The Adityanath government has ushered in an era of unapologetic state vigilantism in Uttar Pradesh.
When gangster-turned-politician Atiq Ahmed and his brother Ashraf Ahmed were brought to Motilal Nehru Zonal Hospital in Uttar Pradesh’s Prayagraj at around 10:30 pm on April 15 for a routine checkup, there was something noticeably unusual in the air. According to a video journalist who was present when the Ahmed brothers were shot dead shortly after, their security cover had been drastically reduced compared to other instances when a posse of policemen had surrounded the prisoners.
“There were barely 10 policemen this time,” said the journalist. He also pointed out that reporters were not prevented from approaching the Ahmed brothers as they entered the hospital compound. “The police were on three sides and we faced them on the fourth side. As soon as they began to respond to media queries, the assailants opened fire from point-blank range.”
According to the Special Investigation Team of the UP Police, the assailants fired 34 bullets in 16 seconds using Turkish Zigana F semi-automatic pistols.
“The hand that fired the first bullet emerged from between the policemen who were flanking them,” said the journalist, who was part of the media cavalcade of OB vans that had trailed the police vehicles that brought Atiq to Naini Central Jail from Sabarmati jail in Gujarat on the morning of April 12.
Atiq, the son of a tongawala who became one of the most dreaded figures in UP, was a five-time MLA and one-time Lok Sabha member. He had over a 100 cases registered against him, and his younger brother, Ashraf, 50 cases. They were brought to Prayagraj in connection with the trial proceedings in cases relating to the murder of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) MLA Raju Pal in 2005; the abduction of Umesh Pal, a key witness in the Raju Pal murder case, in 2006; and Umesh Pal’s murder on February 24 this year. Atiq was lodged in Sabarmati jail in Gujarat and Ashraf in UP’s Bareilly jail. They allegedly plotted Umesh Pal’s murder from the jails before they were shifted to Naini in April.
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The twin murders in police custody came exactly one day after a Uttar Pradesh Special Task Force gunned down Atiq’s 19-year-old son, Asad Ahmed, and his friend, Ghulam Hassan, in an “encounter” in Jhansi after the police intercepted their bike. Both were wanted in the murder of Umesh Pal.
Comparisons to the July 2020 encounter death of Kanpur gangster Vikas Dubey were inevitably made. In various circles, the response to the killings of Asad and Ghulam was “ gaadi nahin bike palat gai (this time, it was not a car but a bike that overturned)”, referring to the similar manner in which Dubey was killed.
In recent years, UP has become known for its model of instant justice, resulting in its growing notoriety as “Encounter Pradesh”. Under Chief Minister Adityanath’s watch, the UP Police have carried out 9,434 encounters—an average of five a day—in the past six years. In these encounters, 1,708 criminals were injured and about 160 killed; and many of them allegedly had links with the opposition parties. According to the UP police, 1,443 policemen, too, were injured and 13 killed in the encounters.
While the UP government has described its crackdown on antisocial elements as showing its commitment to maintaining law and order and eliminating gangsterism in the State, its extrajudicial methods have drawn sharp criticism, with several charges of its police encounters being “fake and selective”.
These allegations come in the wake of the Adityanath government’s propensity to use ruthless state force that has typically disregarded established constitutional procedures. Not surprisingly, Swatantra Dev Singh, a Minister in the UP government and former State unit chief of the BJP, and UP Finance Minister and BJP leader Suresh Khanna both described the killings of the Ahmed brothers as “divine justice”.
It started with the creation of anti-Romeo squads in 2017, ostensibly aimed at “protecting” women from stalkers, which went on a rampage targeting young couples in public spaces. Then the Uttar Pradesh Cabinet Cow Slaughter Prevention (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020, was enacted, resulting in gau rakshaks (cow protectors) assaulting cattle traders.
The Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, 2021, saw vigilante gangs attacking young couples from mixed communities. Then came the liberal use of the Uttar Pradesh Gangsters and Anti-Social Activities (Prevention) Act, 1986, to demolish and confiscate the property of accused persons and political activists.
