If Rhea Chakraborty and Kangana Ranaut are Criminals, So are We

Social Commentary

If Rhea Chakraborty and Kangana Ranaut are Criminals, So are We

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

“To create crime, create laws.” – Ursula K. Le Guin

I have a confession to make: Last night I, a 28-year-old grown woman, drank a beer to celebrate a friend’s birthday, and I did it without the liquor permit required under the Bombay Prohibition Act of 1949. In order for those of drinking age (25 and over, by the way) to buy and consume alcohol, they technically need this special license from the Excise Department.

I wonder when the Narcotics Control Bureau will come knocking on my door, ready to clap me in irons and drag me off to Byculla jail. What would happen if the authorities knew about the bhaang I drank two years ago on Holi, or the kite I flew on my terrace during Makar Sankranti without so much as a thought for a flying license as per the Aircraft Act of 1934? The act that bizarrely classifies kites as flying machines, right along with airplanes, and therefore demands a permit to operate them?

This is not just an Indian problem; all countries and districts have a number of stupid, pointless, and archaic laws on the books. Who can forget the momentous striking down of Section 377, a British-era law that literally criminalised homosexuality? It’s easy to write these ridiculous regulations off as harmless relics, at least until they’re actually enforced. Watching the targeted punishments being directed towards actors Rhea Chakraborty and Kangana Ranaut this week, now is the time to think about some of our most senseless and predatory laws.

The death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput on June 14 has not left the news cycle for a moment, and Chakraborty, his girlfriend, has come under intense scrutiny that’s quickly turned into a harassment campaign. After weeks of breathless media speculation over Chakraborty’s alleged crimes — which range from practising black magic to being a gold-digging murderess — and simultaneous investigations being conducted by the CBI, ED, and NCB, the latter emerged victorious: She has finally been arrested on charges of procuring marijuana.

Rhea Chakraborty = Pablo Escobar?

Chakraborty had the misfortune to buy her ganja from a “syndicate”, which controls most of Mumbai’s drug racket, and as a result, is now being painted by her detractors as India’s answer to Pablo Escobar. She is one of ten people apprehended in connection with the case by the NCB, which recovered a grand total of 59 grams of marijuana from them — an amount that is less than what you might find in a sadhu’s chillum.

It’s easy to write these ridiculous regulations off as harmless relics, at least until they’re actually enforced.

Whatever the CBI and ED investigations turn up after this point, it’s clear that Chakraborty’s detention on drug charges is bogus. But she’s not the only woman embroiled in a legal mire that’s more about circumstance than crime.

Ranaut, who has long been a staunch ally of the BJP government and one of the first to demand “justice for Sushant”, has waded into this now-political kerfuffle. As the Centre and Bihar Police, along with supporters like Ranaut, criticise the Shiv Sena and Mumbai Police’s handling of Rajput’s death, the city’s municipal corporation, the BMC, took aim at Ranaut’s Pali Hill office. Sending a legal notice citing illegal construction, the BMC proceeded to tear the building apart.

It’s not the first time the notoriously high-handed civic body, which functions closely with the Shiv Sena, has demolished an actor’s illegal property, and past victims include Shatrughan Sinha, Arjun Kapoor, and Shah Rukh Khan. Still, considering the lack of proper notice given to Ranaut’s team, it’s hard to deny an element of vengeful retribution in their actions. More importantly, you’d be hard-pressed to find a building in Mumbai that doesn’t violate at least one of the BMC’s contradictory and deeply bureaucratic regulations.

We are constant violators of the law

Of course, many of our convoluted laws, both in Mumbai and the rest of the country, are expressly designed that way in order to make space for everyday corruption. When punishments are meted out inconsistently and at the sole discretion of the authorities, what choice do civilians have but to cajole and bribe their way through a minefield of potential criminality?

Who among us can say we’ve never handed out a couple hundred bucks for running a red light, or conspired with shopkeepers to pay cash and avoid GST? Anytime there’s paperwork to be done, our first question is not where the nearest government office is, but whom can we call to speed up the process?

Ranaut and Chakraborty’s grievances mirror each other, even if their views on the Sushant Singh Rajput case don’t.

When my mother held the post of secretary in our building, any quarrel with BMC officials could be easily smoothed over with a few words of Marathi, an advantage that no one else in the society had. Whether it’s Delhi’s aggressive “jaanta hai mera baap kaun hai” or Mumbai’s pleading “mala jao dya kaka”, dodging the rules is a pan-Indian pastime, necessitated by the sheer inconvenience or even impossibility of following them. From our glass houses, it becomes that much harder to judge Chakraborty and Ranaut for their infractions.

Nor does gaming a rigged system end with the standard chai-paani paid to a traffic cop. Political agendas and biases speak just as loudly as money — which is why several Shaheen Bagh protestors who committed the heinous offense of blockading a road in February are still in jail. Ranaut and Chakraborty, in their turn, can be penalised for the pettiest offences only because they have been cast as rival mascots in the ongoing BJP-Shiv Sena tug-of-war.

Ranaut and Chakraborty’s grievances mirror each other, even if their views on the Sushant Singh Rajput case don’t. The truth is, if the state machinery decided to go after any citizen for the crimes they’ve committed, there would likely be more Indians in jail than roaming the streets. This is the price of a system that exists for laws to be bent and broken: however upstanding we think we are, all of us are criminals when put under a legal magnifying glass. I can only hope it won’t be my turn next.