Alok Deshpande, Devesh Kumar Pandey and Sonam Saigal
Last year, Sushant Singh Rajput shifted to the Mount Blanc apartment on Carter Road in Mumbai’s tony neighbourhood, Bandra. The actor had always longed for a sea-facing apartment, and Mount Blanc overlooked the Arabian Sea.
The move was also important for other reasons. Bandra is where several top actors of India live. For Sushant it had been a long journey from growing up in a middle class family in Patna, Bihar, to this prime locality. Sushant was a brilliant student. He had a passion for science, especially astronomy. He was a voracious reader. He won the National Olympiad in Physics. He joined the Delhi College of Engineering to pursue mechanical engineering, but left the course midway to pursue his dream of becoming an actor.
Sushant tried his hand at theatre and then television. His career as an actor began with the popular television serial on Zee TV, Pavitra Rishta, produced by Ekta Kapoor. Then, a silver screen debut in Abhishek Kapoor’s Kai Po Che gave him a much-needed toehold in the competitive Mumbai film industry. Sushant then slowly climbed up the ladder acting in popular commercial films such as Shuddh Desi Romance and M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story and critically acclaimed ones such as Sonchiriya and Chhichhore. In an interview to this newspaper in 2017, Sushant said he was a very shy child, an introvert. He confessed that he constantly craved approval.
In another interview to this newspaper in 2015, when asked whether it was difficult for an outsider to make a name in the Mumbai film industry, Sushant said, “Of course, it is. Tomorrow, if two of my films do not do well consecutively, I may not get another chance. You have to be sure of what you want. You have to keep thinking that you will survive, no matter what.”
Unfortunately, however, on June 14, Sushant was found dead in his home. His unexpected demise has not only overshadowed his struggle but has also led to an outpouring of emotions, pitted his loved ones against one another, led to a trial by sections of the media and triggered a political slugfest.
Investigation by three agencies
Public outrage over Sushant’s death has dominated the social media space over the last few months, despite the pandemic. Grief and shock over the 34-year-old actor’s sudden demise swiftly snowballed into a huge online campaign demanding an independent probe into his death.
The case is now being pursued by three premier Central agencies: the Enforcement Directorate (ED), the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), and the Narcotics Control Bureau.
The ED stepped in when allegations of large amounts of money being transferred into the accounts of Sushant’s girlfriend, actor Rhea Chakraborty, surfaced. The ED has been sifting through piles of documents and questioning suspects, including Rhea, and witnesses over the last one month, to determine if there was any money laundering.
The ED has scrutinised Sushant’s bank accounts, investments, and the papers of three companies co-founded by him: Innsaei Ventures Private Limited, set up in 2018; Vividrage Rhealityx Private Limited, which was incorporated in September 2019; and Front India for World Foundation, a non-profit company dedicated to social service, set up in January 2020. The agency has also questioned Sushant’s chartered accountant multiple times.
Meanwhile, a CBI team has surveyed the house where Sushant died, questioned Rhea and other accused, recorded witness statements, and is also taking the help of medical and forensic experts in a bid to reconstruct the sequence of events surrounding his death.
Based on prima facie evidence shared by the ED, in view of the allegations that Sushant was administered drugs illegally, the Narcotics Control Bureau also joined the investigation on August 26. It has arrested four people so far, including Rhea’s brother Showik and Sushant’s close aide Samuel Miranda.
While the scope of investigation has widened, the picture remains unclear. To make matters worse, video clips and photographs capturing Sushant’s body, his post-mortem report, statements of his bank accounts, pages of his personal journal, and the call records of those under scrutiny have all been leaked to sections of the media, infringing the basic principles of investigation. Violating the code of ethics on confidentiality, a therapist has issued a statement making claims about the actor’s mental health.
“Any such leak weakens the case, as it gives an opportunity to the accused, if any, to prepare their defence. The element of surprise while confronting them with facts is also lost,” said a retired CBI official.
Following his death, some claimed that “nepotism” in Bollywood claimed the actor’s life; others said he suffered from depression. However, the Mumbai Police, which first investigated the case, said prime facie no foul play came to light.
It was in the midst of a stream of emotional statements and demands by the general public that the Mumbai Police started inquest proceedings under Section 174 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (police to enquire and report on suicide) to determine the apparent cause of Sushant’s death. The post-mortem was conducted on June 14 night, and Sushant’s body was cremated the next day in the presence of his father K.K. Singh, other family members, and friends.
The day Sushant died
As purportedly disclosed by those living with Sushant, two cooks — Neeraj Singh and Keshav Bachner — lived in the same house. Deepesh Sawant looked after the housekeeping work. Sushant’s flatmate, Siddharth Pithani, stayed in another room. Rhea, who was staying with Sushant, left the house on the afternoon of June 8, after which the actor’s sister, Meetu Singh, came to stay with him for about three days.
