Live on television on Saturday night, former Indian politician Atiq Ahmed and his brother Ashraf were shot dead by assailants as they were being escorted by the police for a routine medical check-up in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
The killings took place when the three men, posing as journalists in the middle of a media interaction, broke free and gunned down the duo at point blank range in Prayagraj, also known as Allahabad.
In some shocking videos of attackers that surfaced online, the killers can be heard shouting Hindu slogans of “Jai Shri Ram” after shooting Atiq and his brother with a volley of bullets.
The killings come just two days after Atiq’s son, Asad Ahmed and his aide Ghulam, were gunned down in a so-called “encounter” in Uttar Pradesh’s Jhansi by the Uttar Pradesh Special Task Force.
With over 100 cases registered against the gangster-turned-politician, including kidnappings, murders, ransom, extortion and land grabs, Atiq Ahmed, 60, who was elected a legislator and then an MP, has had a long association with crime for over two decades.
Just two weeks before his untimely death, he had approached the Supreme Court seeking protection and feared that he would be killed in a “staged encounter” but the court observed that the state would protect him.
The state government has announced a three-member commission, headed by a former High Court judge, to investigate potential lapses in the security operation.
Notwithstanding the shocking killings, civil society activists and individuals documenting the role of the police in northern Uttar Pradesh have raised serious concerns about whether extrajudicial killings sanctioned by the state have created a climate of lawlessness.
Police data showed that more than 10,900 police encounters have taken place in the state since March 2017, when Yogi Adityanath took over as the chief minister for the first time. A total of 183 alleged criminals have been killed in encounters in six years.
In 2020 alone, 21 people have been killed in police related encounters. Nearly 40 per cent of the persons killed in encounters carried out in the past three years were Muslims, in a state where the minority community comprises just over 19 per cent of the population, according to official data.
“Uttar Pradesh has turned into a police state under the present regime led by Adityanath. The activists, politicians, journalists live under a cloud of fear. They cannot speak, write, or protest against the working of the government or can raise their voices to demand their legitimate rights,” Sadaf Jafar, social activist told DW.
She alleged that a spate of staged encounters has instilled fear in the minds of not just politicians, but also in the minds of common citizens. “The extrajudicial killings are not limited to just encounters but also in data of custodial killings have seen an increase too. The courts are mute spectators,” Jafar added.
Scant regard for legal process
A collection of independent lawyers, activists and researchers called Youth for Human Rights Documentation (YHRD) analysed 17 alleged extrajudicial killings in Uttar Pradesh. In October 2021, the group published their findings which illustrated abject failure of the criminal justice system to ensure accountability for police killings.
“None of the safeguards were followed. In all cases there was no evidence to suggest that retaliatory firing by police was necessary. Furthermore, there was inadequate proof that the dead or accomplices were holding weapons or fired at the police,” a member of the YHRD told DW.
According to Badri Narayan, a professor at Allahabad’s Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute, Adityanath has been unapologetic about police encounters.
“In fact, he projects these acts of the state police as an expression of the security he promised voters during the 2022 UP assembly elections. Over the years, the security plank has created enormous political capital for Adityanath,” Narayan told DW.
“The BJP continues to benefit from it in elections while Adityanath’s popularity soars,” he added.
Tough image popular among voters
Adityanath’s tough-as-nails image as a chief minister and zero tolerance for crime has won acceptance from vast swathes of the public and even official functionaries who believe that a hard-line approach on crime was necessary.
“The murder of mafia Atiq Ahmed and Ashraf is unfortunate, but there is a breach in the security system not only in our country, but all over the world. These lapses must be investigated. But the template used by Adityanath is being used as model against crime in other states,” former director general of police Prakash Singh told DW.
Following the daring killing of Ahmed and his brother, a public interest litigation has been filed before the Supreme Court, asking for it to order the constitution of an independent expert committee under a retired Supreme Court judge.
“In recent times our nation is witnessing the police encounters and deaths in the police custody which prima facie (at first appearance) does not appear to be justified and if such practices remain unchecked, and if such police officials remain unpunished, then it is an alarming situation for the coming time,” said lawyer Vishal Tiwari in his petition.
The state is ‘judge and executioner with absolute impunity’
Though the Supreme Court has in the past issued detailed guidelines to be followed in the investigation of deaths following police encounters, they are seldom followed, say activists.
“A country or a nation is an idea which relies on people ascribing to the social contract of law. The constitution in the preamble itself says ‘We, the People...’ In Uttar Pradesh, this is no longer true. We are not citizens, but subjects. The state comprising all its agents, can play judge and executioner, keeping aside their own codes, with absolute impunity,” Tulika Srivastava, a human rights lawyer, told DW.
“Within a couple of years of his chief ministership, Yogi Adityanath had instructed police to do whatever it wanted so these killings are no surprise. There is no legitimacy to the state anyway.”