Decoding UP’s nexus of crime and politics
The killing of Atiq Ahmad and his brother Ashraf put the spotlight on the intersection of caste, community and politics in UP. Tackle the roots of the problem
In Uttar Pradesh (UP)’s notorious gang wars, even crime is seen through the prism of caste and community. This is why the sharply polarised reactions to the killing of criminal-politician Atiq Ahmad and his brother Ashraf in police custody under the glare of live TV cameras by assassins chanting Jai Shri Ram should come as no surprise. While senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ministers in UP defended the killing as karmic retribution, Opposition leaders were just as strident in their denunciation of the Yogi Adityanath government. The celebratory note struck by Right-wing Hindu groups on social media is deeply troubling: Is Ahmad’s murder in brazen violation of the rule of law justified because he is a mafia leader who happens to also be a Muslim?
Ahmad’s projection as a Muslim gangster is not an exception. In 2020, when gangster Vikas Dubey was killed in an encounter with the UP Police, social media narratives revolved around an element of Brahmin pride and victimhood. The Yogi government then was attacked by some for killing a “Brahmin Bahubali (strongman)” and, in fact, was later accused of being partial to Thakur gang leaders.
The Brahmin-versus-Thakur gang rivalries are not new in Purvanchal or eastern UP. Nor are the Muslim versus Hindu gang battles. In the 1980s, Gorakhpur was the epicentre of an infamous gang war between Brahmin don Hari Shankar Tiwari and Thakur don Virendra Pratap Shahi. While Shahi was murdered in 1997, Tiwari — probably the first politician to win an election from jail — went on to become a key minister in several UP governments, cutting across party lines. Likewise, the war in the Varanasi-Ghazipur belt between the Mukhtar Ansari and Brijesh Singh gangs, both again led by criminals-turned-politicians, assumed a distinct Muslim versus Hindu character; Singh’s supporters even branded him a “desh-bhakt (nationalist)” don.
What explains this unique caste-community-crime-politics nexus in UP? Rewind to the late 1980s as the Congress began to decline in UP in the face of the twin challenge of Mandir and Mandal. Between 1993 and 2017, UP threw up only one single-party majority government — the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party in 2007: For almost a quarter of a century, unstable coalitions were the norm. Every seat mattered, and winnability mattered above all else. The criminal dons had the clout and resources to win seats in their areas of influence, irrespective of party allegiances. Where once criminals were dependent on politicians for patronage, rickety coalitions ensured a role reversal.
Second, the aggressive Mandalisation of politics, where caste identities determined voting preferences, meant that a caste badge was more important than a character certificate. For example, when “Bandit Queen” Phoolan Devi was given a Lok Sabha ticket from the Samajwadi Party (SP) in 1996, her Mallah or fisherfolk caste identity was a crucial factor in her selection: The SP was looking to widen its Yadav base to include other backward groups. Phoolan, who was later assassinated, went on to win her first election by more than 30,000 votes.
Third, after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, religion became deeply entwined with UP’s coarsened vote bank politics, as did gang loyalties. Each gang leader brought along with him the guarantee of his community’s vote. Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Yadav-Muslim vote bank meant that the likes of Ahmad found refuge in the SP, winning on an SP ticket in 1996 from Allahabad West, having won thrice previously as an independent. Mayawati, also competing for the Muslim vote, made another criminal strongman in Mukhtar Ansari her poster-boy, calling him a “messiah of the poor”. The BJP, in turn, provided space for the likes of Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, once accused of sheltering Dawood Ibrahim’s aides before being acquitted. Ironically, Dawood’s gang was said to be a “mixed” one until the 1993 Mumbai blasts divided the Mumbai underworld, too, on religious lines.
Finally, UP’s gang culture must also be located within the political economy of the state, especially in Purvanchal. A region beset with poverty and backwardness, private entrepreneurship never really took off here. Guns are often available more easily than jobs, and crime is seen as a lucrative option. Kidnapping, extortion, land grabbing, government contracts — a sizable parallel economy has revolved around the bahubalis and their political patrons.
When he first came to power in 2017, Yogi Adityanath vowed to finish this mafia raj: “Agar apradh karenge, toh thok diye jayenge (if they commit crimes, we will knock them down)” was the blunt message from a saffron-robed neta, ironically himself once accused of leading his own vigilante army. More recently, he warned in the UP assembly that “Mafia ko mitti mein mila denge (we will destroy the mafias)”. These hard-hitting one-liners are designed to boost his tough on law and order strongman image, a key factor in his re-election success last year. They have also provided a cover to the police to pursue with complete impunity an encounter raj where the men in khaki appear to have a licence to kill. The UP Police, only last week, said it gunned down 183 alleged criminals in the course of nearly 11,000 encounters in the last six years.
But this thok do (bump off) policy must surely have its limits. While Ahmad’s killing may yield political dividends in UP’s communally surcharged milieu, it has dangerously short-circuited the criminal justice system. As a feared gangster with over 100 cases against him, Ahmad deserves no sympathy; he did deserve, though, like any citizen, Muslim or Hindu, the assurance of due process.
Post-script: At a media event last year, when Yogi Adityanath was asked about gangster Vikas Dubey’s car mysteriously overturning, leading to him being killed in an encounter, the chief minister shrugged it off by remarking, “accidents do happen”. The audience clapped. Is Ahmad’s killing also to be seen as an “accident” and similarly celebrated?
Rajdeep Sardesai is senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal