How Bollywood Star Sushant Singh Rajput’s Death Became a Political Hot Potato in India

August 10, 2020 Off By Shamani Joshi

When Bollywood star Sushant Singh Rajput died by suicide on June 14, some of the the first reactions to appear on social media were disbelief that he’d acted alone.

Later that night, Indian news channels began speculating about the state of Rajput’s mental health, peddling unsubstantiated theories about his death, and pointing fingers at his girlfriend and actor Rhea Chakraborty.

Now, Chakraborty’s finances are the subject of an investigation by the Indian Ministry of Finance’s Directorate of Enforcement. She is also being investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation, the country’s federal investigation agency, for allegedly abetting the actor’s suicide.

Meanwhile, Rajput’s death has become an electoral issue in his home state of Bihar, which has an election scheduled later this year.

It began three days after Rajput’s death when an advocate named Sudhir Kumar Ojha filed a complaint in a court in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur city against eight influential Bollywood celebrities. Ojha claimed that these individuals—including actor Salman Khan and film producer Karan Johar—had forced Sushant to take his own life as part of a conspiracy.

The court dismissed Ojha’s complaint but the allegations snowballed. In an interview with actor Kangana Ranaut, the news channel Republic TV brought up an incident from a chat show in which actor Alia Bhatt—also the daughter of filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt—was asked who she would hypothetically kill from three options in a game called Kill, Marry, Hookup. She then nominated Singh Rajput as the person she would kill. The channel edited out the part of the clip in which Bhat later said, “sorry Sushant”.

Mumbai Police is currently investigating the actor’s suicide and has recorded the statements of 56 witnesses. Alia Bhatt’s father Mahesh Bhatt was among them; so were filmmakers Aditya Chopra and Sanjay Leela Bhansali, and film critic Rajeev Masand. Police officers have told journalists that they are yet to find evidence that the actor’s death was anything other than suicide and that Rajput was being treated for bipolar disorder.

Indian news channels however have signalled their dissatisfaction with the investigation and have held parallel trials across their primetime shows. ABP News went so far as to recreate Rajput’s autopsy, while Times Now ran a video clip apparently showing the actor in good spirits, arguing that he was actually not depressed. In response, prominent journalist Barkha Dutt interviewed the actor’s therapist, who was later criticised by health professionals for revealing confidential information.

Multiple news channels, especially those considered close to the Indian government, have maintained a campaign to transfer the case from the Mumbai Police to the federal Central Bureau of Investigation.

Chakraborty, the late actor’s girlfriend, revealed on Instagram on July 16 that she was receiving rape and death threats from fans who are blaming her for Singh Rajput’s death.

On July 29, Rajput’s father KK Singh, a former police officer, filed a First Information Report (FIR) with the Bihar Police. He alleged that Chakraborty scammed his son from INR 150 million (about US$2 million) and accused her of abetting his son’s suicide. Singh, who has consistently denied that his son had mental health issues, also accused Chakraborty of giving his son an “overdose of medicine.”

While the Bihar police initially refused to lodge a case based on the actor’s father’s complaint, they did so after Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who is up for re-election this November, intervened. Kumar is Chief Minister because of an alliance his party Janata Dal (United) has with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Bihar Police dispatched a senior police officer to Mumbai to investigate the case, but the city’s Municipal Corporation forcibly quarantined him citing protocols to curb the spread of COVID-19. The western Maharashtra state, of which Mumbai is the capital, is ruled by a coalition of which the Congress party—which opposes PM Modi’s BJP—is a partner.

By then, the demand for a CBI inquiry into the case was near-unanimous among Bihar’s politicians. The actor had dropped his surname in protest of an attack, in 2017, by an organisation named Karni Sena that claims to represent the interests of the Rajput caste against director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, but his caste identity may have something to do with the politicisation of his death.

Rajputs are an upper caste in Bihar and form only five percent of the state’s population. Yet, they play an integral role in influencing elections, with decisive power in around 40 of Bihar state assembly’s 243 constituencies. The actor’s cousin Neeraj Kumar Bablu is also a leader of the BJP and a member of the legislative assembly. Karni Sena are among those who demanded a CBI inquiry into Rajput’s death.

Meanwhile, Chakraborty filed a plea with India’s Supreme Court, asking for her case to be transferred back to the Mumbai police.

On August 4, a day before the plea was going to be heard by the court, Bihar CM Kumar recommended a CBI investigation into the case.

The Government of India acted with alacrity and the CBI opened a case, charging Chakraborty with—among others—abetment to suicide, wrongful restraint and cheating.

The Ministry of Finance’s Enforcement Directorate is probing a case of money laundering against Chakraborty and interrogated her on August 7. Rajput’s accountant had previously told India Today that the late actor had not transferred an amount so large as INR 150 million ($2 million) to his girlfriend, though he would often spend lavishly on trips and gifts for her.

In the aftermath of Rajput’s death, many health professionals had warned insensitive media coverage—including descriptions of the way in which he died—may lead to copycat suicides.

This week, two actors in Mumbai died by suicide. While television actor and model Sameer Sharma was found dead at his house on August 6, Bhojpuri actor Anupama Phatak was found dead on August 7.

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