Canker of criminalisation

Published : Feb 25, 2005 00:00 IST

The recent killing of three legislators in three different States and the large number of persons with criminal antecedents contesting the ongoing Assembly elections point to the increasing criminalisation of politics in the country.

IT may be difficult to predict what course national politics will take in 2005, but the happenings in the first month of the year in places as varied and far-flung as Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh point towards one definitive trend - increasing criminalisation of politics.

The developments that highlighted this appalling drift have been numerous. The brutal daylight murder of three members of different Legislative Assemblies, allegations about the involvement and complicity of political rivals and sections of the administration in the murders, Members of Parliament getting booked for violation of rules and possession of illegal arms, and charges about nexus between gangs of kidnappers and politicians all formed part of these occurrences.

To top it all, a large number of persons with criminal antecedents were once again in the fray in the February elections to the Assemblies of Bihar, Jharkhand and Haryana. There have been debates in political circles and in the media about the criminalisation of politics for long, but what the developments in the first month of 2005 have underlined is that overwhelming sections of the political class have accepted this horrifying trend as a matter of routine. Consequently, criminal practices are being employed in an increasingly blatant manner.

The fact that two of the three MLAs who were murdered in January - Paritala Ravi of Andhra Pradesh and Raju Pal of Uttar Pradesh - were themselves products and practitioners of "muscle power politics", exemplifies this. Both Ravi, the 45-year-old Telugu Desam Party (TDP) legislator who was gunned down in Anantapur on January 24, and Raju Pal, the 27-year-old Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) MLA murdered on January 26 in Allahabad, were involved in numerous criminal cases, with charges ranging from murder to dacoity. Their political reputations were essentially related to the ability to force their way through people and situations through means fair and foul.

However, the same could not be said of Mahendra Prasad Singh, the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist, Liberation) member of the Jharkhand Assembly, whose murder on January 16 was the first in the series of political killings. He was a widely respected and hard-working legislator, known to champion "people's problems and issues" both in the Assembly and outside. His social and political interventions throughout his three tenures as an MLA were marked by integrity and sharpness. In the past five years, he had exposed many omissions and commissions of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Jharkhand, inspiring some observers to describe him as "the real Opposition" to the government, although he was the lone MLA of his party.

In spite of the dissimilarities, the murders of all three MLAs were followed by allegations of involvement or complicity against the governments or sections of the ruling parties of the respective States. In the case of Ravi's murder, there were allegations against even Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Rajashekhara Reddy and his son. The First Information Report (FIR) on Pal's murder named Ashraf Ahmed, Pal's political rival and brother of Atiq Ahmed, Lok Sabha member of the Samajwadi Party (S.P.). Ashraf Ahmed was arrested within two days of the murder and sent to judicial custody. In Mahendra Singh's case, his family and colleagues have named a number of politicians and even a senior police officer as the conspirators.

Another common thread binds the circumstances behind the killings. All three MLAs were thorns in the flesh of the ruling parties of their respective States. Mahendra Singh's exposures had put large sections of the State government and its officialdom, including police officers, in great discomfiture. He was also preparing to contest once again from Bagodar, a constituency he had represented in the Assembly for three consecutive terms. Though initial investigation in the case has not revealed any tangible evidence pointing to the reasons for the murder, the natural surmise is that those at the receiving end of Mahendra Singh's exposures would not have wanted his return to the Assembly.

The Jharkhand government's first reaction to the killing was to brand it as the handiwork of extremist Maoist naxalite groups active in the region, who were "opposed to Mahendra Singh's pursuit of parliamentary politics". The naxalites had called for a boycott of the Assembly elections and this was cited to buttress the argument. However, a statement from the naxalite groups disowning responsibility for the murder damaged the credibility of this line. The naxalite groups normally own up responsibility for any act of violence they perpetrate. Their denial as well as the assertions of Mahendra Singh's family and colleagues that the people behind the murder are close to the establishment have turned the investigation towards those at the receiving end of the CPI(ML) leader's exposures.

In Pal's case, the obvious assumption is that the young BSP MLA was murdered basically because he had succeeded in wresting the Allahabad West seat in a byelection held in October 2004. The seat had virtually been the personal fiefdom of Atiq Ahmed, who has won the seat under different labels ranging from that of an independent to those of political parties such as the Apna Dal and the S.P. Atiq Ahmed's criminal antecedents are also well recorded in various police stations. The October 2004 byelections were necessary because he had vacated the seat following his election to the Lok Sabha from Phulpur constituency. Ashraf had contested the byelection and lost to Pal.

According to Home department officials and senior police officers leading the investigation, the political rivalry between Pal and Ahmed was only a continuation of the duo's struggle to dominate the underworld of Allahabad. "The status of a legislator," said a senior police officer on condition of anonymity, "would have helped both Ahmed and Pal to advance their other, not strictly political, interests."

Unlike in Jharkhand, the investigation ordered by the Mulayam Singh Yadav-led S.P. government followed these natural assumptions and arrested Ashraf Ahmed. The police have also succeeded in arresting the alleged "actual killers" of Pal, namely Ranjit Pal and Farhan Ahmed. According to the police, the duo had long-standing personal enmity with Raju Pal. Ranjit Pal hails from the slain BSP MLA's ancestral village of Newan near Allahabad, and Farhan Ahmed's father Anees Ahmed was allegedly murdered by Raju Pal in 1999. The duo also said that the murder had been planned and directed by Ashraf Ahmed, while they executed it. The manner in which the duo executed the plan was so brutal and indiscriminate that apart from Pal, two others were killed and six injured in their shooting.

There were allegations immediately after the arrest of the "actual killers" that this was an attempt to help Ashraf Ahmed go scot-free in the case. However, the public statement of the "killers" that Ashraf had planned the murder and that he had given the logistical support to chase Raju Pal and shoot him prevents, at least for the time being, any attempt to absolve the S.P. MP's brother.

REACTIONS to the murders in all the three States were marked by violence and anarchy. Supporters of Pal and his party went on the rampage for three full days, burning down police outposts and vehicles, including buses and police jeeps. BSP supporters also attacked the houses of S.P. leaders, including that of S.P. MLA Bijma Yadav, with bombs and firearms. The S.P. MLA and his supporters returned fire, killing a BSP supporter.

The tussle also took a communal turn for a brief period as Pal's mother, Rani Pal, made statements about a Muslim conspiracy to annihilate her son. The manner in which the police cremated Pal's body - without handing it over to his relatives or even informing them - also aggravated the situation. There was another emotive dimension to the post-murder violence - Pal had got married only five days before his killing. Such was the spread and ferocity of the mayhem that the national highway passing through Allahabad had to be closed for three days after the murder. Finally, the situation was brought under control by pressing the Rapid Action Force into service.

In Jharkhand too, the protests of CPI(M-L) supporters started from Saria near the small town of Giridih, where Mahendra Singh was killed, and later spread to other parts of the State such as Bokaro, Dhanbad, Koderma and Hazaribagh. Agitated CPI(M-L) cadre set up roadblocks and attacked government offices and vehicles. Significantly, party spokesman Tridip Ghosh said that that the CPI(M-L) would not wait for the law enforcement agencies to arrest the "real culprit" and would take "decisive action" on its own. Obviously, the spiral of crime is bound to grow.

The list of candidates for the Assembly elections also affirms that the criminal presence in the political firmament is on the rise. According to informal estimates, there are more than 250 "recorded" criminals in the fray for the 243-member Bihar Assembly alone. What this ultimately means to the polity is anybody's guess.

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