation has revealed that the accused used to supply drugs to affluent sections of society, including prominent musicians and actors as well as to college students and youngsters.
The same week, the CCB of the Bengaluru Police arrested Ravi Shankar, a second division clerk at an RTO office in the city, after surveillance and ground work on him for three months for his alleged role in drug peddling. His interrogation led to the revelation of more names and the arrests of Bengaluru-based multilingual actors Ragini Dwivedi and Sanjjanaa Galrani.
Actor-couple Diganth and Aindrita Ray have also been questioned. The two together have acted in many successful Kannada films and also made brief forays into Bollywood. Another high-profile accused in the case, whom the police were still tracking down at the time of going to press, is Aditya Alva, the son of the late Minister Jeevaraj Alva and brother-in-law of Bollywood actor Vivek Oberoi. His luxurious farmhouse in Hebbal, allegedly the venue of many of these parties, was raided earlier this month.
Sandeep Patil, Joint Commissioner (Crime), leading the CCB, said the investigation had for the first time unravelled an ecosystem of lavish parties for the rich in the city, whose organisers ensured narcotics was freely available… The actors we have arrested have consumed drugs and promoted these events.
The CCB has made 14 arrests in the case till date, which includes a few businessmen acting as sub-peddlers. There are three pillars: party organisers, drug peddlers who supplied narcotics to these parties, and celebrities who participated in and promoted these events, all of which we have been able to crack in the case, he said.
Investigations have identified three persons noted socialite and event manager Viren Khanna, Aditya Alva, and Sheikh Fazil as party organisers. So far, only Khanna has been arrested, while the other two are on the run.
Khannas parties, held at pubs, microbreweries and star hotels, were popular among the citys elite for many years. Venues used to vie to host his Holi parties every year, sources in the industry said. He was even a police informer. He provided information on rave parties where narcotics use was rampant. That information led to several raids. But while he gave information about his competitor party organisers, he ensured that his own parties went under the radar, sources said. Efforts are on to arrest Aditya Alva and Sheikh Fazil, a senior official said.
These party organisers used to host after-parties at dedicated apartments or sometimes in their own homes till the wee hours. These after-parties, where substance abuse was high, were hosted for a close circle of individuals. Many of the actors being probed now were regular at these after-parties as well, sources said.
Two dealers, both foreign nationals from Africa, have also been arrested for supplying drugs to these parties. How they sourced them is being investigated.
Also read | Bengaluru Police arrest 31 people in raids
Star power
In the midst of these revelations, Kannada filmmaker Indrajit Lankesh announced that he was aware of the nexus between the film industry and drug dealers, claiming that 4 crore worth of drugs were sold during the lockdown. Though he was summoned by the CCB, he could not provide any evidence for his claims.
 The police claim that the actors under scrutiny were not mere bystanders or users. Some of those questioned were not only regulars at some of these parties, but also promoted them to attract crowds. They were paid for the same as well. Party organisers made their money through the cover fee, while the venues made money from food and alcohol bills, a senior officer said.
Also read | CCB quizzes Indrajit Lankesh
Ragini and Sanjjanaa have been booked for peddling drugs, not just consumption. This is quite similar to actor Rhea Chakraborty from whom no drugs were recovered. However, with no significant recoveries made from them either, several doubts have been raised over their alleged role. CCB officials said they have made these arrests based on a huge cache of electronic evidence, and after analysing call detail records and messages from instant messaging apps that allegedly show they were in constant touch with a known drug peddler and were sourcing narcotics for others as well. Sleuths said they are confident that the evidence they have amassed will be enough to get a conviction.
All the actors have denied these allegations. Raginis parents have alleged that she has been falsely implicated.
Attention diversion
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has tried to build a campaign around the enforcement saying it is striving for a drug-free Karnataka. The State police have made several seizures of narcotics, especially marijuana, across Karnataka in the last two weeks, including a big haul of 1.3 tonnes of marijuana from Kalaburagi. Not a day has gone without drug busts and seizures of marijuana in the last two weeks. However, many have argued that this only points to lax enforcement before and a concerted campaign now.
Also read | 1,350 kg of marijuana recovered in Karnataka
While the Chief Minister has remained silent on the issue, Home Minister Basavaraj Bommai, presently under treatment for COVID-19 and not available for comment, has repeatedly claimed that for the first time this government has given the police a free hand to act against the drug mafia. The BJP will ensure a drug-free Karnataka.
However, this has also backfired against the party. After she was arrested, videos of Ragini campaigning for the BJP candidate in the K.R. Pet bypolls in 2019, for which Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappas son, B.Y. Vijayendra, was in charge, went viral. The BJP was quick to distance itself from her and issued multiple statements claiming that it was neither accountable nor answerable to the actors activities in her personal and professional life.
