Chakraborty and her brother Showik have been in jail for nearly a month as federal investigators from the Narcotics Control Bureau carried out a major probe into the allegedly widespread procurement and use of illegal drugs by stars of Hindi cinema.
The case has gripped India, receiving wall-to-wall coverage on TV news stations, and India’s additional solicitor general Anil C Singh had argued for the NCB that “celebrities and role models should be treated harshly so that it sets an example for the young generation and they do not get encouraged to commit such offences”.
The Bombay High Court set out stringent conditions for Chakraborty’s bail but rejected this premise, with Justice Sarang V Kotwal noting in an order on Wednesday that “everybody is equal before the law”.
“No celebrity or role model enjoys any special privilege before the Court of law. Similarly, such person also does not incur any special liability when he faces law in the courts. Each case will have to be decided on its own merits irrespective of the status of the accused,” said the court in the 70-page order.
Chakraborty and her brother were among eight people arrested on 8 September by NCB officials investigating the circumstances of Rajput’s death in June, which police said at the time was suicide. Showik was denied bail on Wednesday, with the court claiming in a separate order that material gathered so far shows he not only knew “many drug dealers, but, he was in touch with them and was actually transacting with them” and thus “he is part of chain of drug dealers”.
Chakraborty and several other top female actors have been subjected to relentless coverage by India’s largest TV channels, who over the last 50 days have been accused of carrying out a trial by media. Following her arrest, other big name actors including Deepika Padukone, Shraddha Kapoor, Sara Ali Khan and Rakul Preet Singh were publicly brought in for questioning by the NCB, though they have not been accused of any wrongdoing.
In more recent days, however, the weight of public opinion and media coverage seems to have shifted in Chakraborty’s favour, particularly after a report by forensic experts ruling out foul play in Rajput’s death and calling it a clear case of suicide, leading to a growing demand for Chakraborty’s release on bail.
Vineet Jain, managing director of the Times of India newspaper, posted a tweet saying: “Peddlers of hard drugs (with more than small quantity) have been released on bail within a fortnight but #RheaChakraborty remains in jail since Sept 8th when no drugs were found on her. Firstly it is hypocritical , secondly bail should be the norm when the offence is not grave.”
Meanwhile, the court noted that the NCB’s case is that Chakraborty used to procure drugs for Rajput and that she used to manage shared finances with Rajput for the purpose of drug procurement. The NCB has also argued that she was an active member of a drug syndicate, describing her as a prominent member of the supply chain of drugs to Rajput before his death.
According to the NCB, her brother Showik Chakraborty was facilitating, dealing, financing and receiving the drug deliveries at his residence and at Rajput’s residence. The agency had argued that if she is given bail “at this crucial stage of investigation, it would hamper further investigation.”
But the court noted the investigation did not reveal any recovery either from Chakraborty or from Rajput’s house. It observed that “there is nothing at this stage to show that the applicant (Chakraborty) had committed any offence involving commercial quantity of contraband”.
“There are no other criminal antecedents against her. She is not part of the chain of drug dealers. She has not forwarded the drugs allegedly procured by her to somebody else to earn monetary or other benefits. Since she has no criminal antecedents, there are reasonable grounds for believing that she is not likely to commit any offence while on bail,” the court said.
The court granted bail but imposed conditions that the applicant will furnish a bond, deposit her passport with the investigating agency, shall not leave the country without prior permission and leave Mumbai only after informing the investigating officer and sharing her itinerary. She was also asked to mark her presence at the office of the investigating agency on the first Monday of every month for a period of six months.
The NCB sought a stay on the bail order for at least one week in order to approach the Supreme Court of India, but Justice Kotwal denied the request, saying the conditions imposed on Chakraborty were sufficient.