Bulldozer and encounter have been the two most proudly proclaimed symbols of the Yogi Adityanath model of governance in Uttar Pradesh. According to data released by the state government, UP Police have carried out 10,713 encounters since Yogi Adityanath became UP CM and adopted ‘encounter’ as a ‘top strategy’ supposedly to strike fear in criminals. The government celebrates this strategy of extra-judicial killings as its biggest achievement which has apparently turned UP into a crime-free state. But when Yogi Adityanath vowed in UP Assembly to ‘wipe out the mafia’ following the sensational murder of Umesh Pal, even staunchest supporters of the Yogi model of encounters could not perhaps anticipate the chain of events that would eventually culminate in the televised assassination of Atiq Ahmed and his brother Ashraf in police custody.
Atiq and Ashraf were not killed by the police that claim to have carried out more than 10,000 encounters in the last six years. They were killed by three young gunmen who coolly surrendered to the police amidst chants of Jai Shri Ram after executing the assassination. The police did absolutely nothing to protect the two men in their custody or to apprehend the gunmen till they themselves surrendered. This utter inaction of the police completely debunks the UP Police claim of pursuing the encounter strategy to combat criminals. The Prayagraj scene was the perfect example of a genuine encounter situation, but the police preferred to watch in complete silence and inaction. A thorough probe may tell us if this apparent inaction on the part of the police was actually a case of complicity.
The handling of the Atiq Ahmed case right from his transfer from Sabarmati jail to Prayagraj to his eventual elimination in police custody has been replete with violations of basic police protocol. The fact that he was brought by road and not by air which could have been much cheaper, quicker and easier in logistical terms was itself a highly questionable decision. Looking at the media coverage of his passage from Gujarat to UP, it becomes rather obvious that the whole purpose was to turn it into a media event and amplify the narrative of Yogi’s war on the mafia. In a completely unheard of manner, the media were allowed to interact with Atiq and Ashraf even as they were being taken for a medical check-up which enabled the assassins to masquerade as media persons and execute the assassination plan.
Equally controversial is the late night medical check-up move. The hospital authorities have said that if informed they could have done the medical check-up of Atiq and Ashraf wherever the police would have kept them instead of requiring the two high-risk prisoners to be brought to the hospital. Former SC judge Justice Madan Lokur has asked what was the urgency to get the medical check-up done at that late hour instead of waiting till the next morning. Several local residents told media channels that the shooters had also arrived in police vehicles. Were the media persons tipped off by the police about the arrival of Atiq and Ashraf at the hospital for medical check-up? How come the shooters posing as journalists were also privy to this information? The media persons covering this event were all local journalists known to the police - how could the three shooters, all outsiders, enter this place pretending to be journalists?
The identity of the three shooters raises many questions. The three came from three different districts and yet they worked in a highly synchronised and coordinated manner. The entire incident makes it very clear that they operated with considerable training and thorough familiarity with the place of occurrence. The arms used by them are highly expensive semi-automatic weapons procured from abroad. Quite intriguingly, the police not only did not make any attempt to confront the shooters but also showed no interest in interrogating them after they had surrendered, happily agreeing to their judicial remand after arrest.
The social media profile of at least one of the shooters reveals a strong Hindutva association. Video clips of the Prayagraj shootout clearly show that the shooters repeatedly yelled Jai Shri Ram. Having metamorphosed first into a slogan of mob-lynchers and communal rioters, Jai Shri Ram is now an assassin’s chant. It is also said that the shooters wanted to become famous by killing Atiq and Ashraf. Whatever may have been the motive of these three young gunmen, there can be no escaping the fact that Yogi Adityanath’s supposed war on the mafia is only seeing the emergence of a new Hindutva-affiliated mafia where young men who should have been marching into a secure future with assured education and dignified job prospects are instead stepping into the world of politicised crime.
With complete disregard for any law or media regulations, some Godi media channels are now baying for the blood of Atiq’s wife Shaista Parveen. And more generally, the Sangh brigade is ghoulishly celebrating the televised assassination as a fitting rebuff to crime that only a Yogi could deliver. If Modi is the Sangh’s anti-corruption icon, Yogi is its poster boy in the war against crime. The experience of the last nine years of the Modi regime at the centre and six years of Yogi rule in UP should now be enough to see through this Sanghi propaganda. On a tactical plane Modi’s crusade against corruption is only a ploy to target the opposition and coerce and lure tainted politicians from diverse camps to join the BJP, and on the strategic level this anti-corruption rhetoric has only served as a façade to institutionalise the most brazen form of crony capitalism and corporate-dominated electoral system. Likewise, Yogi’s war on the mafia is only short-circuiting the fundamental tenets of justice and constitutional rule of law, replacing them with unfettered hate crimes and militarised Hindutva.
Two weeks before his murder when Atiq had appealed to the Supreme Court for protection, the latter had turned down the plea on the ground that Atiq was already in custody of the state. We now have a case of a shocking murder in police custody. It is now time for the Supreme Court to intervene and ensure that the plot behind the murder is fully revealed and the masterminds and perpetrators of this ghastly crime are brought to justice. There is a standing protocol requiring a mandatory probe into every encounter. Have the close to two hundred 'encounter deaths' admitted by the state - the killing of Atiq's son Asad being one of the latest instance - been subjected to any credible probe? It is time the Supreme Court put a brake on the UP government and stop it from routinely resorting to extra-judicial killings.
The Prayagraj murder in police custody can only be a seen as a televised spectacle of collapse of the rule of law in Uttar Pradesh. And while Muslims and Dalits have been overwhelmingly targeted, those who think that others have nothing to fear about the implications of this unbridled raj of terror and impunity, should only keep their eyes open. Apple marketing executive Vivek Tiwari (Lucknow, 29 September 2018), Pramila Dixit and her daughter Neha (KanpurRural, 15 February 2023), police inspector Subodh Kumar Singh (Bulandshahar, 3 December 2018), journalist Vikram Joshi (20 July, 2020), transport manager Shivam Johri (Shahjahanpur, 12 April 2023), college student Roshni Ahirwar (Jalaun, 17 April 2023), Kanpur based trader Manish Gupta (Gorakhpur, 27 September 2021), – the list continues to lengthen every moment in Uttar Pradesh. As we go to press, there is yet another horrific report from Unnao of the burning of a minor Dalit rape victim, her infant son and infant sister by rape accused out on bail. When the rule of law collapses and governance descends into institutionalised lawlessness and impunity, sooner rather than later all will have to pay a heavy price. The Prayagraj murder in police custody should be the final wake-up call for everyone.