TO THOSE who know him, it is no surprise that Sameer Wankhede was at the centre of both the high-profile Rhea Chakraborty allegations of last year and now the still-unfolding drug bust case against Shah Rukh Khan’s son Aryan. The 2008-batch IRS officer, with stints in the NIA and Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), before being loaned as Director of the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB)’s Mumbai Zone, is no stranger to controversy — or celebrities.
During his stint as a Customs officer at Mumbai international airport, among those he had taken action against was Shah Rukh, who in 2016 was stopped for carrying excess baggage and fined Rs 1.5 lakh duty. At the Customs and later Service Tax Department, he would also cross paths with Anurag Kashyap, Vivek Oberoi, Mika Singh and Ram Gopal Verma.
So even before he moved to the NCB from the DRI last year, Wankhede, the son of a police officer, was a well-known name in Mumbai. Sources say he was specifically brought in in the wake of actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death and the cascading allegations against his girlfriend Chakraborty, due to his work on drug seizures at the DRI.
“He was transferred as he has an excellent network of informants when it comes to narcotics,” says a senior NCB official.
After Wankhede took over, the inconspicuous NCB office in south Mumbai became the buzzing heart of the city, with one celebrity after another called for questioning in the Chakraborty case, including Deepika Padukone, Shraddha Kapoor, Sara Ali Khan and Rakul Preet Singh. Many wondered how media would know precisely when a celebrity would arrive.
Questions were also raised about the NCB’s apparent focus now on cases involving small drug quantities but high-profile accused. As per data provided by the NCB to The Sunday Express, of the 30 cases it registered from September 2020 — when Wankhede took over — to February 2021, in at least 12, the amount seized was “small” — as compared to “intermediate” or “large” seizures.
Many asked why the NCB, a Central anti-narcotic agency, was going after even cases of consumption, such as the one involving comedian Bharti Singh. Said an officer of the Mumbai Police: “Even our constables hardly do consumption cases.” In fact, prior to Wankhede joining, a majority of the NCB’s operations were related to raiding factories producing mephedrone on the outskirts of Mumbai.
In an interview to The Indian Express in February, Wankhede had said their strategy was to nip drugs at all levels — from factories to consumption. “You see our record, we have seized drugs from cocaine to ganja… busted labs and factories. We have dismantled suppliers and manufacturers. Regarding consumers, is consuming legal in the country?… There is Section 27 of the NDPS Act… Anybody violating the Act, we are taking action, the manufacturer, the factory guy, the peddler, the consumer. When the law prohibits it, how can we allow its use? Secondly, in order to attack the drug menace, we need to have a consolidated approach, targeting each and every evader.”
In the Chakraborty case, there were other question marks too, over Wankhede’s intentions. One of those arrested, Kshitij Prasad, associated with Dharmatic Productions, told the court that Wankhede had told him to implicate his boss Karan Johar and other filmstars like Ranir Kapoor, Arjun Rampal and Dino Morea, if he wanted to be let off.
Wankhede denied these allegations. Eventually two chargesheets were filed against Prasad, who is currently out on bail. As is Chakraborty.
To be fair to the officer, once the Chakraborty case was behind him, the NCB conducted several operations as part of which 12 local gangs were neutralised as well as networks run by Nigerian nationals. One clue of how busy Wankhede has been is just the numbers — the FIR against Aryan and others in the alleged drug bust on a cruise liner was the 94th registered by the NCB in Mumbai and Goa in 2021; against 35 in 2019; 25 in 2018, 30 in 2017; and 23 in 2016.
In August this year, Wankhede along with his team at the NCB got the Home Minister’s medal for “excellence in investigation”.
Even his bitter critics concede that Wankhede today has one of the most enviable networks of informants and has dealt a major blow to the narcotics network in Mumbai as well as Goa, which also comes under his unit.
An NCB official said, “In this current year, he has handled over 90 cases. These include arresting major drug suppliers like Chinku Pathan, Farooq Batata and the network aided by Dawood’s brother Iqbal Kaskar. Unfortunately these cases get overshadowed by the ones involving Bollywood stars.”
However, it’s not just the names involved that find Wankhede in the cross-hairs. Like in the Chakraborty case, his measures have come under a cloud in the Aryan arrest too, especially his involvement of a person with BJP links and a private investigator facing cheating charges in the raid. Over the weekend, NCP leader Nawab Malik came out with fresh allegations, saying several people, including one with BJP links, had been let off by the NCB after the alleged drug bust on the cruise ship. The NCB denied the allegations
Malik’s son-in-law Sameer Khan was incidentally arrested by the NCB in connection with a narcotics case earlier this year, and got bail last month, after around six months. Malik has denied his claims are linked to this.
Congress spokesperson Sachin Sawant, who has also questioned Wankhede’s measures, says the NCB under him is “doing the work of the BJP government”. “Several questions have been raised by us but the NCB has not answered them.” About Wankhede’s success against drug gangs, Sawant adds, “That is the job of the NCB, so nothing special in that. Even Mumbai Anti-Narcotics Cell carries out seizures.
Lately, Wankhede has been visiting religious places, where he and religious leaders give talks to youngsters on the ill-effects of drugs. At a mosque in Mahim, where drug-peddling is said to be rampant, he spoke about verses from the Quran that prohibit narcotics.
Officers talk of the no-nonsense, hardworking Wankhede always at work on some operation in his third-floor office. He has in the past spoken about missing out on time with his twin daughters. His wife Kranti Redkar is a well-known Marathi actress.
At the same time, this is where Wankhede perhaps most wants to be. The 42-year-old once said, “Before joining the NCB, whenever I had free time, I loved watching shows like Viking, Narcos. I was highly impressed by the undercover police of the Drug Enforcement Agency in Narcos.”