Rule of the outlaw

Print edition : December 30, 2005

In Ghazipur, Uttar Pradesh, the melding of politics, religion and gang rivalry leads to the killing of BJP legislator Krishnanand Rai and a round of communal riots.

AMAN SETHI in Ghazipur and Mau

BJP president L.K. Advani paying his respects to slain BJP MLA Krishnanand Rai in Varanasi on December 6.-

"THEY say that after killing a hundred men, even a tiger dies of sin, but in Ghazipur they have long crossed that number," proclaims Vijay Singh, a shopkeeper in the town. The mafia-style killing of Krishnanand Rai on November 29 was only the latest incident in a place where shootouts are routine. But the manner of Rai's killing was extraordinary even by Ghazipur's standards. Gangsters on five motorcycles and a Tata Sumo surrounded his car and cut him down in a hail of gunfire.

Rai represented Mohammadabad in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly and was a key member of the Purvanchal unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Besides, he belonged to the powerful Bhumihar caste and was close to local mafia don Brajesh Singh.

Rai's supporters stormed the town the following day, focussing their ire on rival gang leader Mukhtar Ansari, who represents Mau in the Assembly as an independent. The mob attacked shops owned by Muslims and destroyed a mosque at Marda, besides burning buses, motorcycles and even the Dhodade railway station in the town. A First Information Report (FIR) was filed at the Ghazipur police station, naming Mukhtar Ansari, his elder brother and the Samajwadi Party's (S.P.) Lok Sabha member from Ghazipur Afzal Ansari, and Munna Bajrangi, said to be a contract killer from Benaras, as responsible for the killing.

In the wake of the riots in Mau, BJP supporters clash with the police in Lucknow in November.-

Rai's supporters were not satisfied with this. The same day former BJP Chief Minister Rajnath Singh sat in dharna before the Varanasi District Magistrate's office demanding that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) should investigate the killing. Meanwhile, instances of sporadic communal violence were reported from villages and small towns around Ghazipur.

Soon the national leadership of the BJP, too, joined the agitation, with BJP president L.K. Advani launching a `Nyay Yatra' on December 6. He toured the districts of Varanasi and Ghazipur and visited Rai's bereaved family at Gadaur village near Mohammadabad. By that time mosques had been attacked in villages such as Reotipur and Veerpur.

Even as the BJP campaign continued, both Mukhtar Ansari and Afzal Ansari, separately denied to Frontline their involvement in the killing. Afzal said he was in Delhi at the time of the killing and Mukhtar was in Ghazipur jail on charges of rioting and inciting a mob during communal violence in Mau in October. (He was later shifted to a Lucknow jail.) However, it is said that Mukhtar directed his business from jail using a mobile phone. Munna Bajrangi was known to be a close associate of Mukhtar.

MLA from Mau Mukhtar Ansari.-SUBIR ROY

On the street, the feud between Mukhtar Ansari and the Krishnanand-Brajesh Singh duo was well known and the gangs clashed frequently. The Mukhtar Ansari-Brajesh Singh feud, it is said, has its roots in a conflict over a plot of land near Saidpur in the early 1980s between two groups, one led by Makhanu Singh and Sandhu Singh and the other by Sahib Singh and Ranjeet Singh. The matter was decided when Makhanu Singh killed Sahib Singh and swift and brutal reprisals followed.

Over the years, the original plot of land was forgotten, but the feud was not. In his early days, Mukhtar Ansari swore allegiance to Makhanu Singh's gang, while Brajesh Singh joined Sahib Singh's. Soon Mukhtar Ansari and Brajesh Singh were fighting for control over Ghazipur's lucrative thekedari or contract work mafia. Estimated at more than Rs.100 crores a year, the racket, in Ghazipur and its neighbourhood, encompasses areas such as coal mining, railway construction and scrap disposal, Public Works Department construction, and the liquor business.

Apart from contract work, the gangs are involved in extortion, kidnapping, and extraction of protection money and `Goonda Tax'. Thekedari was introduced in the region in the mid-1980s and was controlled by Tata Birender Singh, a local strongman. However, his reign was cut short when he was killed and Brajesh Singh allegedly took over the empire. In the early 1990s, Brajesh Singh cast his net wide and consolidated his empire. However, the friction with the Mukhtar Ansari gang was growing. Mukhtar Ansari entered politics around 1995 and started building an empire of his own.