The extent of demolition drives across the State earned Adityanath the moniker of “Bulldozer Baba”. During the 2022 election campaign, a viral video showed him sitting in a helicopter and gleefully pointing out to the cameraperson, “Look there, bulldozers have been brought to my rally!” The common thread in all these cases is that the victims most often have belonged either to the minority community or to opposition parties.
Speaking to Frontline, V. Suresh, general secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), raised concerns about police complicity in the killings of the Ahmed brothers. “It is not just a security lapse on the part of the police. A much more disturbing issue is how the killer gang knew that a media meeting would be held in the open, outside the hospital,” he said, questioning why the checkup was scheduled at such an unusual time and why, despite security concerns, the police allowed the media to meet Atiq in a public space. Suresh said that since the time the Adityanath government asssumed office on March 19, 2017, the Chief Minister had “unleashed a plan to eliminate alleged criminals and gangsters with his ‘ thok diye jayenge [They will be knocked out]’ policy. He has also unleashed ‘Operation Langda’ by which alleged criminals are shot in the legs, incapacitating them for life.”
Atiq seemed to have had a foreboding about his impending fate. On the way to Naini Jail from Gujarat, he appealed to the Adityanath government to spare his family. “I’ve been reduced to dust, now spare our women and children,” he said, while talking to the media from inside the police vehicle. He had also petitioned the Supreme Court for protection, but on March 28, the apex court denied him relief, telling him the state machinery would protect him. On March 29, while being moved from Prayagraj to Bareilly jail, Ashraf told the media that a senior police officer had told him he would be killed in the next two weeks. Ashraf said that he would soon reveal the officer’s name.
Vishal Tiwari, a member of the Supreme Court Bar Association, has moved a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court seeking an independent probe headed by a retired Supreme Court judge into the killing of the Ahmed brothers while in police custody.
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Adityanath does not seem fazed. On February 25, a day after Umesh Pal’s murder, he had declared in the Assembly that he would “reduce the mafia to dust”. He was responding to Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Akhilesh Yadav’s questions on the law and order situation in the State. Within the next 50 days, at least six of the 10 accused persons named in the FIR in the Umesh Pal murder case were eliminated.
The FIR named five as the actual shooters: Vijay Chaudhary (whom the government named Usman even though he was not Muslim), Arbaaz, Asad Ahmed, Ghulam Hassan, and Guddu Muslim. Arbaz was killed in an encounter on February 27, three days after Umesh Pal’s murder; Vijay Chaudhary was gunned down by the police in Prayagraj on March 6; Asad and Ghulam were the latest to fall to police bullets.
Atiq’s wife, Shaista Parveen, who had announced her intention to contest the mayoral election on the BSP ticket in Prayagraj, has been declared an absconder in the Umesh Pal murder case. (The Uttar Pradesh State Election Commission has scheduled urban local body elections in the State in two phases, on May 4 and 11.) After a local court denied her relief, the police have doubled the reward money on her to Rs.50,000. Two minor sons of Atiq and Shaista, who were picked up after Umesh Pal’s murder, are currently in a juvenile home; two other sons, Omar Ahmed and Ali Ahmed, are in jail in separate cases relating to abduction and extortion. Ashraf’s wife, Zainab Fatima, is also an accused in the Umesh Pal murder case.
It is being speculated that another jailed gangster-turned-politician, Mukhtar Ansari, will possibly meet the same fate as Atiq. The police have declared a bounty of Rs.75,000 on Mukhtar’s wife Afshan Ansari.
Fear is the key
For at least two days after the Ahmeds were killed live on camera, the Prayagraj administration imposed curfew-like restrictions and suspended Internet services. “For the first time, we felt as if we were in Kashmir,” said Manish Kumar, a research scholar at the Political Science department of the University of Allahabad. Shashank Anirudh, who graduated from the university’s Law Department last year, said, “The BJP government cannot protect either someone like Umesh Pal or Atiq in police custody. No one feels safe, anything can happen to anyone, anywhere.”
In the Motilal Nehru Zonal Hospital neighbourhood, voices fall to whispers at the sight of mediapersons. No one has the courage to speak to the media, especially after three crude bombs were hurled near the home of Atiq’s lawyers, Dayashankar Mishra and Vijay Mishra, on April 18. The Mishras told the media that a letter written by Atiq was being sent to the UP Chief Minister and the Chief Justice of India, as instructed by him in the wake of his anticipated death.