Since the onset of the case, almost every day, photographs of prominent politicians from across the political spectrum, including incumbent Ministers, with those allegedly linked to the narcotics syndicate are surfacing in the local media. Police officials said they are going strictly by evidence and photographs are no proof of anyones involvement.
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The non-stop media coverage fuelled by allegations from activists known to be close to the BJP claiming that Opposition politicians have links to the narcotics trade has been met with outrage in many quarters. Social activist Prashanth Sambaragi, who also jumped into the fray, claimed to have evidence against Congress MLA B.Z. Zameer Ahmed Khan. Both he and Indrajit made several allegations without providing any evidence for their claims, said CCB officials.
Opposition leaders have accused the government of employing a diversionary campaign to escape accountability for the failures of the government, as Leader of the Opposition in the Karnataka Legislative Assembly Siddaramaiah termed it. Noted media critic Krishna Prasad, who edits Indian Journalism Review, said there was a sense of deja vu with the coverage coming amidst the spotlight on the Sushant Singh Rajput case that also smacks of an attempt to divert peoples attention from more pressing issues.
Former Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy alleged money from dance bars and the drug mafia was used to poach MLAs from the Janata Dal (Secular)-Congress coalition resulting in the toppling of his government, a charge vehemently denied by defectors who are now Ministers in the BJP government. Siddaramaiah has demanded a judicial probe into the scandal.
Also read | Deputy Chief Minister Laxman Savadi hits back at Kumaraswamy for his remarks on drug mafia
Media trial and moral policing
 The media has also been criticised for moral policing and misogynist overtones in the coverage. Nashe Raniyaru, Drugginiyaru (queens on a high, drug queens) are some of the names sections of the media have given the two actors arrested in the case, who have remained the prime focus of coverage, even though the police say their attention is on the party organisers and peddlers who are the source of the narcotics.
Kannada writer and critic M.S. Ashadevi has been critical of the misogynist tone of the media coverage on the case. I am not condoning drug abuse. Let the guilty be punished. But it is evident that these women have become convenient symbols of a larger malaise in society. The language used in the media is extremely patriarchal, laced with innuendos, and objectifies them. This extreme misogyny and gender bias seem to be as dangerous as drug abuse, she said. This may only help the bigger culprits to escape scrutiny, she added.
Krishna Prasad said the coverage of the case smacks of a philistine view prevalent in the Kannada media. The coverage clearly shows a lack of understanding of the drug scene, nightlife in the city and even the film industry. It not only smacks of misogyny but has slowly turned xenophobic as most of those arrested are not native Kannadigas, he said.
There have been muted protests from the film industry, echoing sentiments expressed by noted actor Jaya Bachchan in the Rajya Sabha recently, that the entire industry was being tarred with the same brush. D.R. Jairaj, president, Karnataka Film Chamber of Commerce, said the media was unfairly tarnishing the image of the film industry for the acts of a few, which were also yet to be proven. I have been interacting with the government seeking help to restart film shoots and reopen theatres to salvage a bleeding industry. Following the media coverage tarnishing the industry, I felt embarrassed to talk to the government and seek help, he said.
Noted filmmaker Kavitha Lankesh said she had never come across drug abuse in the many decades she has been part of the industry. Even if there are stray cases, it is like any other industry, she said. There is a clear tone of moral policing especially targeted at women in the industry, branding them and resorting to character assassination, she said. Filmmaker K.M. Chaitanya said even if there was drug abuse in the Kannada film industry, it was similar to any other film industry or any other industry in the State. There is something amiss here as a few individual cases are being picked up and extrapolated to tarnish the entire industry, he said.
Cryptocurrency comes in handy
The investigation has also drawn flak for allegedly scratching the surface and not netting the big fish. For all the claims of uncovering a larger nexus of parties and narcotics trade among Bengalurus affluent elite, it is surprising that not a single person from the families of politicians and industrialists of the city, known to have such a lifestyle, have been questioned. Even those arrested from the film industry are outsiders, not entrenched in the industry establishment, said a former top police officer, who did not wish to be named.
Dismissing allegations that the investigations are selective, City Police Commissioner Kamal Pant said the investigators were given a free hand. All arrests were based on evidence and no one who is found to be involved will be spared, he said.
Also read | Seizure of 1.25 crore of narcotics turns spotlight on DJs
However, the former top police officer said the drug menace in Bengaluru was worsening by the day and posing new challenges. It was affecting youngsters from affluent families with easy money, he said. Over the years, there have been multiple accidents and brawls involving those from the families of politicians and even from the film industry that raised strong suspicion of narcotics abuse. But investigation into these instances has glossed over this aspect, he alleged.