Mau Mukhtar Ansari brother Afzal Ansari, MP from Ghazipur, before he surrendered on December 8.-

Tensions between the two gangs came to a head in 2001 when Brajesh Singh ambushed Ansari's convoy on the Mau-Lucknow highway. In the shootout that followed, Mukhtar Ansari lost three of his key men and Brajesh Singh was critically injured and declared dead soon after. Mukhtar Ansari was `crowned' the undisputed king of Purvanchal. However, a year later his men spotted Brajesh Singh in the Mau-Ghazipur area and the feud resumed.

Krishnanand Rai entered the Singh-Ansari feud when he contested the Mohammadabad Assembly seat in the 2002 elections and won it. His opponent was Afzal Ansari. Local people say Brajesh Singh financed and supported Rai's campaign. It is said that Rai used his political office to pass on all contracts to Brajesh Singh's gang. In fact, in several statements to the press, Mukhtar Ansari claimed that Krishnanand Rai and Brajesh Singh were working as a team and were planning to eliminate him.

Rai's murder is widely seen as a product of inter-gang tensions, but it also has deep links with the political climate in the region. The region has a numerically significant and politically influential Muslim population, and a Hindu polity that is split on caste lines. Given the strong, and growing, presence of parties such as the S.P. and Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the BJP has found it difficult to harness the Hindu vote. People like Mukhtar Ansari also find it useful to play the Muslim card during elections. As a result, even incidents that are only tangentially linked to religious identities and issues snowball into communal avalanches.

The intersection of politics, religion and gang interests has resulted in particularly high-risk political strategies in the region. The destruction of a mosque in Marda and the attack against three other mosques, and the looting of Muslim-owned shops in the wake of Rai's killing seem to be part of a larger strategy to consolidate the Hindu vote ahead of the elections in early 2007.

A similar situation has been observed in nearby Mau, where a communal riot on October 13 resulted in a curfew that lasted nearly a month. The riot allegedly occurred when the Bharat Milap festival of Hindus coincided with the Muslim Roza rituals. While this has been a communally sensitive issue for years - the Bharat Milap procession passes in front of the Shahi Khatri Mosque - the Ramlila Committee and the mosque's management usually work out an arrangement to safeguard the interests of both communities.

This year, as part of the arrangement, the Bharat Milap procession was postponed to October 29. However, members of the Hindu Yuva Vahini refused to accept the revised schedule and insisted on using loudspeakers just outside the mosque during prayers. A few Muslims disconnected the loudspeaker wires, and this led to rioting. The local BJP units issued statements denouncing the "slaughter of Hindus" and Mukhtar Ansari was arrested on the charge of inciting people during the riots.

In Lucknow, BJP members at a dharna demanding a CBI probe into Krishnanand Rai's killing.-

Matters reached the point where almost any issue could evoke a communal response. Mohammed-Ur-Rehman, the Imam of the Shahi Khatri Mosque in Mau, told Frontline that recently a Muslim youth was lynched by relatives of a Hindu girl he allegedly raped. "For many days the atmosphere was highly charged." said the Imam. "But after a point, both communities realised that the incident, though reprehensible and undesirable, was a rape case and not a communal one."

In the Mau-Ghazipur belt, indeed in most of eastern Uttar Pradesh, violence is routinely justified on the grounds of religion, and religious violence is often used as a cover for furthering political and gang agendas. Several interest groups, including the real estate lobby, used the communal riots in Mau to settle individual scores. The first targets in the riots were shops in the main street where landlords and tenants have been engaged in bitter struggles over the ownership of shops. Many of the shops targeted were those with histories of tenancy disputes. In many cases, landlords set fire to their own shops to destroy the businesses of their tenants and regain control. On the other hand, in the Ghazipur riots, inter-gang violence was given religious overtones in an attempt to make political capital.

In terms of the immediate effect of the Mau incidents of October and the Rai killing, the BJP has undoubtedly sensed an opportunity to reactivate its Hindutva politics in the region as well as its cadre, demoralised by a string of electoral reverses in the State. Whatever dimensions and direction the pursuit of this politics takes, there is little doubt that an atmosphere of communal tension is steadily spreading across eastern Uttar Pradesh. This tension is also characterised by a foreboding that the Brajesh Singh gang will soon avenge Rai's killing, sparking the next round in the unending gang wars of Ghazipur.

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