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Some Muslims in the area claimed that the police brought in the killers, who were in civilian clothes, minutes before Atiq’s arrival. According to them, the police had the Ahmed brothers eliminated instead of killing them directly in an encounter.
THE ‘ENCOUNTER’ MODEL
Several questions linger in the Ahmed brothers’ killings. One, the UP Police was slow in seeking the custody of the three shooters. The Duty Magistrate sent Lavlesh Tiwari, 22, Mohit Singh alias Shani, 23, and Arun Maurya, 18, to judicial custody on April 16. They were taken into police custody only four days later. Also, the police, instead of making copies of recordings, took into their possession all the private CCTV recorders found near the crime spot just two hours after the incident occurred. And four, sources claim that the three shooters were not known to each other before the incident, so it is curious that they would each arrive independently at the scene armed to kill.
All three have a criminal past and belong to three different districts of UP. Shani Singh, a resident of Hamirpur, has a long criminal history. He was released on bail in 2019 but did not appear in court thereafter. Arun Maurya, alias Kalia, a resident of Kasganj, accused of killing a constable, was booked last year in Haryana’s Panipat district, and was out on bail. Lavlesh Tiwari, a native of Banda, was charged in several petty crimes and got bail last year.
The Uttar Pradesh government has set up two special investigation teams and a judicial commission to probe the killings.
- The twin murders of Atiq and Ashraf Ahmed brothers while under police escort are emblematic of the Adityanath government’s model of instant justice.
- In recent years, UP has become known for its model of instant justice, resulting in its growing notoriety as “Encounter Pradesh”.
- Under Chief Minister Adityanath’s watch, the UP Police have carried out 9,434 encounters—an average of five a day—in the past six years.
In the Chakia area of Prayagraj, which was home to Atiq and his family, many residents remember him as helping the poor and needy, getting them medical care in government hospitals with just a phone call. He did not discriminate between Hindus and Muslims, they said. His now demolished house was known as “ Saansad ji ka durbar” (the MP’s durbar). After this palatial house was demolished in 2020, Atiq’s family moved to a relative’s house in the same area. This house too, in Kasari Masari locality, was demolished in March this year.
Using property demolitions to fight crime has not been restricted to those with a criminal record. In June last year, the house of Javed Mohammad, Welfare Party of India leader and father of activist Afreen Fatima, was demolished after he was arrested on charges of inciting violence during a protest held for the controversial remarks on Prophet Muhammad made by the now-suspended BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma. In February this year, Pramila Dikshit, 45, and her 20-year-old daughter Neha immolated themselves when the administration tried to demolish their home in Kanpur’s Madauli village. The police said the action was taken on the basis of a complaint that the house was built on encroached land.
“Only in those cases where the State government is held accountable does it cite ‘illegal construction’ as the reason, mostly saying the house didn’t have its construction map cleared by the authorities,” said Seema Azad, editor of the bimonthly Dastak magazine and organisation secretary of the State’s PUCL unit. “Going by this rule, the majority of the houses in UP will have to be demolished as they lack proper documentation.”
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The killing of the Ahmed brothers is not uniformly condemned. At the Indian Coffee House in Prayagraj, which is abuzz with political discussions, many patrons justified the killings, citing the broken criminal justice system in the State. “He [Atiq] had been playing hide and seek with the law for the past 30 years,” said a resident.
On social media and mainstream television, commentators and anchors have taken pains to enumerate the various heinous crimes committed by the gangsters in a bid to show that the enormity of their crimes justifies the extrajudicial nature of their deaths.
Crime and politics
In heated exchanges between Adityanath and Akhilesh recently, the former accused the SP of patronising the mafia, saying that the party had a policy of “one district, one don” when it was in power. A few days later, the SP issued a list of strongmen from the Rajput community with several criminal cases against them, alleging inaction by the government because of their caste affiliation. The list included the names of former MLA Kuldeep Singh Sengar (convicted in the Unnao rape case), MLA Raghuraj Pratap Singh (Raja Bhaiyya), Brijesh Singh, MLC Vinit Singh, MP Brij Bhushan Singh, and former MP Dhananjay Singh.
