I joined a newspaper as trainee reporter in 1995. One morning, I received a call from a showroom complaining about two young men who were trying to take a bike away by paying only half the price. The owners wanted the newspaper to use its influence and stop them. A senior journalist spoke to the two men over the phone and tried to convince them.
Minutes later, the men showed up at the office. They claimed to be student leaders and said it was okay for them to pay less for the bike. “When an influential person makes a few calls, these owners will be ready to give the bike away for free,” they quipped. The senior journalist’s efforts to dissuade them were in vain. They left, challenging the owners of the showroom as well as the newspaper to try and stop them.
One of them later became the president of the Gorakhpur University students’ union. The other gained notoriety as a prominent member of mafia don Shri Prakash Shukla’s gang. He was later elected as an ‘honourable MLA’ from Bihar. In UP’s 2017 assembly elections, he tried to find his footing in Purvanchal and joined the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). When his demand to be fielded in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections from Bihar was not met, he joined the BJP. His induction into the party, much-hyped in the media, was in the presence of a cabinet minister.
The killing of eight of the police officers who went to arrest notorious gangster Vikas Dubey in Kanpur’s Bikru village has raised many issues about the political backing that criminals enjoy in Uttar Pradesh. The government is trying to push the narrative that the killings were a result of Dubey’s “diabolical plan” or trying to blame it on the presence of a mole in the police force and the strategic flaws of the raid.
If we buy this narrative, we will once again ignore the long history of a nexus between politicians and criminals in Uttar Pradesh and west Bihar. Without political backing, no criminal is audacious enough to ambush an entire police team, killing eight of them and fleeing.
In the wake of the Kanpur bloodbath, startling details of Dubey’s criminal history are now emerging. Newspaper stories describe the numerous times he gave a slip to the police, thanks to his political connections. We are told that Dubey has 60 cases registered against him. In 2001, he murdered BJP’s Santosh Shukla, who was then a state minister, inside a police station! Yet, no policemen dared to testify against him.
Recently, journalist Pranshu Mishra tweeted a story on Dubey, which was published in 2001. It detailed how MLAs, MPs and ministers had his back. Upon entering the world of crime in 1990, he narrated, Dubey was initially meant to suppress backward class leaders.
As his list of crimes grew, he also kept climbing the political ladder. For years in his village, either he or a member of his family was elected pradhan. His wife was elected a member of the district panchayat while he polished ties with every political party, including the BJP and the BSP. He flourished when the BSP was in power and became a crucial player in the politics of Kanpur district.
Currently, he had his eyes set on an MLA seat. It is more likely that because of the assembly elections in 2022, the ruling party saw an opportunity to mobilise people by ‘doing an encounter’ of a famous gangster. In this process, the lives of eight police officers were lost.
In the same way that Dubey engaged in criminal activities to exercise his might and establish an empire, several prominent figures also carved a space for themselves in legislative halls of the state or the country. The records of their criminal pasts have been erased and they now lead ‘respectable’ lives.
Tales of dons and gangsters are currently in fashion, with many web-series dealing with these stories. Usually described as ‘far-fetched’, shows such as Raktanchal, Mirzapur and Bhaukal portray the lives of mafia dons and gangsters along with their deep-rooted nexus with politicians and the police.
One of these shows is called Rangbaaz and details the criminal career of notorious don Shri Prakash Shukla. A film was already released in 2005 about Shukla’s life.
For those unaware about Shukla’s notoriety, consider this: he was hired as a contract killer to assassinate Kalyan Singh when he was the chief minister of UP. In his book Biting the Bullet: Memoirs of a Police Officer, Ajay Raj Sharma, the former Special Task Force (STF) chief, gives an account of Shukla’s crimes and how he met his end.
So famous was the terror unleashed by Shukla that Kalyan Singh personally announced the news of the don’s death in the state assembly.
If the political history of Purvanchal for the past three decades is to be penned, a major portion should be dedicated to the role of ‘Bahubali’ (strongmen) and gangsters. From Gorakhpur to Mau, Ghazipur, Jaunpur, Varanasi, Allahabad and beyond, this route also leads to Dhanbad and Mumbai. In Siwan and Gopalganj, adjoining areas of Gorakhpur that fall in Bihar, the stories of petty criminals becoming ‘Bahubali’ and then ‘honourable’ men are still heard.
The stories that the national media missed
Even before the Kanpur encounter, in the past couple of months alone there have been several instances of murders and crimes that involved political leaders or criminals who enjoyed political backing.
In the last week of May, three members of a family were shot dead while another was injured in Rupanchak village in Gopalganj. The Pandey family, which has been in control of Gopalganj’s political arena for decades, was accused of the triple murder.
An FIR was registered against Janata Dal (United) MLA Amarendra Pandey, his brother Satish Pandey, and nephew Mukesh Pandey (who was also the district council president). While Satish and Mukesh Pandey were arrested, Amarendra Pandey was not, despite Rashtriya Janata Dal workers conducting a protest march to demand his arrest.
