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Jun 4, 2023
Text Size: A+ Mumbai: Last Saturday, Indian Revenue Service (IRS) officer Sameer Wankhede shared a famous anecdote from the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC) on his Twitter page. The army of Persian ruler Xerxes had threatened to block out the Sun with their arrows. As legend goes, Leonidas, king of the city-state of Sparta, said: “Then we will fight the battle in the shade.” Wankhede’s post was perhaps aimed at projecting himself as equivalent to the Spartan leader, whose tiny army fought valiantly against Xerxes’ massive force, at a time when the officer is facing a CBI probe for allegedly demanding a bribe to “settle” the Aryan Khan drug case (Aryan Khan has been given a clean chit in the case). The officer, who was used to making headlines for netting Bollywood personalities for alleged evasion of customs duty, service tax or being in possession of drugs, has since 2021 been in the news for all the wrong reasons. That was when the Cordelia cruise ship drug bust took place, in which Wankhede, as the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) Mumbai zonal director, arrested actor Shah Rukh Khan’s son Aryan. Wankhede was accused of conducting a “ shoddy ” investigation in the case, and Aryan’s name did not feature in the chargesheet filed by the NCB in May last year. Soon after that, Wankhede was transferred from Mumbai to Chennai within the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence. Now, he is back in the limelight with the CBI probe. However, during this entire period, Wankhede, a 2008-batch officer, has far from laid low. He has been attending award ceremonies and building his image as an anti-drugs crusader and social worker, often posting messages about battles and courage on his social media accounts. And he has stirred a buzz about a possible political foray on a few occasions too — including in October last year, when he issued a full-page advertisement in a local newspaper in his home district of Washim in Maharashtra with a picture of him and his wife (Marathi actor Kranti Redkar), giving out Diwali wishes. On another occasion, he visited the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological parent, in Nagpur with his wife. He has also often shared the stage with leaders of the BJP and its allies. Wankhede has not commented on these speculations, but his acquaintances from Mumbai and Washim told ThePrint that, other than an admiration for the RSS since childhood, “Sameer dada” has been largely apolitical. Meanwhile, many of the high-profile cases that Wankhede investigated at the NCB have had slow to little progress. ThePrint contacted Wankhede by phone and messages with queries on the subject, but he replied saying he did not wish to comment. Wankhede’s career & celebrity cases Wankhede, who comes from Warud Tohpha village in Washim district of Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region, is the son of a policeman. He and his sister grew up in Mumbai’s Sewri-Wadala area as his father was posted in the city as a sub-inspector. He has twin daughters who live with their actor-mother Redkar in Mumbai, while Wankhede currently works in Chennai. The IRS officer started his career with a posting in the Intelligence Bureau in Andhra Pradesh in 2006, after which he was posted in Delhi. He gave the civil services examination in 2008 to become an IRS officer, and has been a newsmaker in most of his postings since then — be it with Mumbai airport customs, or the central excise department or the NCB, with which he was associated from August 2020 to December 2021. During his tenure as NCB’s Mumbai zonal director, Wankhede led several cases involving celebrities, from actors to politicians and influencers. He had taken charge as Mumbai zonal director while an investigation was ongoing into actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death, and the NCB soon started probing a possible drug angle. Under Wankhede’s leadership, the bureau arrested Rajput’s actor-girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty and her brother Showik, booking them under the National Drugs & Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act for alleged drug possession and consumption. The Bombay High Court granted bail to Chakraborty a month after her arrest, saying she was neither part of a chain of drug dealers nor had she forwarded the drugs allegedly procured by her to someone else for monetary or other benefits. In December 2020, a special court in Mumbai granted bail to Showik too. In June 2022, the NCB filed draft charges against Chakraborty, Showik and others before a special court, in which the bureau said that Chakraborty and Showik consumed narcotic substances and also procured and paid for such substances for Rajput. The case has been pending ever since as the court has said that charges can be framed only after deciding on the discharge pleas filed by some of the accused. In another case, Wankhede’s NCB team arrested Bollywood comedian Bharti Singh and her husband Haarsh Limbachiyaa in November 2020 after allegedly recovering 86.5 grams of ganja during a search at the couple’s residence and office. A Mumbai court granted them bail within two days. The NCB filed a 1,200-page chargesheet in October 2022 against the couple and an alleged drug peddler, accusing them of consumption. The trial is still pending. The NCB’s arrest of former Maharashtra minister Nawab Malik’s son-in-law Sameer Khan under the NDPS Act in January 2021 had also caused a stir in political circles. A special court granted Khan bail after eight months. In January 2022, the NCB moved the Bombay High Court to get the bail cancelled, while Khan had moved a plea for quashing the NDPS Act case against him. Like the other cases, there has been sluggish progress in this case too. However, Wankhede’s most high-profile case so far has been the Aryan Khan one, in which the NCB had raided an alleged rave party on a Goa-bound cruise-liner. Aryan spent almost a month in jail before being granted bail by the Bombay High Court. The case has led to a number of controversies, with Wankhede battling allegations of planting drugs on Aryan and some other accused. Questions were also raised over how a non-NCB officer, absconding in a cheating case involving the Pune