Mumbai: From about 2011 to 2013, there was a steady stream of news about Bollywood personalities trying to evade customs duty at the airport and getting caught while at it.
In 2013, the impression was that Bollywood was trying to work around paying service tax, and since last year, the buzz is about how many in the film industry seem to have a drug consumption problem.
There’s one person common to all these cases, and that is Sameer Wankhede, an Indian Revenue Service (IRS) officer of the 2008 batch.
Wankhede has been firmly under the spotlight this month as the zonal director of the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) for busting an alleged rave party on a Goa-bound cruise-liner, and arresting actor Shah Rukh Khan’s son, Aryan Khan, among others.
Speaking to ThePrint exclusively, Wankhede refused to comment on the Aryan Khan case, saying it was “sub judice”, but vehemently denied any suggestions that he was deliberately going after Bollywood, hammer and tongs.
“It has never been like that. We have caught so many hardcore drug peddlers, manufacturers. The media does not highlight the news if we catch a normal person, but when there is a case involving a celebrity, the news is everywhere,” said Wankhede.
“While in customs, around 3,000 cases (of customs evasion) might have been booked at the airport (during his tenure there). Hardly a fraction of these would have been those involving celebrities. At the NCB too, in the 10 months of this year we have caught 224 people. Most are hardcore peddlers. Only two or three will be known names.
“I want to ask those who criticise me for going after celebrities… If a person who is well-known does something wrong, should we let that person go?” he asked.
On Sunday, Wankhede wrote a letter to Mumbai Police Chief Hemant Nagrale, asking him to ensure no “precipitate”, or hasty, legal action is carried out to frame him with “ulterior motives”.
The letter came on a day a witness in the NCB’s alleged Aryan Khan drug bust case claimed he was made to sign on a blank paper and said there were talks of a payoff worth crores involved with Wankhede as one of the beneficiaries. The NCB released a statement saying Wankhede has categorically denied the allegations.
Wankhede, who comes from Washim district in the Vidarbha region, is the son of a policeman. He and his sister grew up in Mumbai’s Wadala area as his father was posted in the city as a sub-inspector, he told ThePrint. He is married to Marathi actor Kranti Redkar and has twin daughters.
Wankhede started his career with a posting in the Intelligence Bureau in Andhra Pradesh in 2006, after which he was posted in Delhi. He gave his civil services examination in 2008 and became an IRS officer. Wankhede has often been a newsmaker since.
World Cup trophy and Rhea Chakraborty
In 2011, when the Indian cricket team won the World Cup after a closely contested final at Mumbai’s Wankhede stadium, the team had to make do with a replica of the trophy.
The original trophy was stuck at Mumbai airport customs for non-payment of a 35 per cent duty on it. Wankhede had been assistant commissioner at the airport customs at the time.
In 2013, Wankhede served with the Central Excise department for a few months. Although his stint there was short, it was one that the Hindi film industry will not forget, with many names such as Anurag Kashyap, Ram Gopal Verma and Vivek Oberoi finding themselves under the scanner for alleged service tax defaults.
Mukesh Bhatt, president of the Film and TV Producers’ Guild, had then accused the department of picking on the film industry, and members of the guild had even had a meeting with the Service Tax Commissioner on the issue.
Within a few months of his posting with the Central Excise Department, Wankhede was sent on deputation to the National Investigation Agency (NIA), where he worked till 2017, before joining the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence as Joint Director in Mumbai.
In November 2019, Wankhede applied for a position in the NCB, which had advertised a vacancy earlier that year. His application was forwarded to the NCB on 27 August 2020, and the officer took charge of his new assignment, on deputation, on 31 August 2020, when the controversy over the probe into actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death was simmering and the bureau was probing a drug angle.
“In the early years of my career, I used to get a lot of phone calls asking me to let someone I had detained leave. But, now after 15 years of service, I don’t get a single call with such requests. They all know there’s no point,” Wankhede said.
“When I was with the NIA, DRI, there was no such major case involving any celebrity. It’s not like I go out of the way to target celebrities. I just follow the rule book.”
Wankhede at NCB
Within 10 days of Wankhede joining the NCB, the agency arrested actor Rhea Chakraborty and her brother Showik in connection with the probe.
Later, when actors such as Deepika Padukone, Shraddha Kapoor and Sara Ali Khan were being questioned by the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) as part of an alleged drug nexus involving the film industry, it was Wankhede on the other side of the table.
In August this year, the Union government awarded Wankhede, among 152 police officers in the country, the ‘Home Minister’s Medal for Excellence in Investigation.’
Since Wankhede took charge as zonal director, NCB, the number of cases involving consumption of drugs, more than peddling or manufacturing of contraband substances, has shot up, and most cases involve small quantities.
This is an allegation that Wankhede does not deny. In fact, he said, it has been so consciously by design.
“Having worked with intelligence agencies, my personal opinion is that when you have a single track approach and go after busting big factories, sooner or later new ones come up in their place. The supply chain is the same. The consumption chain is the same and it goes on. Me and my seniors thought we should have a consolidated approach. Catch the factories, catch those peddling, catch those consuming,” Wankhede said.
‘Feel bad about being targeted despite working honestly’
Of all his postings, Wankhede’s stint at the NCB has been perhaps the most controversial, having been given political contours by different parties.
Members from the Congress and NCP, particularly state cabinet minister Nawab Malik, has hinted that Wankhede might be working hand in glove with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Malik in a press conference earlier this month questioned the “presence of a BJP karyakarta” with the NCB team at the time of raiding the cruise liner from which Aryan Khan was arrested. The same BJP karyakarta could also be seen taking another accused, Arbaaz Merchant, inside the NCB office in one of the videos Malik showed.
Malik, NCP’s Mumbai president, also alleged that the NCB let three persons who were detained go because they had connections with the BJP. He further called the entire raid “fake” and a ploy to malign the Maharashtra government and Mumbai’s film industry, while also alleging that Wankhede was running an extortion racket.
“They are public representatives. I am a public servant. Whatever they might be thinking about me, I respect them. But I really feel bad sometimes. When you are working honestly why should you be targeted?” Wankhede said.
Earlier this month, Wankhede had through the NCB raised concerns with the Mumbai Police and the Union government about his movements being tracked.
“There were some instances which were very concerning for myself and my family. I informed the senior most authority about these,” he said.
“Sometimes you feel disturbed when certain incidents happen. They try to put pressure on your family. You feel bad about your family. They have not done anything wrong to deserve them. I take it as a challenge.”
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)