When Bollywood star Sushant Singh Rajput died by suicide in Mumbai on June 14, the first reactions on social media were about nepotism in the country’s largest film industry and its effect on mental health.
Rajput hailed from the city of Patna in the eastern state of Bihar, and was hailed as one of those rare outsiders in Bollywood to achieve fame, popularity as well as critical acclaim through his films.
However, scarcely anyone could have predicted what came after. On their nightly primetime debate shows, Indian news channels speculated about the state of Rajput’s mental health, peddled unsubstantiated theories about his death and pointed fingers at girlfriend and actor Rhea Chakraborty.
Now, Chakraborty is the subject of an investigation into her finances by 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 is an electoral issue in his home state of Bihar, which is scheduled to vote for a state government 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 where actor Alia Bhatt - also the daughter of filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt - when asked who she would hypothetically kill from three options in a game called Kill, Marry, Hookup, chose Singh Rajput against her option to kill. The channel did not mention the part of the clip where Bhat said, “sorry Sushant” afterwards.
Mumbai Police, which is investigating the actor’s suicide, 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, were not satisfied with the investigation, short of sensation, and held parallel trials on their primetime shows. ABP News recreated Rajput’s autopsy, while Times Now ran a video clip of the actor in apparent good spirits and opined that he was not depressed. In response, prominent journalist Barkha Dutt interviewed the actor’s therapist and was criticised by health professionals for revealing confidential information.
Multiple news channels, especially those considered close to the Indian government, kept up 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 blamed 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 of INR 150 million (about $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 the political parties of Bihar. 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 in 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 as 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 - like descriptions of the way in which he died by suicide - may lead to copycat suicides.
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