One version of what transpired on that fateful day is that Sushant woke up in the morning, drank some water and then some coconut water and fruit juice before locking himself up in his room. When Keshav went to ask him what he wanted for lunch, there was no reply. Keshav realised that something was amiss. The others in the house started looking for the key to the door. Finally, they called a locksmith, who disabled the lock. Siddharth reportedly opened the door and found Sushant lifeless. Meetu, who had been alerted, reached the flat soon after, and the police were called in.
There are multiple witness accounts claiming that Sushant had not been keeping well since his Europe tour with Rhea last year and was on some medication.
As part of the inquest, the Mumbai Police recorded several statements, including those of Sushant’s family members, his flatmates, friends, employees, Rhea, film critic Rajeev Masand, and Bollywood personalities including Mahesh Bhatt, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Mukesh Chhabra and Aditya Chopra. Filmmaker Shekhar Kapur also sent his statement through email.
“We spoke to around 40 people over two months and recorded their statements,” said an official from the Mumbai Police. The official refused to say anything more since the investigation has been taken over by the CBI. The Mumbai Police neither has jurisdiction over the case nor is it aware of new developments, he said.
From Mumbai to Patna
During the Mumbai Police investigation, things took a political turn. Representatives of all political parties in Bihar, where Assembly elections are due before November 29, started demanding a thorough investigation. The ruling coalition government in Maharashtra comprising the Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress came under severe criticism.
On July 25, the Patna Police registered a case based on a complaint by K.K. Singh alleging abetment of suicide, criminal conspiracy, breach of trust, cheating, theft, wrongful restraint and confinement under the Indian Penal Code. Rhea, Showik, their parents Indrajit and Sandhya Chakraborty, Samuel Miranda, and Rhea’s former manager Shruti Modi were named.
K.K. Singh, 74, alleged that Rhea, her family members, and associates entered Sushant’s life to take advantage of his contacts in the film industry. His trusted employees were replaced, and in a short span of time, ₹15 crore was transferred from his account. His son was subjected to drug overdose, Singh claimed. Singh also claimed that Sushant wanted to leave Mumbai and do organic farming in Coorg in Karnataka, but Rhea opposed it and threatened that she would share his medical records with the media and declare him “mad”.
Rhea left Sushant’s house on June 8. The next day, when Sushant found out about the death of Disha Salian, his former manager who was allegedly hired by Rhea to work for him, he feared that attempts would be made to implicate him, said Singh.
After registering the FIR, a Patna Police team reached Mumbai on July 27 to pursue the leads. A few days later, claiming that the Mumbai Police were not cooperating in the probe, the Bihar government told the Supreme Court that the CBI should probe the case. It said that on August 2, a Superintendent of Police Vinay Tiwari, who was sent to Mumbai from Bihar to supervise the probe, was “forcibly” quarantined.
Meanwhile, Rhea, who had on July 16 taken to social media to request Home Minister Amit Shah to order a CBI probe, moved the Supreme Court seeking transfer of the case to Mumbai.
On July 31, the ED too initiated money laundering investigations based on the FIR and recorded the statements of Sushant’s family members.
The CBI steps in
On August 4, the Bihar government recommended a CBI probe. Following intimation from the Department of Personnel and Training, the agency took over the case on August 6. The next day, the top trending hashtag, Warriors4SSR, generated 2.1 million messages from across India.
The CBI entrusted the probe to a Special Investigation Team (SIT) that has handled several high-profile cases. The team comprises Joint Director Manoj Shashidhar, Deputy Inspector General Gagandeep Gambhir, Additional Superintendent of Police Anil Yadav, and Superintendent of Police Nupur Prasad. “The experience of these IPS officers is crucial in such circumstances,” said a retired officer who, while serving the CBI, was instrumental in cracking the case involving a legislator in north India in 1989.
The SIT head, Shashidhar, is a 1994-batch IPS officer of the Gujarat cadre. He held several key positions in the State, including as Police Commissioner of Vadodara and Deputy Commissioner of Police. He joined the CBI in February. Gambhir is a 2004-batch officer from the same cadre. She joined the Central agency in 2016 and has been part of teams probing important cases like the illegal mining scam in Uttar Pradesh, the Srijan scam in Bihar, the Vijay Mallya case, and the AgustaWestland scam.
Yadav, a recipient of the Police Medal, was involved in the investigation of the Vyapam scam, the Commonwealth Games scam, and the Shopian rape and murder case. Prasad, an officer from the 2007 batch, was earlier posted with the Delhi Police where she served as the Deputy Commissioner of Police of Shahdara. She has been involved in the investigation of many cases of heinous crimes and online financial frauds. She joined the CBI last year.
While Rhea’s plea was sub judice, the CBI team started examining Sushant’s family members. Following a go-ahead from the Supreme Court on August 19, the team reached Mumbai where the Defence Research and Development Organisation guest house became its workspace.
In its order, the Supreme Court observed that as both States were making allegations of political interference against each other, the legitimacy of the investigation had come under a cloud. “These developments unfortunately have the propensity to delay and misdirect the investigation. In such a situation, there is reasonable apprehension of truth being a casualty and justice becoming a victim,” it said. The CBI probe was approved by the Court to “ensure public confidence in the investigation and to do complete justice in the matter”. Since then, the agency has questioned Rhea and several others multiple times to verify their claims.
