Hyderabad, going by the popular image which it often plays up to, is famously laid-back. The 21st century has obtruded onto this space of charm and minars, as it must, via the infoczars who rule the city’s expanding western edges, and all the attendant yuppie markers of speed: fast roads, fast WiFi, fast consumption.
Yet it came as a shock when national headlines spoke of a different kind of consumption—that of synthetic drugs and hallucinogens—hovering like a dark haze over its yuppie salons. The clients: techies, Tollywood figures, and worse, school and college students. From the volumes of contraband, and the length to which the end-users would apparently go to lay their hands on them, this was no dalliance of a few snorts on the dance floor.
Cocaine coming into Hyderabad is sourced from Colombia, and routed via the North and Goa. They are heavily adulterated too.
But it was through a tangential set of events that this whole dystopic scene came to light. First, a man was caught with large quantities of hooch, by the people whose original beat it was to go after bootleggers: the Prohibition and Excise (P&E) department of Telangana. Once he cracked, though, a totally unexpected part of the landscape opened up. At a July 2 press conference, P&E officials claimed to have busted three big drug dealers—Abdul Wahed, Abdul Quddus and Calvin Mascarenhas. Brothers Wahed and Quddus, one of whom was a techie, were supposedly intoxicated and riding a scooter one night. They saw a checkpost, tried to run and were arrested. They allegedly had on them 38 LSD blots.
Mascarenhas, reportedly a techie-turned-musician who was storing the LSD and dealing it through pushers and has links with Tollywood as an event manager, had the looks of a kingpin, and was made out to be so. Reason: he was caught with 650 pieces of LSD blots, about 30 grams of MDMA (the generic name of Ecstasy), besides a couple of kilos of marijuana. Mascarenhas’s lawyer, K. Reventh Rao Gopalaswamy, is keen to disabuse you of the notion. The police have no evidence that he was selling drugs to children, says the lawyer. “Defamatory statements have been selectively leaked to the media.”
Soon, another character was built up in the media with the colourful name of ‘Mountain Bob’, but he turned out to be small fry. ‘Bob’, Brendan Ben in reality, was bailed out. “His phone was taken away and not even shown in the seizure list, but they claim he introduced Mascarenhas to Tollywood celebrities. The only recovery from him was a single blot of LSD,” says N. Ravi Teja, Ben’s lawyer.
Popular actor Ravi Teja was questioned in the crackdown on drugs
Drugs, to be sure, are not entirely new to Hyderabad. The old Indian staple, marijuana, which is legal next door in Orissa, was always there. It’s the invasion of harder drugs that’s making everyone break out in blisters. Meth (cystal or ‘speed’), LSD, Ecstasy...and newer rave party faves. The volumes of heroin (or its cruder street variety smack) here are reportedly negligible in comparison with other metros, but there have been murmurs of cocaine used in high society. Since last year, several government officials have been busted running drug rackets.
It’s the social zones these are flowing into that’s of concern. A special task force, set up under P&E’s enforcement wing, inducted young constables who could pass off as college students. The team visited pubs, contacted peddlers and infiltrated their WhatsApp groups. “When a constable was hurt during the raid on Mascarenhas, we decided to stop,” says an official. “By then, we had busted the LSD matrix and were onto bigger things.”
Charmme Kaur was among Tollywood personalities under the scanner
Or, rather, a deeper network of dungeons. In a city that has a place called Cyberabad embedded within it, it’s not surprising that its corollary—the ‘dark web’—too would thrive. The dark web is like a subterranean space within the internet, far beneath the surface hubbub of the Facebooks and Googles, so named because it stays unpoliced and hidden from those without technical knowledge. It can be used as marketplaces for illegal arms and, yes, drugs.
The techies were allegedly tapping these spaces which are now coalescing into a giant, global network. Someone inevitably smelt a business opportunity and widened the loops further, lassoing in Tollywood filmstars, as well as youngsters with cash to burn. P&E first cracked the ring with help from techies; soon, the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) was on the spoor.
“It’s difficult to track delivery, because LSD is easily slipped into brochures, pamphlets, books and delivered by post or courier. The NCB does not have the manpower to track drug users, so there’s no way of knowing the new sources they use,” says an NCB official.
P&E suspects one Piyush Auluck to be a major stockist for many of these dark web-sourced drugs. When he was busted, they found stash, including an Indian version of Viagra and 2,746 “suspected LSD blots”. If lab tests confirm this, it would place the bust at nearly 3,500 LSD blots—1,000 more than last year’s haul in Chennai.
The social profile of sellers and buyers is intriguing. In April 2016, a techie was busted with 2,500 LSD blots. He’d presumably found that selling drugs to school and college students was more prrofitable than his Rs 50,000-salary IT job. A startup whiz was also busted for allegedly doing it just for a high.
