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Politics of Death

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The probe into the actor’s death is an indictment of the media, the police, politicians and the film world. It has laid bare a dysfunctional social structure and selfish interests with hardly a sane voice being heard.

By Sanjay Raman Sinha

On June 14, the death of a promising actor sent shock­waves throughout India, especially in tinsel town. The media splashed headlines which depicted a life cut short prematurely of a star who blazed in the firmament briefly.

Sushant Singh Rajput, or SSR as he was popularly called, was found dead at his plush Bandra residence on that day. The mysterious circumstances in which his body was found gave rise to a host of uncomfortable questions and spawned many conspiracy theories. More than two and a half months after his death, the mystery has only got deeper and murkier. The crucial question is: Was Rajput’s death a murder or suicide?

Rajput’s life was a dream come true. A small town boy from Patna, he dreamed big and made it big. His fairy tale life followed a rainbow trajectory till it got mired in rumours of depression and drugs and led to his untimely death. Like many middle class boys, Rajput initially chose the tried-and-tested path to a better life and studied engineering in the prestigious Delhi College of Engineering. However, his dreams of stardom tugged at him and he left his studies midway to go to Mumbai.

Here he struggled and toiled. He did bit roles in TV till he made it big in Kis Desh Mein Hai Meraa Dil (2008), followed by soap opera Pavitra Rishta (2009-2011). He endeared himself to the masses with his screen persona and made a place in their hearts with his boyish charm and winning smile.

From television, Rajput moved on to films. Here also, he encountered success and became an upcoming star. He earned in crores and lived life king-size. If Rajput lived royally, he loved regally too. His first lady love was Ankita Lokhande, his co-star in Pavitra Rishta. Later, he moved on and started living with Rhea Chakraborty, another starlet, till they apparently fell out a few days before his death.

Rajput’s death is now inextricably meshed with Chakraborty, who has been accused of abetment to suicide, drug administering and money laundering. Following his death, national hysteria gripped the nation and accusations and counter-accusations flew fast.

Immediately after his death, charges of nepotism against a faceless, heartless Bollywood cabal emerged. Conspiracy theories gained currency. It was insinuated that, stung by Rajput’s success, a group of well-entrenched Bollywood big­wigs closed in and refused to give him work, which led to his death.

Meanwhile, Rajput’s family suspected Chakraborty of having a hand in his death. His father, KK Singh, asked for transfer of the case from Mumbai to Bihar (he resides in Patna) and demanded a CBI inquiry. With the CBI, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) now investigating the death, there is a parallel media trial going on as well. The story was too salacious to miss.

TV channels got leaks from the investigating agencies and every day kangaroo courts were set up to declare Chakraborty and other accused guilty. In the midst of this spectacle, Rajput’s family too found itself in the eye of the storm. As the family demanded justice for itself, it was at the receiving end of a probable legal action by Chakraborty herself.

The most tragic part of the whole story is how vested interests took over the case and how different narratives were spun to serve individual parties. These narratives are as follows:

KANGANA RANAUT

The actress is the enfant terrible of Bollywood. Her vitriolic outbursts in the past have often seen her being isolated. In the Rajput case too, her statements have led to the muddying of waters. Years back, Ranaut as a 16-year-old girl with no financial or emotional support, left her small, sleepy town in Mandi in Himachal Pradesh to make her way to the “big bad world” of Bollywood.

Her debut film was Mahesh Bhatt’s Gangster (2006). From here on, she proved her mettle in films and bagged three National Awards. She even co-directed a movie (Manikarnika) and set up her own production house. She has often made controversial statements about her colleagues and the alleged manipulation and exploitation she suffered at the hands of some big star or the other whom she dated and then broke up with.

She had also alleged how she was drugged and exploited by a self-appointed mentor (a character artiste) with whom she was forced to share part of her initial life in Mumbai. This lent credence to her tirade against the drug culture of B-town.

After the death of Rajput, as reports of alleged nepotism started gaining currency, Ranaut jumped on the bandwagon and started a veritable crusade against the so-called Nepotism Gang. She zealously pushed the insider-outsider theory and linked it with Rajput’s death.

The conversation around nepotism was first started by Ranaut on Karan Johar’s chat show Koffee with Karan in 2017, where she called the filmmaker the “flag-bearer” of nepotism. Apparently, Johar had been promoting young faces from filmi families in his movies and thus had displeased many outsiders, including Ranaut.

She was openly snubbed by Johar at a public function where he asked her to leave Bollywood if she didn’t like its personalities. This flashpoint led to more bile from Ranaut and she has ever since been attacking entrenched film moghuls.

Today, she stands alienated from mainstream Bollywood. Big producers are averse to signing her and big stars steer clear of her. Bollywood is divided into camps and Ranaut has attacked one and all. Her only hope of surviving and shining again is to make films and star in them herself, or work with indie producers. She has launched her own film production company.