Senior advocate Vikas Singh representing Sushant’s family said, “It is definitely abetment of suicide. It could also be murder. We are not ruling out murder because the person who opened the room and claimed to have lowered the body, Siddharth, used to be Sushant’s friend and he used to say Rhea spoilt Sushant’s life. When the FIR was registered and he was not named as an accused, he started supporting Rhea. The way he has turned around, there are several aspects to it. The family was not present at the moment on June 14. Siddharth is a photographer. He could have taken a photograph on his phone of the body, of the lockwala, but he didn’t. Even before the FIR he would say Rhea made Sushant commit suicide. Such a person cannot be trusted. The whole story of what he saw is his version and there is no corroboration.”
Advocate Satish Maneshinde appearing for Rhea said, “She has been charged with abetment of suicide. Proximate to the time, the factors that were there in the mind of the deceased are taken into consideration. Rhea was not in the house from June 8 to June 14, the day Sushant died. She cannot be considered a person proximate to the cause of death. Sushant’s sister Meetu was there; she should come and explain. The ED has found nothing so far.”
A political game
Sushant’s father’s claim that he suspects foul play in his son’s death provided a much-needed opportunity for the Opposition party in Maharashtra, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to attack the ruling government.
Soon after Singh filed the complaint with the Patna Police, NCP chief Sharad Pawar’s grand-nephew Parth Pawar met the Maharashtra Home Minister, Anil Deshmukh, and handed him a letter seeking a CBI inquiry into the case. Until then, BJP leaders were making the same demand and indirectly claiming the involvement of a young leader.
In his letter, Parth said, “I join the youth of this nation in their collective mourning. I have received many emails, messages and phone calls from the youth of States like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh seeking my intervention in this matter. I understand the youth of this nation demands a logical and fair closure of this case, so that justice is delivered to Sushant.”
The letter made the coalition government look divided on this issue. NCP office-bearers immediately swung into damage control mode. Party spokesperson and the State Minority Affairs Minister, Nawab Malik, reiterated that the party stands with the Mumbai Police and the letter was Parth Pawar’s personal opinion.
The letter gave the BJP an opportunity to jump into action. On July 30, senior leader and Bandra West MLA Ashish Shelar alleged that a “Yuva leader is pulling strings” in the investigation of the Mumbai Police.
Yuva Sena chief and State Environment Minister Aaditya Thackeray is known for his close relations with personalities from Bollywood. Making an indirect reference to him, the BJP leadership alleged that there were inconsistencies in the police probe in the Sushant case.
“The strategy was very clear,” said senior political journalist Amey Tirodkar. “Make the Shiv Sena uncomfortable. Keep on hinting at a Yuva leader. Create an atmosphere where the government looks weak and vulnerable. The NCP handles the Home Ministry in Maharashtra. The BJP also wanted to create infighting within the government.”
As the Mumbai Police continued to delay filing an FIR in the case, they also failed to win the perception battle on the Internet, especially regarding claims of money laundering and the alleged involvement of a young Minister in the investigation. Their alleged non-cooperation with the Bihar Police team and the fact that they placed IPS officer Vinay Tiwari under quarantine raised suspicion, helping the BJP. “It is really strange why the Maharashtra government is coming under unnecessary suspicion by not allowing the Bihar Police to perform their duties,” said Devendra Fadnavis, former Chief Minister and Leader of Opposition in the State Assembly.
Mumbai Police Commissioner Parambir Singh clarified that the police found no money laundering in their probe. He said all possible assistance was extended to the Bihar Police, but public perception did not improve.
On August 12, NCP chief Sharad Pawar publicly slammed Parth Pawar and called him immature for seeking a CBI probe. He said, “There is no value to what he says. I have 100% trust in Maharashtra and the Mumbai Police. But if somebody wants to make a demand, then nobody can object.” His statement reignited the speculation that all is not well within the Pawar family but the party downplayed the episode saying it was the family’s internal matter.
Last week, however, the BJP found itself on the backfoot. Sandip Ssingh, who has been named in the drug cartel allegedly involved in the death of Sushant, was the producer of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s biopic and a beneficiary of the Vibrant Gujarat 2019 summit despite his company’s poor balance sheets. Maharashtra Congress spokesperson Sachin Sawant said Ssingh was also accused of child sexual harassment in Mauritus. “Who helped him escape? He has made over 53 calls to a number saved as BJP Maharashtra in 2019. Who’s his handler in the Maharashtra BJP,” asked Sawant, demanding a CBI inquiry.
Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh said he has decided to forward the complaint demanding a probe into the relationship between Ssingh and the BJP to the CBI.
The agencies continue their probe into the death of Sushant amid immense social media pressure, endless debates on television, wild rumours, and a thicket of political allegations. Only a fair and thorough investigation will reveal the truth.