Another incident that failed to gather national media attention was that an FIR was registered against strongman leader and former MP Dhananjay Singh in Jaunpur of UP by the project manager of Namami Gange on May 10. The project manager accused Singh of kidnapping and extortion.
The former Jaunpur MP was arrested but the project manager withdrew his complaint even before the first hearing in court. The manager claimed that he had taken the step under ‘psychological pressure’ and kidnapping or extortion occurred. One is only left to speculate what kind of ‘psychological pressure’ the manager was put under to withdraw his complaint.
Dhananjay Singh was elected thrice as an MLA and once as an MP. Two cases were registered against him, including charges for murder, while he was the Jaunpur MP. He has added one more case to this list after his term ended.
Dhananjay Singh’s name has also cropped up in the sensational killing of infamous gangster Munna Bajrangi. The gangster was killed inside the Baghpat prison in July 2018. In her complaint, Bajrangi’s wife Seema Singh accused Dhananjay Singh, retired deputy superintendent of police J.M. Singh and a few others of conspiring in her husband’s murder. The police filed a chargesheet against gangster Sunil Rathi but gave a clean chit to the others.
Munna Bajrangi is known to be a close ally of strongman MLA Mukhtar Ansari. He had allegedly murdered six people, including Ghazipur’s BJP MLA Krishnanand Rai, in 2005. Hundreds of rounds had been fired from an AK-47 rifle during the incident.
Bajrangi’s criminal career spanned two decades, with several murder cases filed against him. He was arrested in October 2009. After his arrest, he made several attempts to join politics but his dream never realised.
A long history of political violence
If we go back a few years, many stories of gang violence emerge. It is common for these dons to have political backing.
Mafia don Brajesh Singh is an MLC despite being lodged in jail. His brother Sushil Singh is a BJP MLA from Chandauli’s Saiyed Raza constituency. Cases have been registered against Brajesh Singh in faraway cities like Mumbai and Bhubhaneshwar. As per his affidavit filed during the polls, Brajesh Singh has 11 charges of grave offences against him including murder, attempt to murder and extortion. His brother is accused in five cases, including murder and extortion.
Brajesh Singh and Mau MLA Mukhtar Ansari have been engaged in a long gang war, which has resulted in several killings.
In Mau, Ansari has been elected MLA four times. His affidavit says there are 16 cases with serious offences against him. His brother Afzal Ansari was elected MP from Ghazipur during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. He was an MP earlier too. Mukhtar Ansari’s son has also entered the political fray.
The criminalisation of politics
The criminalisation of politics began during the late 1970s and 1980s, with Gorakhpur as the hub in Purvanchal. When the Gorakhpur University was founded, Brahmins and Thakurs tussled for domination. Student leaders were pawns in this game. Soon, this battle for supremacy took a bloody turn and murders began in quick succession.
Ravinder Singh, a Janata Party MLA and a former president of the students’ unions of Gorakhpur and Lucknow universities, was shot dead at the Gorakhpur railway station on August 20, 1979. A few days later, student leader Rang Narayan Pandey was murdered in retaliation. The series of murders continued for a while.
Two rival ganglords emerged in Gorakhpur – Hari Shankar Tiwari and Virendra Pratap Shahi. Though there were serious cases against them in police records, the media had another story to tell. The newspapers referred to Tiwari as an ‘eminent leader’ while Shahi was called ‘Sher e Purvanchal’ (the lion of Purvanchal). Perhaps to appease both the dons, they were given equal space in papers.
The two gangs had an interesting competition: who had more vehicles in their convoy. It was common for each convoy to have 200-300 vehicles, with rifles pointing out of every single one. Both had stirred up tremendous craze among the youth and students prided travelling with the convoy, brandishing guns.
This period of gang wars earned Gorakhpur the sobriquet of ‘Chicago of the East’.
Shahi and Tiwari later joined politics. Tiwari, a six-time MLA, was appointed cabinet minister several times. Shahi was elected MLA from Maharajganj’s Lakshmipur (now Nautanwa) twice. He even contested the Lok Sabha elections from Maharajganj from inside the prison.
The constituency is currently represented by Amanmani Tripathi, who is facing a court case for his wife’s murder.
Before him, it was his father Amarmani Tripathi who represented the constituency. The senior Tripathi was a minister during the BSP government. He is serving a life sentence for the murder of a poet. Apparently, he is ‘sick’ most of the time and is found at the BRD Medical College more often than behind bars.
No matter who has is in power, the Tripathi family’s clout has never dwindled. When Akhilesh Yadav was chief minister, he visited the BRD Medical College for an event. Before leaving, he visited the private ward where Amarmani Tripathi was admitted and had a ‘brief meeting’ with him.
