Writer- Balbir Punj

The recent gunning down of gangster turned politician Atiq Ahmad and his brother Ashraf in police custody by three assailants and the resulting myriad reactions of various sections of the society, have brought under focus the multiple fault-lines running through the Indian public life.

The sordid murder script, played live on Indian TV channels, was culmination of an over four-decade long crime infested life. It encapsulated the distorted nature of Indian political discourse, failure of its justice dispensation system, collapse of Uttar Pradesh law & order and imperfections of India’s electoral process.

Atiq’s life and death are an archetypal of India’s dysfunctional criminal justice system. The law couldn’t punish or protect him. He lived by crime and was killed by criminals, ironically while in police custody. Law had no relevance, either in his life or death, though he had the moniker of a law maker.

Born on August 10, 1962, to Haji Feroz Ahmed, a tonga walla, Atiq entered the world of crime, at 17, in 1979, when he stabbed a local rival Mohammed Gulam in full public view, and the first murder case against him was registered. Till 2004, he had accumulated 159 criminal charges, in 36 separate cases, according to the affidavit he submitted, along with his nomination for Parliamentary poll. But he was convicted for the first time only earlier this year— 43 years after he had set his crime trail blazing.

For decades, Atiq continued his killing spree, extortion business, kidnappings and land grabbing unchecked, while the spineless system allowed itself to be co-opted by him. His wealth is estimated at over Rs 11000 crores. Obviously, while browbeating the police and political system, he was also managing the revenue authorities through his favourite tools of intimidation and inducements. No serious questions were ever asked about his expanding financial empire till recently.

The upswing in Atiq’s crime graph and growing financial clout were matched by his burgeoning stature in politics. In 1989, Atiq won his first election to Uttar Pradesh assembly from Allahabad west as an independent. He repeated the feat from the same constituency in 1991 and 1993.

Ignoring his criminal antecedents, political parties vied with each other to win him over to their side, because the electorate seemed to endorse Atiq’s brand of politics. His muscle power, gangster image, criminal exploits, traction with in the Muslim community with communal undertones and expanding ‘business empire’ were seen not as liabilities, but useful political assets – bringing to fore the dark underbelly of Indian electoral system.

Atiq won in 1996 on Samajwadi party and 2002 on Apna Dal ticket to the state assembly. In 2003, he re-joined SP, and got elected to Lok Sabha from Phulpur – a constituency which had sent Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru to Parliament in 1952, 1957 & 1962.

Following his election to Lok Sabha, Atiq vacated Allahabad west assembly seat and fielded his brother Ashraf (also his crime partner) in the ensuing by-poll. Ashraf lost to BSP’s Raju Pal. The defeat was too much of an insult for the Ahmed brothers to stomach. Four months later, on January 25, 2005, Raju Pal was shot dead publicly by eight assassins, including Ashraf who was later arrested.

It became difficult for the Ahmed brothers and an acquiescing administration to bury the case because the prime witness Umesh Pal refused to retract his statement. He was abducted on February 26, 2006, on a gun point, threatened to keep quiet. In June 2007, after BSP replaced SP in Lucknow, an emboldened Umesh Pal, lodged an FIR against Atiq and others. On March 28, 2023 – 17 years after the dastardly crime, a UP court sentenced Atiq to life imprisonment in the kidnapping and torturing case. This was Atiq’s first conviction ever.

Don’t miss the irony. The UP police which failed to protect Atiq and Sharif while they were in its custody, couldn’t save Umesh either, who too was under its protection. On February 24, 2023 – 32 days before Atiq’s first-ever conviction, Umesh was shot dead, along with his police body guards outside his house by a slew of gunmen, that included Atiq’s youngest son Asad, who was subsequently killed in an police encounter. The UP police failed to save either don due, or their victim.

The dastardly murder of Atiq-Sharif in police custody can’t be seen in isolation, it’s a part of an ongoing eviscerating of the system, that started long back. When Atiq launched himself as a criminal while in his teens, the system didn’t react. Gradually he was co-opted by a complicit state. He quickly out-grew the system, and eventually he himself became the system.

The worst, the law could do to Atiq was, to put him behind bars. In his case, it was no punishment. Jail was just another working station for him. He ran his crime empire, from the safe confines of prison, ordering murders and issuing extortion threats. The footprint of his terror machine was vast, extending – from media, to politics, to judiciary. In one case, as many as 10 judges refused to hear his bail application. The eleventh judge, who finally did, released Atiq on bail.

Atiq was beyond law, and any punishment, the state could inflict on him. In a given context, he was the law. Rule of law implies – the state has the capacity to enforce law evenly, and it alone has the power to punish. A heavily compromised emasculated state had long surrendered these privileges to the dreaded don.

The way Atiq lived and the manner in which he and his brother met a fiery end, underline the collapse of India’s institutional framework. Some of the outrage following the double murder is understandable. Most of it, however, is motivated by political considerations, a ploy to polarise Muslim votes, rather than any genuine concern for rule of law. This exposes a yet another fault line – why an entire community of over 200 million is sought to be identified with a mafia don by those who claim to be pursuing ‘secular’ brand of polity? Both – in his life and death – Atiq has left behind a smouldering slew of issues which India can no longer afford to sweep under the carpet.

Mr. Balbir Punj is a Former Member of Parliament and a Columnist.

DISCLAIMER: The author is solely responsible for the views expressed in this article. The author carries the responsibility for citing and/or licensing of images utilized within the text.