In January last year, Akhilesh derided Adityanath, asking him to form a “Mafia BJP League” and tweeted a video of Dhananjay Singh, an accused in a murder case and a declared absconder, inaugurating a cricket tournament in Jaunpur district. In the run-up to the 2022 Assembly elections, Akhilesh accused the BJP of giving the ticket to 99 candidates with criminal antecedents. He has persistently been accusing Adityanath and his deputy, Keshav Prasad Maurya, of withdrawing criminal cases against themselves after coming to power.
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In March, the SP shared a picture of UP Minister Nand Gopal Gupta “Nandi” with Atiq. At a press conference on March 6, Atiq’s sister, Ayesha Noori, accused Nandi of not returning Rs.5 crore that he had allegedly taken from Atiq, a charge the Minister has denied.
Though the Congress has accused both the SP and the BJP of being hand-in-glove with criminals, the party’s own Rajya Sabha member, poet Imran Pratapgarhi, is known to have had cordial relations with Atiq.
The Adityanath government has faced sharp criticism for its insensitive handling of the Unnao rape case, while his party is also under fire for stalling action against Brij Bhushan Singh, the BJP Lok Sabha member from Kesarganj constituency, the chief of the Wrestling Federation of India and accused of sexual harassment. Women wrestlers went on protest for months before an FIR was registered against Brij Bhushan.
Pointing to the suspicious death of the Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad chief, Narendra Giri, in Prayagraj last year, many people said the police investigation in such cases was inconclusive because of political reasons. Under Adityanath’s rule, more than two dozen sadhus have allegedly been murdered in UP, related to disputes over control of Hindu sects, akharas, followers, wealth, and properties of shrines and temples.
Beyond the encounters and the demolition that drive the government’s claims about having improved the law and order situation in UP, has anything changed for the masses? “The police under Adityanath have only targeted big criminals who are not politically suitable for his party. In Prayagraj, petty crimes like snatching of purses, mobile phones, and chains have increased after the pandemic. Drug abuse is also on the rise among the youth,” said a rickshaw driver. Women’s organisations have consistently pointed to the rise of crimes against women in the State.
But such views get drowned in the crosscurrents of Hindu nationalism and electoral politics. Ahead of the Assembly elections last year, a special edition of Panchjanya—a weekly published by the RSS —showcased the achievements of the Adityanath government. It carried articles written by two former UP police chiefs, Vikram Singh and Arvind K. Jain.
Writing about policing under previous regimes in UP, Jain claimed, “The police department had got paralysed. From recruitment to transfers and postings, corruption would rule the roost. There was pressure not to act against people from a particular community. The criminals had to be set free.” But when the government changed in 2017, he said, “UP got a saint as Chief Minister who is committed to truth and justice. He has ushered in an era of fearless and corruption-free Uttar Pradesh, where there is no room for communal riots.”
Singh’s piece carried a picture of Atiq’s demolished house in Chakia, and said that large-scale encounter killings had demoralised criminals in the State.
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At a rally in Balrampur in 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi too lauded the Adityanath government for using bulldozers against the mafia. “Under previous governments in the State, women had to think 100 times before stepping out of their homes. But under the Yogi government, criminals have to think twice,” he said.
Modi had also praised Adityanath for imposing heavy fines on rioters. Last year, however, the Supreme Court ordered the State government to refund the crores of rupees it had fined those who had protested the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.
Political commentators believe that the normalisation of state vigilantism has several perils. “Corruption has two meanings. The shallow one is bribery, the exchange of money for benefit. The deeper meaning is about the erosion of the state and its institutions,” said author and activist Aakar Patel. “When the governing political party encourages what Uttar Pradesh is witnessing, the bureaucratic apparatus will be affected permanently. This is not how democracies function, and it is for good reason that many studies hesitate to call New India a democracy.”
The regime has shown no regard for due process, said Seema Azad, concluding, “The government is not demolishing the mafia raj, it is demolishing law and order.”