It's all quiet on the mafia front in UP, but for how long will the lull last?

It is feared by many law enforcement officers that gang members on the run might take this crackdown as an opportunity to lie low for a while and also use this time to regroup.
From left -- Mukhtar Ansari, Atiq Ahmed, Dhananjay Singh, Ashraf Ahmed, Abbas Ansari
From left -- Mukhtar Ansari, Atiq Ahmed, Dhananjay Singh, Ashraf Ahmed, Abbas Ansari

Will organised crime rear its head again in Uttar Pradesh in the near future? Or, has its back been broken so badly that it will take years to reorganise? While people in the state may be inclined towards the latter opinion, politicians and police officials apprehend that some reorganising already might be taking place despite the outward quiet on the mafia front.

Everyone agrees that crime – big or small – is a part of human civilisation and even the so-called “happiest” countries in the world have their fair share of it. But recent events in UP -- one in which two big crime lords were shot dead in police custody by apparently unrelated killers, and the other in which two politicians with serious criminal background were jailed for years -- have led to the belief that UP might see a lull in big-ticket crime for some time. However, criminal lawyers, serving and retired police officers and politicians agree that unless an environment is created with sustained effort, the socio-economic realities of the state will lead to the emergence of rebels with or without a cause, who might grow into criminals, aided by continuing disparities and injustice.

Many factors that aided in the emergence of criminals in the state since the 1960s are no longer valid. These include bloody fights over government and railway tenders, transport business, coal movement and bootlegging. But monopolising and pilferage in petroleum products, mining and illegal arms continue to be areas where unrelated groups of criminals are still active. More significant than their activities is the patronage of them by politicians because of local, caste or community reasons.

Momentum important

A former director-general of police (DGP) of UP, Brij Lal, who had also been head of the UP Special task Force and Anti-Terrorist Squad (STF and ATS), has been in the forefront of the long battle against organised crime and terrorism-related incidents in UP. A member of the Rajya Sabha, he is considered an expert in tackling crime networks. He says that it is important to maintain the momentum against gangsters and at the same time deprive the criminals of the shield of political patronage. “What is most significant in the current campaign against organised crime in UP is that the economic backbone of the established criminals has been broken by the Yogi Adityanath government,” he said. He asserts that the Yogi government had been steadily working in the background collecting details about the ill-gotten wealth and property of gangsters and seizing or demolishing them. “This weakened the gang members who had nowhere to run, and with their source of income from rent or sale of properties gone, the gang leaders also found it difficult to fund their activities,” he says.

The UP government demolished and seized properties worth several hundred crores belonging to gangsters like Atiq Ahmad and brother Ashraf, Mukhtar Ansari and brother Afzal, and many others in a drive that started a couple of years ago. This slowed down the activities of the gangs and also made many gangsters vulnerable. It is also not a secret that criminal gangs had connections in the police force too. “Many policemen in Prayagraj have been identified for their links to Atiq’s gangs,” says Brij Lal. Similarly, the extent of the Ansari gang’s network was spread across Mau, Chandausi, Varanasi, Ayodhya and Sonbhadra districts. The activities included coal movement, cartelisation of ration shops, diesel wholesale depots and of course, mining, which extended to areas like Dehri-on-Sone in Bihar. “The Mukhtar gang also manipulated the wholesale rates of fish imported from Andhra Pradesh, earning lakhs of rupees daily,” Brij Lal reveals.

It is feared by many law enforcement officers that gang members on the run might take this crackdown as an opportunity to lie low for a while and also use this time to regroup at least locally, to establish some kind of hegemony in extortion, land grabbing and parking rackets in cities big or small. Brij Lal reveals that the control of Mukhtar’s henchmen over ration shops and diesel filling stations still continues in some areas even as the crackdown continues.

However, Brij Lal affirms that the environment will not be conducive for regrouping or re-emergence of mafia gangs “as long as the Yogi government is in power in UP.”

Political patronage

A veteran criminal lawyer and former government prosecutor, Janardan Singh, agrees that political patronage is the biggest strength of criminals of all kinds. “There is no denying that there is pressure when dealing with such cases,” he says. But sustained efforts and serious work by the prosecution are important in sending a message that political patronage might not work beyond a point.

There are always chances of some elements losing out or suffering because of the perpetuation of caste-based politics, construction contracts of capital-heavy infrastructure projects like expressways, bridges, flyovers, airports, railways and bus stations etc, and the lure of making quick money by illegal mining as the demand of sand, coarse sand or stones keeps rising. “Therefore, it would not be correct to say that organised crime has been crushed for good,” says Manish Hindvi, academician and prominent commentator on socio-economic affairs. He says that the façade of organised crime has changed, with the emergence of powerful individuals involved in education mafia, extortion from all kinds of businesses, and doling out government-related favours. “The recent crackdown by the Yogi government on gangsters is welcome, but an impression should not be created that it has a caste or community angle to it. Also, the proclamations of demolishing gangsters as a state policy point towards the possibilities of a police state where encounters are the norm. we definitely don’t want that,” he stresses.

Modern-era crime need not necessarily be gory or violence-oriented, he says, indicating the unprecedented spree of cybercrimes, fraudulent deals in involving land, property and promising jobs with the help of forgery. “The modern or future Bahubalis will be white-collar individuals and it will take measures starting at the grassroots to contain them," he said, adding that wide-ranging reforms in the judicial system and police are an urgent need. While reforms in the judicial process, including conviction, prosecution and pendency need to addressed urgently, reforms in police with respect to working hours, recruitment, separation and burden of duties and compensation are also required.

Already, there is news about Atiq Ahmad’s fugitive widow and erstwhile associates planning to reorganise the late don’s 'business'. After all, at stake could be crores of rupees worth of properties and other assets. Similarly, family members of the Ansari brothers – Mukhtar’s fugitive wife or others on the run or in jail – are said to be working to retain whatever can be salvaged of the Ansari empire.

Whether long-term or short-term, reform measures are always needed in an evolving society. At the same time, crime can never be eliminated totally. Only a balanced combination of tough measures and creation of an environment that is not conducive to gangsterism can control big crime.

(Ratan Mani Lal is a senior journalist based in Uttar Pradesh.)

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