By Mohammed Shafeeq
Speculation abounds on the next move by Telangana's Prohibition and Excise Department in its high-profile investigation into the sensational drug racket allegedly involving several film personalities.
After the questioning of 12 personalities from the Telugu film industry, owners of several pubs and bars, issuing notices to schools and colleges and even some information technology companies, the Special Investigation Team (SIT) has taken a pause, triggering the speculation over its next move.
There was no clarity, for instance, as to whether the SIT will call in more Tollywood personalities for questioning.
SIT officials have of late been tight-lipped, worried over the ripples the investigation is causing in film circles and its possible impact on brand Hyderabad, even as the Telangana government announced that drug users, including celebrities, will be treated as victims and not criminals.
The announcement by Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao on July 28 came a few days after Akun Sabharwal, the Enforcement Director of the department who is heading the probe, told media that the possession, sale, purchase and consumption of any psychotropic substance is a crime under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act.
The SIT has so far questioned top actors like Ravi Teja, Charmme Kaur and leading director Puri Jagannadh. Actress Mumaith Khan, actors Tarun, Navdeep, Nandu and Subbaraju were among others quizzed in the case over the last two weeks.
Their names cropped up during the investigation into a high-end drug network when the SIT allegedly found their contact numbers with the accused.
The SIT has so far arrested over 20 persons, including US citizen Dundu Anish, a former aerospace engineer who has worked with NASA, Dutch national Mike Kamminga and seven B.Tech degree holders, most of them employed with multinational companies.
"Based on the statements given by the accused and others who were called for questioning, the SIT will decide whether to call more people for questioning," said an official.
Some sections of Tollywood have alleged that the industry is being unfairly targeted, but the authorities deny this is the case. Excise Commissioner R.V. Chandravadan said more than 30 people were questioned and they include people from different walks of life.
The investigations over the last one month has seen some dramatic turns and twists. The busting of the racket in early July initially sent shock waves across educational institutions, with the probe revealing that students of several top private schools and colleges were using drugs.
The officials found that students as young as 13, including girls, were taking what they call high-end drugs like Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) and Methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA), popularly known as Ecstasy.
Experts have described these as highly destructive drugs which affect the brain's functioning. The fact that the peddlers managed to penetrate campuses sent alarm bells ringing and indicate how wide and well-organised the racket is.
The officials, after questioning Calvin Mascrenhas, said to be the kingpin of the racket, and other accused, identified 1,000 students hailing from rich and influential families and studying at top schools and colleges as the customers.
The investigations also revealed how peddlers were placing orders through Darknet (a restricted online network) and how the drugs were being delivered by couriers, including from overseas.
Without revealing the identity of the students, SIT sent letters to over 50 schools and colleges to keep a tight vigil.
When investigators found some Tollywood celebrities among customers, the focus shifted to the film industry.
The notices served on the stars led to criticism from some sections of the industry. Leading filmmaker Ram Gopal Verma slammed the excise department for targeting Tollywood to get publicity.
Adding a new twist, authorities also identified some drug users as techies working in software firms in Hyderabad. Excise Minister T. Padma Rao revealed that notices were issued to 13 IT companies, whose employees were found to be using drugs.
Information Technology Secretary Jayesh Ranjan was apparently not pleased with the portrayal of the entire IT industry as bad by a section of media. "Only 10 to 12 people in a workforce of 400,000 are indulging in this activity (drug use)," he clarified.
(Mohammed Shafeeq can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)