With the Rajput case being the talk of the town, Ranaut has hitched herself to this issue. As people bay for the blood of the so-called manipulative gang of B-town bigwigs and drug-taking stars, Ranaut, by supporting Rajput, has gained sympathy, support and good­will. Naturally, her image has improved. This will go a long way in cornering brand endorsements and film projects. Her personal attacks have also found a platform. Coincidentally, Ranaut has a pro-BJP leaning and found the setting perfect to unleash a tirade against actresses Deepika Padukone, Swara Bhaskar and Tapsee Pannu who had supported the anti-CAA protests.

POLITICAL PLAY

The tragic death of Rajput is also being exploited to the hilt by political parties and has created a standoff between Bihar and Maharashtra. The demand for a CBI inquiry has created a fissure. The demand was spearheaded by BJP leaders like actor-turned-BJP MP Rupa Ganguly and Rajput’s cousin, Neeraj Singh, an MLA in Bihar. Subramanian Swamy had also written letters to Prime Minister Narendra Modi demanding a CBI probe. BSP supremo Mayawati too jumped onto the bandwagon. Disillusioned with the Congress over developments in Rajasthan, she too urged a CBI probe.

The controversy has also given a handle to the BJP to attack the Shiv Sena, part of the ruling coalition in Maha­rashtra. The state has a Shiv Sena Congress-NCP government which was formed after worsting the BJP in a power struggle. The BJP has not forgotten or forgiven this and political slander is one way to get even and also gain eventually from it.

The politics of death has become a full-blown issue, with the name of Aditya Thackeray, Maharashtra’s environment minister and Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray’s son, being dragged into the whole affair.

Meanwhile, former Maharashtra CM Narayan Rane linked Rajput’s death with that of Disha Salian, his former manager. “Both Sushant and Disha were murdered…the post-mortem reveals that Disha was raped and murdered,” Rane thundered. He alleged that a “Maharashtra minister” was present at the site of the crime. Rane’s son Nilesh insinuated Aditya Thackeray’s involvement.

In the face of these direct attacks, Aditya was forced to respond. He said:

“I have relations with many people in Bollywood, but that is not a crime. The Thackeray family, and I personally am being targeted with slander by disgruntled political elements. This is low-level dirty politics.”

Another storyline is that the BJP is trying to soil the clean image of Aditya. Of late, he has emerged as a sane and sanguine figure in the Shiv Sena. A leader of the youth and a moderate, it is alleged that the BJP wants to sully this image and is using Rajput’s death as a handy tool.

Bihar elections are another reason for politicians from this state to wade into these waters. As the polls will be held by the year-end, politicians have found ammunition to lead the charge for the hustings. Emotions are high in Bihar over the death of Rajput. Politicians know this well. Hence, it was no surprise when Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar personally intervened and asked the centre for a CBI inquiry.

Parties, cutting across the political divide in Bihar, have demanded a CBI probe in this case. RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav held a press conference with another actor-politician from Bihar, Shekhar Suman, over Rajput’s death.

NDA constituent Lok Janshakti Party president Chirag Paswan and Jan Adhikar Party president Pappu Yadav also asked for a CBI probe. Clearly, the son-of-the-soil issue is going to be encashed by political parties in the Bihar hustings.

CASTE FACTOR

Caste politics has also fired the sympathies of politicians over Rajput’s death. He belongs to the Rajput caste. However, he dropped Rajput from his name in 2017 to protest against the Karni Sena’s attack on Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Padmavat. But the caste label has not been forgotten by state politicians.

Rajputs form about four percent of Bihar’s population, but they are one of the dominant communities there. In the last assembly election in 2015, the grand alliance of the JD(U)-RJD-Congress had fielded 39 upper caste candidates, of whom 12 were Rajputs. The BJP had given tickets to 65 upper caste candidates, 30 of them Rajputs. There are 19 Rajput MLAs in the current Bihar assembly. As a community, the Rajputs can influence results in 40 of the 243 constituencies in the state. No wonder politicians are leaving no stone unturned to cash in on Rajput’s name.

POLICE FORCES

Rajput’s death and the resultant controversy have cast a shadow over the Mumbai and Bihar police too. There have been accusations that both the police forces were serving their political masters.

The Mumbai police began investigations on June 14 when the actor was found dead. At the very outset, without any solid evidence, it proclaimed that it was a case of suicide. In fact, right after Rajput’s death, charges of manipulative film producers crafting biased film contracts and snatching away deals from him emerged on social media. Twitterati and many celebrities concluded that his death was in some way connected to nepotism in Bollywood.

It speaks volumes about the gullibility of the Mumbai police that it followed the social media trails in its probe and completely lost itself. As days went by, it became clear that it was totally at sea and not following investigative norms.

The police began its inquest by registering a case under Section 174 of the Criminal Procedure Code. Under it, a case of suicide is not subject to investigation. Rather, the police is supposed to ascertain the cause of death, and the process is called an inquest, not an investigation.