After being elected MLA, Amanmani Tripathi was seen at various events alongside the chief minister. The amount of influence he casts can be gauged from the fact that he was issued passes at the upper chief secretary level for three vehicles to travel to Badrinath during the ongoing lockdown.
A glimpse at the scale of the problem can be gauged from a report by the Association for Democratic Reforms. In 2017, 143 of the 403 MLAs who were elected to the UP assembly had criminal cases pending against them. That is close to 40% of the house and 26% have serious criminal cases against them.
Even prison walls cannot stop their influence
Allahabad’s jailed mafia don Atique Ahmed contested the Lok Sabha bypoll from Phoolpur in 2018 while still in prison. It was alleged that he had entered the fray to ensure an easy victory for the BJP candidate, though neither of them won. When he was lodged in the Deoria jail, he got a Lucknow businessman picked up, brought to jail, beat him up and threatened him to transfer some land. A case was registered in the matter and Atique has now been transferred to another jail.
Recently, his brother and former MLA Ashraf Ahmed was arrested. The police had placed a bounty of Rs 1 lakh on Ashraf, who has several serious cases registered against him, including the murder of MLA Raju Pal.
Running a parallel government in their respective regions, these names surface time and again in the media. No matter which party is in power, or whether they are in or out of jail, their ‘business’ continues unabated.
How does one go from being a hooligan or rangbaaz in the village to being an ‘honourable’ member of the house? This process works on the principle that ‘all fame is good fame’, even that achieved through thuggery, goondaism and murder. This gets them noticed by established leaders or musclemen and, in turn, earns them political and police protection. Then comes their involvement in contracts, leases and land grabbing. The word is that now, their attentions are also turning to colleges and hospitals as they offer avenues for money laundering.
A battle for supremacy may lead to bloody face-offs. Some of these rangbaaz end up getting killed in these gang wars, others in police encounters.
The ‘successful players’ who manage to pass this phase then reach the assembly and the Lok Sabha and lead ‘honourable’ lives.
These ‘successful players’ may even project themselves as victims of exploitation who had to pick up arms to fight. Films or web series which adapt their stories also portray them as Robin Hood-esque ‘heroes’ for whom violence was the last resort.
It is said that Virendra Pratap Shahi often used to play the song ‘Nayak nahin, khalnayak hoon main’ (I’m not a hero, I’m a villain) in his vehicle. He also claimed to be a hero who was villainised. To build a positive image, he even had a film called Karishma Kismat Ka made. He acted in the movie, playing the role of a generous landowner who helps the poor and oppressed. Not many people turned up for the movie, but the theatres had to keep the shows running on Shahi’s orders.
Then there is another way to eulogise them. The statue of Ravinder Singh, the former MLA who was killed at the railway station, was installed in the Gorakhpur University. When this was done, a local movement erupted demanding the installation of student leader Rang Narayan Pandey’s statue. The violence spread to other parts of the state and did not stop until the second statue was installed.
The ‘successful players’ in the game of criminalisation of politics are also hero-worshipped by other members of their caste. People of their caste are the first to support these players, which gives them political strength. As a result, they become participants in the politics of their neighbourhood, district and, ultimately, the state. Political parties use them, while they misappropriate politics to strengthen their clout. In this way, the ‘criminalisation of politics’ and ‘politicisation of crime’ are inextricably linked.
Democratic movements crippled, but criminals have free reign
One must remember that criminals started receiving political patronage as a way to cripple democratic movements. Like the story that says Vikas Dubey was a ploy to suppress backward class leaders. This same tactic is employed even today. Mass movements against discriminatory laws like the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) are brutally repressed. Students, activists and civil society members are arrested and charged under draconian laws. But why is it that the police’s whip doesn’t crack down on criminals like Vikas Dubey?
Today, political parties hold leaders and public representatives who raise issues that may lead to actual progress in their constituencies with contempt. Such efforts are actively smothered by those in power. The police force is used to silence or persecute such voices. If it is not the police, these parties can also use the criminals and gangsters to whom they provide patronage.
Despite Yogi Adityanath’s claims of creating a criminal-free atmosphere in the state, the fact remains that Munna Bajrangi was murdered inside a jail. Inspector Subodh Kumar Singh was lynched by a rampaging mob in Bulandshahr. When his killers were released, they were garlanded and received a hero’s welcome.
Today, each party has its own league of strongmen and dons. Everyone speaks about the criminalisation of politics, but no one acts against it.
In his public addresses before being elected prime minister, Narendra Modi had vowed to “clean” India’s politics. “No accused (with criminal charges) will dare to fight polls. Who says this cleansing is not possible,” he said, and that the country must “o do away with the criminalisation of politics and delivering more lectures won’t help”.
Six years later, far from that promise being fulfilled, the Kanpur bloodbath makes it clear the criminalisation of politics has reached unprecedented levels.
Manoj Singh is editor of the website Gorakhpur Newsline.
Translated from the Hindi original by Naushin Rehman.