The drug-busters were horrified when many clients were identified as school-going youth—from some of Hyderabad’s most elite private schools. Messages promptly hit the phones of parents and principals. Though several of them were loath to even entertain the possibility, children from affluent backgrounds were in reality partying and introducing the drug to each other—the authorities had 200 names, there could be many more. For some children it was fun, for others an escape from stifling academic and peer pressure, teenage hormones and low self-esteem.
The price was between Rs 1,500-3,000 per blotting paper of LSD (the cost price for dealers is Rs 800-2,000). Money was not an issue. Rich parents with no time for their children—politicians, bureaucrats, top executives of construction and tech majors, owners of hospitals et al—routinely compensate with easy money, creating an ambience that even less endowed parents sought to emulate.
In some cases, children created fake tuitions to get hold of large amounts of fees. The most affluent just asked for the money and got it. Some middle-class kids introduced their friends to the habit so that they could fund it. One 15-year-old was invited to a closed party at a friend’s place. At the do, the friend slipped her a minuscule piece of paper to place on her tongue, so “she wouldn’t reek of alcohol”. The next day, she did not ask her friend for more; she asked for the number of the ‘source’ INStead. A WhatsApp message later, she made her first score.
In some cases the children adopted murkier paths. In one, sources say, a child of 13-14 sent a nude selfie to a dealer as payment. Officially, the authorities only let on that they reached out to schools, but senior P&E officers did call up both drug-using children and their parents, though not call them in for questioning. Nor are they likely to figure as witnesses.
Actress Mumaith Khan was pulled out of Bigg Boss for questioning
“LSD is considered an entry-level drug; people do not stick to it for long,” says Akun Sabharwal, P&E director and head of its SIT on drugs. Yet, many LSD sellers were also dabbling in dealing cocaine. What’s to say they won’t convert some of their LSD users to coke sniffers?
“Schoolkids using drugs is not limited to Hyderabad,” says Sunil Kumar Sinha, NCB zonal director. “The typical reaction is to assume there’s a sudden increase of addiction in that city. (But) busts only mean the enforcement agency is cracking down,” he says. Dark net-sourced drugs are a rising phenomenon in all major metros, he adds, admitting no survey exists of the number of drug users in India. Even overdose deaths are not reported.
For all the horror, the focus on students had a low shelf life. Their influential backers meant schools could put pressure on politicians, which transmitted it down to P&E. Thereon, it wasn’t difficult to manipulate media attention a bit, dangling drugs and films as a spicier mix.
As soon as sleuths dug into dealers’ call records, they found cocaine lines going all the way to Tollywood. If the probe into teenage abuse was discreet, this one happened in the full glare of flashbulbs, splashed across acres of newsprint. Tollywood celebrities were hauled in and—as the editor of a Telugu channel described it—“grilled for days, like terrorists”.
At the July 2 press conference, they let out that a film personality was using cocaine. Feverish media speculation centred on film director Puri Jagannath. He issued hot denials but the notices were on their way. In all, 12 film personalities were questioned—including actress Charmme Kaur, and two, Mumaith Khan and another actor, were pulled out of Telugu Bigg Boss to be questioned.
Calvin Mascarenhas, from whom a large cache of drugs was recovered
Nobody confessed officially (they could anyway deny it in court), but a senior official confides that many Tollywoodians admitted to using drugs. “Many stars said they don’t even like cocaine and have to go back home and smoke cannabis or take some other downer to balance the high of coke,” he says. Many of these 12 think the grilling was the last they’ve heard of it. But Outlook has it on good authority that some are likely to figure in the upcoming chargesheets, depending on when the forensic tests are in.
One issue is that the government wanted the scandal to die down. The probe couldn’t be handed over to the police, as two police officers’ children were allegedly using drugs. But now, focus has shifted to the cocaine trails into Hyderabad.
Ultimately sourced from Colombia, the drug is routed via north India and Goa. Following a lead, sleuths nabbed two brothers returning from Goa with a small stash—apparently for pals at the management institute where one of them was studying. Later, a prominent north India-based bureaucrat reached out for them, saying they were his nephews.
“Often, the cocaine is highly spurious. They adulterate it by adding barbiturates, paracetamol, baking soda etc to increase their margins—both local dealers as well as dark-web pushers,” says Sinha. In the Hyderabad seizures, several dealers were found with these chemical additives. Auluck allegedly had 40 grams of caffeine powder, which too is used to lace cocaine.
For a while, the probe even pointed to a link in the 2008 Scarlett Keeling murder case. The amount of coke recovered till now doesn’t inspire confidence. Officially, till now, there have been 20 arrests and 11 FIRs. But, more names are likely to follow. There’s also talk of a major bust soon, though sleuths are tight-lipped. Once the chargesheets come in, and the drama drifts into the courts, those peddling on the dark web—and more crucially, those consuming it—will have plenty to put in their pipe and smoke.
By Ushinor Majumdar in Hyderabad