In UP badlands, will Atiq's killing see new breed of criminals who seek fame by targeting bigger fish?
Dealing with criminals with political connections has never been easy for any administration, more so in Uttar Pradesh
The role of organised crime in present-day politics is no secret but the recent shootout in Uttar Pradesh's Prayagraj -- watched by millions of people on TV late on April 15 night -- has shaken even the most diehard sceptic. Atiq Ahmed and his brother Ashraf were shot dead at point-blank range outside a hospital. The two have been referred to as gangsters, but the fact remains that both rose to fame only after winning elections and becoming lawmakers -- as famously mentioned in many news headlines across the world.
The latest chain of incidents indicates that the nexus between crime and politics remains as strong as ever. For a state as vast and overpopulated as Uttar Pradesh, the competition to do well in life and have a distinctive identity is really tough. If Atiq had this urge at the age of 17, so had the three shooters who killed him, as reported after their initial questioning. Atiq and many others before him started from a world of crime, made it big and then thrived as political parties sought them out to contest elections, switch loyalties, influence fellow politicians in times of political instability or defections, and of course, provide money as well as manage it.
Dealing with criminals with political connections has never been easy for any administration, more so in Uttar Pradesh, which has seen the rise of political faces (and parties) based on caste and community – with crime never far behind. Uttar Pradesh has traditionally been associated with religion and ancient heritage. Prayagraj, where Atiq was shot dead, is a holy city where the Sangam – a conjunction of rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the invisible Saraswati – is located, drawing lakhs of pilgrims every year, millions every six years and more millions every 12 years. This temple town was once noted as a centre of excellence in education.
In a marked departure, Yogi Adityanath since he became the Chief Minister in March 2017 has been consistent in his actions to root out criminal gangs, eve-teasers, extortionists and land-grabbers, and eliminate those who were brazen enough not to surrender. The sustained campaign to demolish the criminal empire of Mukhtar Ansari and Atiq Ahmed, as launched by Yogi Adityanath, came as a dramatic change in the state's political environment where the sheer political-criminal clout of individuals like Hari Shankar Tiwari, Amar Mani Tripathi, Shri Prakash Shukla, Babloo Srivastava, DP Yadav, Madan Bhaiya, Ramakant Yadav, Umakant Yadav and others sent shivers down the spine of businessmen and government officials. While these individuals have either been neutralised or rendered ineffective, the crackdown against Mukhtar Ansari and Atiq Ahmed has been long-drawn and bitter. While Ansari is in jail, Atiq is dead.
Soon after Yogi Adityanath assumed office in March 2017, the government had initiated a policy of searching out and eliminating listed criminals in a series of encounters across the state. According to latest figures, the UP Police have gunned down 183 alleged criminals in encounters in the six years of Yogi Adityanath’s government. The number of encounters in this period is more than 10,900 in which 23,300 alleged criminals were arrested and 5,046 were injured.
Incidentally, the journey of Atiq from Gujarat to Prayagraj by road some weeks ago had given rise to a spate of social media memes and gossip about the possibility of his vehicle "overturning" in some accident, leading to his death. This was linked to the much-quoted success of the "encounter" theory which essentially means killing a wanted criminal when he allegedly tries to escape from police custody.
One of the most talked-about encounters was that of the dreaded criminal Vikas Dubey of Kanpur. On July 10, 2020, Dubey was killed when he, according to police, tried to escape while being brought in police custody from Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh to Kanpur. Dubey and his men had, earlier on July 2, attacked a police team that had reached Dubey’s house to arrest him. The shootout had led to the death of eight policemen and Dubey had fled. He was nabbed from Ujjain on July 9 and was being brought to UP when the encounter took place a few kilometres before Kanpur. There was mixed reaction to the killing of Dubey in the encounter -- while members of the police force and a big section of people were satisfied that a cop-killer had been eliminated, civil rights activists raised questions over the entire sequence of events from his arrest to his killing.
The efficacy of encounters to instil fear among criminals is shared widely. In the aftermath of the horrific rape and murder of a woman in Hyderabad in November 2019 that had shocked the entire nation, there were calls to eliminate the perpetrators. Four accused were caught on December 5 by the Hyderabad Police and the next day, the police claimed that the criminals had been taken to the crime scene where they tried to escape and were killed in the ensuing encounter. Politicians, celebrities and common citizens alike had cheered the police action even as doubts were raised around the legitimacy of the encounter.
That brings to the fore the issue of maintaining law and order, which has been a major plank on which successive governments in UP skidded. One of the reasons for the BJP coming to power was the spurt in crime in the state during the 2012-2017 Samajwadi Party rule. Since Yogi has been at the helm, the situation has been much less distressing, but the fact remains that UP keeps witnessing spurts in crime regardless of the party in power. The scenario is inconsistent with the role the state and its people played in the freedom struggle and nation-building in the aftermath of independence.
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But the deep divisions on the basis of caste and community, the overwhelming economic disparity, the blatant show of strength and wealth by those in power and a streak of irreverence for the law have turned the state into a haven for organised crime right since the early 1970s. The most common areas of criminal operation are land and property grabbing, illegal mining, monopolisation of government contracts, extortion, contract killings and kidnapping for ransom. As the flow of money rises, so do aspirations among those who fear being left behind. Unemployed youths find it easy to gather behind influential leaders in the hope of a quick rise to fame and wealth.
The empire of crime built by Atiq may well be demolished for good but his killing has raised a disturbing question -- will it see the rise of a new breed of daring criminals who seek fame by killing bigger criminals? If it happens, it will indeed be a setback for a state trying hard for an image makeover. Serving and retired police officers agree that criminals establish strong political linkages before hitting the big time, and the symbiotic relationship runs across the political spectrum. The current crackdown may make the nexus less visible but it is difficult -- if not impossible -- to eliminate it altogether.
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