ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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‘Professionalism’ of the Narcotics Control Bureau?

The Aryan Khan saga has exposed the ills of the NDPS Act and the criminal justice system.

Between 2014 and 2018, Mumbai saw an average of about 14,000 cases a year under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, 1985. If we assume that this trend continued thereafter, even with a dip, Mumbai will see an average of 35 cases per day under the NDPS Act. Nearly 90% of these cases (or about 30 out of 35) were related to the possession or consumption of cannabis. Of these thousands of cases, one that occurred on 3 October 2021 attracted enormous attention of the media and the masses, largely because it involved the arrest of Aryan Khan—the son of one of India’s biggest film stars, Shah Rukh Khan. The events after his arrest and the twists and turns in the case were covered with almost breathless hysteria by large sections of the media until he was granted bail by the Bombay High Court on 28 October 2021. Sobriety and factual accuracy were thrown out of the window as endless speculations, fuelled by a barely concealed schadenfreude for the troubles of one of India’s most prominent Muslims, blanketed the airwaves and social media.

Now that Aryan Khan has been cleared of any wrongdoing by the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) itself in the charge sheet filed last month, it is tempting to conclude that all’s well that ends well. Yet, it is worth remembering all the failures and flaws in the criminal justice system as exposed by this case. Starting with the flimsy basis for arresting Aryan Khan (WhatsApp chats discussing possible cannabis consum­ption), to the leaks by the NCB to the press about the “facts” of the case, the involvement of “stock witnesses” providing messaged state­ments about his “guilt,” the possible extortion bid, the questionable antecedents of the investigator Sameer Wankhede, the pusillanimity of the NDPS Special Court in denying bail for trivial reasons, among other things, showed up the underlying ugliness of what passes for the criminal justice system in India.

Let us not forget that Aryan Khan is a young man born into extraordinary privilege, albeit to a father who belongs to a religious minority community. His experience, while undoubtedly traumatic and unnecessary, still puts him in a far better position than most accused in the criminal justice system, in general, and drugs cases, in particular. He had access to material resources and connections beyond the imagination of most accused persons in this country. Whether he was made the scapegoat in a bid to distract from bigger issues, or the target of an extortion bid, or just in the wrong place at the wrong time is still a mystery that has no easy answer. Perhaps it is a combination of these three possibilities or all of them. That is not for us to investigate at the moment.

What this episode highlights once again is that the NDPS Act is a harmful law that treats a public health problem as a law and order one. Worse, it overturns the basic principles of criminal law (the presumption of innocence, bail not jail being the rule), giving enormous discretion to police and enforcement authorities to abuse the law with no consequences. It presumes guilt on the part of the accused, effectively putting the burden on them to prove their innocence and compounds this by making jail the norm, and bail the exception. The usual practice with a law such as the NDPS Act is an abuse of the process—the victims are usually too poor or underprivileged to be able to access legal remedies and prove their innocence. Its excesses are visible to the world only when the target of such a misuse is among the privileged elite.

Even as the world moves towards decriminalising the mere possession or consumption of cannabis, there has been little effort in this direction in India. Drug addiction remains a serious nationwide problem affecting various communities. It is a public health problem that requires a public health solution. A law-and-order approach to the problem only exacerbates it while creating new ones. Drug addicts do not end up seeking or getting the necessary medical attention, while enforcement authorities use discretionary powers under the law to target individuals or engage in rent-seeking. The NDPS Act is yet another example of the Indian state’s preference for over-criminalisation and unguided discretionary power in the hands of police authorities.

The NDPS Act’s antecedents lie in the United States’s (US) failed “War on Drugs” and the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s efforts to curry favour with the Ronald Reagan administration. Even as the US itself rethinks its “War on Drugs” as the opioid crisis grips the country, India seems to have learnt nothing from its experience with the NDPS Act. Even as Aryan Khan puts his bitter brush with the law behind him, on any given day, 30 or so Mumbaikars will continue to be harassed by the police using their powers under this law. His troubles may be over for the moment, but the destruction wrought by the NDPS Act will continue.


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Updated On : 11th Jun, 2022
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