High-profile death puts India's drug culture in spotlight
The scene could have been out of a Bollywood melodrama: the son of a famous and recently dead politician is carrying his father's ashes to immerse them in a holy river when he stops over in New Delhi and gets together with friends for an evening of champagne and cocaine.
By the time the evening is over, the lethal cocktail has left one of the friends dead and the young man, 31-year-old Rahul Mahajan, critically ill in hospital.
Mahajan survived. After several days in intensive care, he was discharged, only to be promptly arrested by police for illegally possessing and consuming drugs.
The scandal has stunned India and forced it to recognise what was a well-kept secret - the drug habits of the Indian elite.
For students, businessmen, fashion designers, Bollywood stars, models and the idle offspring of the rich, cocaine flows freely - some police officials say 'as freely as Scotch'. Many users are men like Mahajan who, with no job or career to speak of, spend their time partying on their parents' money.
Mahajan's friend, Bibek Moitra, was unlucky. He was a former aide of Mahajan's father, the charismatic Bharatiya Janata Party politician, Pramod Mahajan, who was murdered by his brother last month in a fit of jealous rage.
Police say Moitra was a regular user of cocaine (or, as it is called, namak, the Hindi word for salt). By the time the servants awoke and put him in a car to take him to Apollo Hospital, he was dead.
What Moitra and Mahajan shared, in addition to a liking for cocaine, was an apparent insouciance about being caught for a crime that can carry a 10-year jail sentence.
'The rich won't stop because they don't fear the law,' said advertising executive Suhel Seth. 'They can pull strings. We need to enforce strict penalties and make examples of some people to deter others. The rich think they have a right to be decadent.'
Rahul Mahajan personified both this attitude and the extravagant lifestyles of the gilded youth of rich families with connections in high places.
He dabbled in filmmaking and trained as a pilot but could not hold down a job. Unable to stand on his own feet and with too much time on his hands, he was a regular fixture at Mumbai parties. When he developed a taste for drugs, he seemed indifferent to the dangers. He might well have felt protected as rich Indian youths had been known to kill people in car accidents or cheat people out of money and evade jail.
Apollo Hospital, for example, originally told the press that no drugs were found in Mahajan's blood or urine. It backtracked when independent tests proved the opposite. Police are investigating whether the hospital tried to protect Mahajan by tampering with the evidence.
But whether the police can make headway in stamping out the use of drugs is another matter. In some circles, cocaine has become as routine as alcohol.
Mr Seth goes further, saying a 'pandemic' is under way. 'Getting drugs delivered to the home is now as easy as ordering a pizza,' he said.
Mumbai film director Vinta Nanda said cocaine snorting was routine in the city's cocktail circuit. 'It's everywhere. Everyone is doing it. It's at every party - a group in a corner taking a line or two. People think it's fashionable and trendy.'
Some Mumbai society hostesses serve sweets known as laddoos: round balls made from gram flour - laced with cocaine.
In the farmhouses of the rich on the outskirts of Delhi, weekend parties typically start with drinking and good food. Late at night, a group will order namak or 's*** from heaven' on their mobile phones using code words. 'After snorting it, everyone is energised, lively, exuberant,' said New Delhi student Rati Kapoor, who was at such a party last weekend. 'Then people start pulling the chairs and tables back and dancing. The cocaine injects a new lease of life and it goes on until 3am or 4am.'
Ms Kapoor said inhibitions would vanish, encouraging casual sex, which was still relatively rare in India. 'At rave parties, the favourite vehicle is the Honda CR-V because it's roomy at the back,' she said.
The high consumption of cocaine was highlighted by Mumbai police's seizure of a 200kg consignment of cocaine - the largest single seizure in Asia.
The only official figures for drug abuse in India were released in 2004 in a joint report by the Ministry of Social Justice and the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime.
It said that about 12 million Indians used illicit drugs. Of these, three million were addicts. Drug misuse, it said, was pervasive in both urban and rural India.
For rural youths, opium is a favourite. For the urban rich, cocaine and Ecstasy are the drugs of choice. A gram of cocaine costs about 6,000 rupees ($1,015). Heroin is considered downmarket, more appropriate for street urchins, rag pickers, and the destitute.
For traditionalists, the use of drugs, along with greater sexual promiscuity, is yet another sign that India is losing its 'cultural purity' and sinking into 'western debauchery'.
'Society is losing its cultural moorings as external influences intrude,' said Samir Parekh, a psychiatrist with Max Healthcare hospital in New Delhi. 'Drugs have greater social acceptability than before and parental authority over the young is weakening.'
What some commentators fear is that India's next generation - more than half its population is under 21 years old - may be affected.
'If drug abuse continues like this, we'll be destroying the intellectual abilities and potential of a generation because no one has the political will to tackle this problem,' said Mr Seth.