The Aryan Khan case is about constitutionalism

There has been a complete lack of proportionality in the system’s response. With the lower courts taking little risk, and the NCB dragging Aryan Khan’s name through the mud, the case is now a spectator sport, with little to no evidence
Silence offers no protective shield if a State apparatus decides to turn vindictive. Because silent is essentially what Shah Rukh Khan has been for several years. But he, like other actors in the film industry, must ask themselves, what that has got for them (AP) PREMIUM
Silence offers no protective shield if a State apparatus decides to turn vindictive. Because silent is essentially what Shah Rukh Khan has been for several years. But he, like other actors in the film industry, must ask themselves, what that has got for them (AP)
Updated on Oct 29, 2021 06:57 PM IST
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A friend of Shah Rukh Khan likened the prolonged detention of his son, Aryan Khan, without bail, to a surreal hostage situation, albeit court-sanctioned.

The statement that would have sounded outlandish in the first few days after he was taken into custody now has more than a ring of truth to it. Whether it’s the viral video of a dodgy private detective urging the superstar’s son to talk into a phone or the cheesy selfies in custody, the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB)’s credibility is now highly suspect.

Why was a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) worker present during the raid on the cruise ship from where Aryan Khan was first arrested? Why is KP Gosavi, the shady detective, holding the accused by the arm and escorting him as if he is a low-grade bouncer at a seedy bar? If this was indeed the unravelling of an international conspiracy — the NCB’s reason for opposing bail — then should BJP workers and mercenaries have been deployed?

You can fault Nawab Malik, the Maharashtra minister who first outed the presence of these freelancers at the drugs raid, for conflict of interest — his son-in-law was implicated in a narcotics case by Sameer Wankhede, the same officer who is now the target of his daily ire.

You can say there is a murky focus here on whether Wankhede is Muslim or not (as Malik claims) with an unfair violation of his first wife’s privacy. But, then, by playing out the Aryan Khan arrest in the full public gaze, and by reducing it for a made-for-TV tamasha, with selective leaks of WhatsApp chats to particular anchors, NCB has forfeited any rights to privacy.

Maybe Aryan Khan consumed drugs; maybe he didn’t. What seems unambiguous is this: There has been a complete lack of proportionality in the system’s response.

Two messages emerge from this sordid saga. First, public relations (PR) managers of big film stars should review their counsel on “duck your head, lie low, and don’t open your mouth”. Silence offers no protective shield if a State apparatus decides to turn vindictive. Because silent is essentially what Shah Rukh Khan has been for several years. He may not be a visible cheerleader for any party but he has also not been his previous avatar, which was cheeky, argumentative, often ironic, and blunt.

But he, like other actors in the film industry, must ask themselves, what that has got for them. As Nidhi Parmar, a film producer, told me, “Bollywood is the new Salem, and actors, the new witches.” The schadenfreude, the toxic, gladiatorial delight at watching someone rich and famous brought to their knees is what India’s new spectator sport is all about.

The second message is how little risk most of India’s lower courts are willing to take. There are exceptions, of course, like the Delhi court that did not hesitate to protect the fundamentals of freedom while granting bail to Disha Ravi, the young climate activist. But for the most part, our lower courts have been status quoist in playing to whatever they might imagine the dominant narrative of the age to be.

The two most striking examples of this are what happened with stand-up comic Munawar Faruqui, repeatedly denied bail after being arrested for a joke he did not crack at the event he was picked up from — and the way the Allahabad High Court responded to the arrest warrants against executives at Amazon, after web-series, Tandav, ran into trouble.

In both cases, the trial went all the way to the Supreme Court (SC) before some form of justice and balance could be restored. But what if you do not have access to a battery of lawyers? What if you do not have money to pay them? What if you are a forgotten cog in a wheel that keeps turning and turning till it crushes you under its own weight? Justice Deepak Gupta, who retired from the SC, called the lower courts that handled some of these cases “both a travesty and a joke.”

We forget that as the process becomes the punishment, an actual acquittal (or conviction) could come years later. In the meantime, the scars are permanent.

Faruqui, who has had to cancel his shows after new threats, told me that he can no longer sleep at night. Rhea Chakraborty has stepped back into the shadows after bravely fighting her case “like a tigress”, as her lawyer described it. And these are people, who have either fame or creative recognition.

One shudders to think what happens to those who we do not know about. Government data shows a disproportionately high number of undertrials are Muslims, Dalits, and tribals.

The Aryan Khan story is not Big Boss.

It is, at its heart, about constitutionalism.

Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Barkha Dutt is consulting editor, NDTV, and founding member, Ideas Collective. She tweets as @BDUTT.

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Friday, May 20, 2022