However, despite registering a case under Section 174, it proceeded to question bigwigs of the film industry on charges of alleged nepotism. Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Mahesh Bhatt, Apoorva Mehta (CEO of Dharma Productions) and several others were grilled by the police.

Meanwhile, a parallel media trial was going on with TV journalists ferreting out evidence and a guest panel dissecting the case every night. Clearly, pressure was building up on the Mumbai police to stick to its basic premise of suicide, which it had so confidently proclaimed. The way it botched up the case led to charges of it being biased.

As Aditya Thackeray’s involvement in the death of Disha Salian is being insinuated, each effort of the Mumbai police to handle this complex case is being seen as a way to “manage” the probe and protect those in power. With overtones of drug peddling and the complicity of top politicians and Bollywood honchos in this case, the Mumbai police is finding it hard to earn back its credibility.

Matters became worse when Bihar IPS officer Vinay Tiwari, who came to Mumbai for the probe, was quarantined by the BMC. As leaders of all political parties condemned this act, the Mumbai police and the administration were in a quandary. As the police squirmed under the spotlight, the Sheena Bora case was recalled.

When that case made headlines, Mumbai’s then police commissioner Rakesh Maria was promoted and transferred as director general of the Home Guards. It was speculated then that Maria was transferred as the Maharashtra government led by Devendra Fadnavis was unhappy with his role in the Sheena Bora murder case. This was yet another case which showed how strongly the Mumbai police’s reins were in the hands of the political establishment. Interestingly, Fadnavis has now cast aspersions on the role of the Mumbai police.

Meanwhile, the Bihar police was up in arms against the treatment meted out to its police personnel who had gone to Mumbai for the probe. DGP Gupteshwar Pandey slammed the Mumbai police on TV and even condemned Rhea Chakraborty for her alleged complicity in the case. Pandey was seen asking for justice for Rajput. He also became the talking point on social media with questions being asked about the propriety of a uniformed police officer indulging in televised wrangling.

Pandey, apparently, has strong political ambitions. In 2009, when the Lok Sabha elections were to be held, he positioned himself to contest them from Buxar on a BJP ticket. To do this, he took VRS on March 14, 2009, as no serving officer can contest elections. However, things couldn’t materialise accordingly.  Now with the Bihar assembly elections approaching, it is rumoured that Pandey may enter the polls once again. His tenure as DGP ends in February 2021, but the grapevine says that he may resign before that and contest on either a JD(U) or a BJP ticket.

MULTIPLE investigating AGENCIES

Rajput’s death has now become a very high-profile case. After the Supreme Court’s verdict ordering the CBI to investigate this case, the FIR filed in Patna was transferred to it. Also, the ED has suo motu initiated a probe into alleged suspicious transfers of funds from Rajput’s accounts. The NCB is also probing the drug angle.

The only federal investigative agency that has not launched an investigation is the National Investigation Agency, which inquires into terrorism cases.

As powerful investigative agencies probe the case, each is zealously protecting its turf. Snippets of investigation are religiously fed to the media. Clearly, each one is looking at its own gains and breakthroughs.

SOCIAL MEDIA & FRINGE PERSONALITIES

Not surprisingly, absolute strangers hogged the limelight in this ensuing media circus. Sample this: Claiming foul play, Karni Sena member Surjeet Singh Rathore claimed to know that Rajput’s friend Sandip Singh was in touch with someone from Dubai. He was called as a prime time guest on major TV channels. It is altogether a different matter that as a producer, he has a movie lined up for release and some publicity won’t harm the film’s prospects.

Social media, especially YouTube and Facebook, are also awash with perfect strangers coming up with salacious gossip. Many have turned into arm chair Sherlock Holmes and are spending hours dissecting crime scene photographs and analysing autopsy reports. Countless YouTube channels are garnering millions of “likes” and subscriptions and minting revenue. Fringe B-town actors, out of work models and social media geeks are making hay while the sun shines.

As charges fly thick and fast about Bollywood nepotism, suppression of outsiders, drug abuse by stars and the operation of a sinister cabal, hardly any representative voice is being heard to counter all these calumny. However, some old actors have voiced their concerns; Shatrughan Sinha, Shekhar Suman and Mukesh Khanna, to name a few.

One way to explain their vocal stand is that they have now nothing to lose or gain from filmdom. At the most, they stand to shine once again, maybe in the political firmament.

The Rajput death probe is at once an indictment of the media, the police, politicians and the film world. The web of events has brought to the fore the way our society operates. The stress and strain of such a death probe has laid bare a dysfunctional social structure and vested interests. It has also shown a society which resists change and strives to maintain status quo.

Lead Picture: Facebook.com
Sushant Singh Rajput’s cousin, Neeraj Singh, a Bihar MLA, was one of the politicians who spearheaded the demand for a CBI probe

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