Police, was a witness in the Aryan Khan case and was purportedly seen escorting Aryan to the NCB office. Another witness had made allegations of talks of a payoff, with Wankhede as one of the beneficiaries. In the wake of the charges against him, Wankhede’s tenure at the NCB, which ended in December 2021, was not extended and he was sent back to his parent organisation — the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence. He was then transferred to the Directorate General of Taxpayers Services in Chennai in May last year, a few days after the NCB filed a chargesheet in the Cordelia drug bust case, dropping Aryan Khan as an accused. Blood donor to anti-drugs crusader Speaking to ThePrint, a source close to the Wankhede-Redkar family said the IRS officer’s work profile in Chennai was lighter and involved resolving queries on tax and inspections, and spreading awareness among taxpayers. “Sameer dada’s family is in Mumbai and he mostly travels to Mumbai and Washim over weekends and public holidays. He has a lot more time on his hands now and has associated himself with some social causes,” the source said. The causes that Wankhede champions are prominently displayed on his timeline on Twitter, which he joined in April 2022. Since his NCB stint, Wankhede is also visibly working on building his social profile. For instance, in June 2022, before the rains hit Mumbai, Wankhede was seen wearing blue-coloured gloves and raking out litter, muck and debris along the Mithi River with his hands, urging the youth to “strive towards fulfilling the dream of Swachh Bharat”. The next month, he donated blood at the Kutch Youth Sangh’s blood donation drive in Mumbai — “something which he has been doing every few months along with his wife since then”, the above-mentioned source said. On his birthday last year, Wankhede posted a video of children at the Sindhutai Sakpal Orphanage singing birthday greetings for him. He has also been actively building his image as a person driving the anti-drugs campaign even outside of the NCB. In January this year, he was a keynote speaker at a session on emerging trends and challenges in drug abuse cases at Mumbai’s civic-run Sion Hospital. He has also associated himself with the central government’s ‘Nasha Mukt Bharat Abhiyaan’ and has held about 10-12 sessions spreading awareness on the issue in the slums of Mumbai, Navi Mumbai and Thane, the source quoted above said. Speaking to ThePrint, Clyde Crasto, Nationalist Congress Party’s (NCP’s) national spokesperson, said Wankhede’s “image-building exercises” could be out of fear of CBI action. “If he is so clean, why will his own people (NCB colleagues) build a case against him? All this may be a way to digress or take attention away from the truth,” Crasto said. A Washim hero, RSS admirer Despite the Aryan Khan controversy and the CBI case against him, Wankhede is considered nothing but a hero in his home district of Washim. A Washim-based Congress functionary who did not wish to be named told ThePrint: “Nobody from here has reached the level that Sameer dada has reached in his career. Everyone here looks up to him. And we have all known him for years; we know his background. So naturally, there is a lot of support for him here.” He added that Wankhede often offered guidance and access to training and books for youngsters from the district who wished to appear for the Union Public Service Commission exams, or prepare to enter the military services. Another acquaintance of the Wankhede family from Washim said the officer had of late been travelling across Maharashtra districts, such as Akola, Washim, Buldhana and Pune, to different villages to organise guidance sessions on civil service exams with help from local panchayats. Since the end of his stint with the NCB, Wankhede has received awards at the hands of governors who have been BJP leaders, and has also had photo-ops with state and Union ministers, thickening talks of a possible political future with the BJP. In July 2022, Wankhede received an award from the Samman and Salaam Foundation, which was handed over by Uttarakhand Governor Lieutenant General Gurmit Singh and Union Minister Ramdas Athawale. The same month, he also received the Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar award in Maharashtra from the then Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari at the 77th anniversary of People’s Education Society. In February 2023, Wankhede flagged off the Gift City Run 2023 organised by a non-government organisation in Gujarat in the presence of Union minister Parshottam Rupala and Gujarat cabinet minister Rushikesh Patel. In April 2023, Wankhede and his wife visited Chaityabhoomi, where Ambedkar’s ashes are interred. Wankhede smiled and shook hands with Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and was presented with a copy of the Indian Constitution by Shiv Sena minister Deepak Kesarkar. His visit to the RSS headquarters in Nagpur’s Reshimbagh further stoked talks of the IRS officer joining the BJP, but those close to Wankhede and Redkar say the visit could have been out of sheer nostalgia. An acquaintance from Wankhede’s days in Sewri told ThePrint that he was associated with the RSS since childhood. “He used to go to the local shakha every evening with a neighbour, perform the exercises, regale in stories of national heroes and come back,” he said. The acquaintance added that those close to Wankhede wonder why a central agency would investigate him if he was as close to the BJP as believed. “It could be because there is some truth in the case against him. That’s why the BJP would have distanced itself from him,” NCP’s Crasto said. Or on a lighter note, he added, alluding to the BJP’s induction of leaders facing graft probes, “Wankhede may not be easy enough to be washed in their washing machine.” BJP MLA Ram Kadam, meanwhile, described Wankhede as an officer “who works for the nation”. “The BJP always stands by anyone who works for the nation. When he was working as NCB officer, he was trying to eliminate the drug menace and naturally anyone who works for the nation like this, the BJP will support that person,” he added. “It is not about him particularly but as an officer who was working for the country.” (Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)
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