One reason why the drug menace is worsening is because there is easy access to synthetic drugs via the dark net. These are paid for using cryptocurrency. Recently the local police investigated a case involving a gang led by a young college graduate. He allegedly imported ecstasy and LSD from other countries through the dark net, paid for them with cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, and then used app-based delivery services to courier the shipped consignments to clients in Bengaluru.
Narcotics hub
When Pant took charge as Bengaluru Police Commissioner, he said taking action against the drug menace would be a priority. Speaking to The Hindu, when he took charge just over a month ago, he said, It is a commitment to our children. At least three of his immediate predecessors promised that putting a check on the narcotics trade would be a top priority during their tenure.
Narcotics trade not only harms our youngsters but also generates sinful employment, easy money and promotes other crimes like rowdyism apart from brawls and accidents. Working purely on a demand-supply dynamic, the narcotics situation in the city has been worsening over the years. It cannot be seen purely from a crime enforcement angle. Its high prevalence is linked to the burgeoning growth of the city, its booming economy, easy money and stressed lifestyles, a former Bengaluru Police Commissioner said. He added that he was unhappy with how little he could do to check the menace during his tenure. Anti-narcotics operations need focused and patient hard work. We have to collect intelligence and later carry out investigations that result in convictions. Rarely does being Police Commissioner of a city like Bengaluru offer such time, he said.
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Bengaluru is often described as the hub of narcotics in south India. Marijuana remains most widely used due to its affordability and easy availability. The city gets a bulk of its supply of marijuana by road from the forests near Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh and Odisha. Multiple coordination meetings have been held with the police forces of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha over the issue, sources said.
A tangled web
However, the more lethal and pricier synthetic drugs are fast gaining ground. Like all other metro cities the trend has been towards synthetic drugs like MDMA/ecstasy pills, LSD and cocaine in the city. We have observed that the availability of narcotics was not greatly affected even during the lockdown. We have found several cases during the pandemic as well, said Amit Ghawate, Zonal Director, NCB, Bengaluru.
A section of middle class professionals, especially those working in highly stressful and competitive environments like the Information Technology and start-up sectors, with high pay scales make for a significant section of the clientele for synthetic narcotics in the city apart from the rich with easy money. The preferred poison of the poor working class has remained marijuana, said sources in the City Police.
Also read | International drug racket operating on Dark Web busted
Synthetic drugs are mostly sourced from abroad. They are smuggled into the country predominantly through the air route hidden in cargo, in person or through postal services or couriers. And they are increasingly being procured via the dark web, Ghawate said.
For instance, the Customs at the Kempegowda International Airport seized 1 crore worth of ecstasy pills hidden inside foot massage machines on September 10. City police are now rearing a dedicated dog squad trained to sniff out narcotics to be deployed at the Kempegowda International Airport .
The City Police have recently cracked three cases where narcotics were being procured through the dark web, including a racket where a group of Disc Jockeys (DJs) at the citys prominent pubs were peddling synthetic drugs so procured. The kingpin of this racket is still at large. Investigations had then revealed that the same drug would be sold at 2,000-10,000 as the night progressed and the particular network was supplying narcotics to other DJs in Mumbai, Kerala and Goa as well.
Most of these peddlers procuring drugs from the dark web have an understanding with the postal/courier personnel to deliver the parcels without raising any suspicions and ensure that the person taking the final delivery is not identified. Police have also arrested five postal personnel in connection with such a case in the city in February earlier this year.
Also read | The focus is on tracing drugs supply chain and breaking it
We have been able to enter the dark web networks. A constant surveillance of peddlers has paid us dividends. But what has remained a challenge is to bring to book the suppliers as they are stationed abroad. Many have masked their locations as well. We have cracked cases where narcotics came from diverse locations in Central and Eastern Europe and Canada, said Sandeep Patil, Joint Commissioner (Crime), Bengaluru. NCB being the nodal agency can work with other international enforcement agencies and can go to the source of the narcotics in other countries. We will work in co-ordination with the local authorities as well, Ghawate said.
The ongoing investigation has unravelled only one of the several unconnected nodes of the narcotic network in the city, the police said. But we hope a crackdown like this instils the fear of enforcement and has a chilling effect on other networks as well. We expect the party circuits that are breeding grounds for narcotic trade to be down for another year at least, even as we intend to expand our probe, said a senior police official.
With inputs from Shilpa Sebastian R. and Aparna Narrain in Bengaluru and Girish Pattanshetti in Hubballi