In his own eyes, Atique Ahmed was a do-gooder. Thus, in December 2016, after he entered the campus of the Allahabad-based Sam Higginbottom Institute of Agriculture, Technology and Sciences and beat up staff members, he issued a video message declaring that he was just helping a hapless mother whose son had been suspended from college.
On the now deceased Ahmed’s social media page, it is abundantly clear how closely he identified with this imagined image of a humanitarian. His banner photo has a quote that reads: ‘Kisi mazloom par zulm hote dekh khamosh reh jaana, mere qareeb bagawat hai farman-e-Ilahi se’ (loosely: to stay silent when a poor person is being oppressed is against the will of God).
In Allahabad (now Prayagraj), people that this correspondent spoke to vouched for the 60-year-old criminal-politician’s willingness to solve disputes and resolve tensions. But it all came at a price. “One day you would receive a call to pick up a car from a showroom or to give so many lakhs of rupees to someone. There was no way you could say no,” said one businessman.
Ahmed’s money came from multiple sources, the mainstay of which was property. He would buy land from farmers, plot it and then sell it to builders. The standard modus operandi was to make a verbal commitment and then make the payment when the actual registry was done―giving the land owner a pre-agreed price and pocketing the rest. One of Prayagraj’s biggest clothing showrooms, a hotel and a mall were also among establishments where he had parked his money.
The money trail, however, was not straight. It is common knowledge in Prayagraj that many prominent politicians, including those in the ruling BJP, had borrowed money from Ahmed. They had also funnelled their ill-gotten wealth through Ahmed’s various business ventures that included selling scrap from the railways. In his election affidavits, Ahmed listed his professions as ‘contractor, builder, property dealer, agriculture’ (sic).
The crux of Ahmed’s downfall lies in this siphoning, channelling and filtering of wealth. One journalist who has covered crime in the region since the 1980s said, “He was able to run his business empire even when in Sabarmati jail. It doesn’t take much to figure out who would control a jail in Gujarat. Just as it doesn’t take much to figure out why the BJP’s top brass is not hailing the manner of Ahmed and his brother’s killing.”
In the days just before the killing, the Enforcement Directorate had conducted a flurry of raids, identifying at least 50 shell companies and 200 bank accounts. Even before his son, Asad, was killed in a police encounter on April 13, Ahmed had started to sing to the police. Those confessions could have harmed many high and mighty. His wife, Shaista Parveen, who remains on the run, is believed to know all details about his monetary dealings and is thus as dangerous as her husband, were she to be nabbed and interrogated.
These are, however, not issues that a justice-hungry public is discussing. To most, Ahmed is a sterling example of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s ‘Mitti mein mila dunga’ (I will run them into the ground) grand promise. How that running down is achieved is immaterial to most.
Badri Narayan, director of the Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute, Prayagraj, said that the middle class was unconcerned about the mechanics of justice. “The growing urban middle class is just concerned about its own security,” he said. “District towns are changing into cities. As highways are built, land prices go up. The land mafia gets stronger. The general public just wants to see an elimination of this menace.”
He added that there was just a “microscopic minority of an enlightened middle class” that would wonder about the larger implications of what it means when people are murdered in the midst of police protection.
Vikram Singh, former director general of police, Uttar Pradesh, said that the 17 policemen in whose care Ahmed and his brother were murdered, were not “brand ambassadors” of the state’s police.
“This was a horrible act and displays the chinks that we are seeing in policing today,” he said. “The manner in which the brothers were taken for medical examination with little thought to access control, permitting press briefing, people not frisked and checked… all rules were flouted in a very contemptuous manner.”
Singh also pointed out that Zigana pistols (used in the shooting) weigh at least two kilograms, and unless all the policemen were physically challenged or incapacitated, the killings would be impossible.
He added that the police deserved no glory for arresting the shooters and recovering the arms―the three had held up their arms and had lain prostrate. “There is a civilised and legal way to ensure justice,” he said. “We are governed by the rule of law and need to take accountability. This is not justice.”
There has also been a flurry of media misinformation on Ahmed’s doings. Umesh Pal, who was shot dead on February 24, allegedly by Asad and others, was identified as the prime witness in the 2005 murder case of Raju Pal, which was among the most discussed crimes of Ahmed.
In 2004, Ahmed had vacated his Vidhan Sabha seat from Allahabad West to contest the Lok Sabha election from Phulpur (once the constituency of Jawaharlal Nehru). It was assumed that his brother, Ashraf, would replace him. However, the Bahujan Samaj Party made a surprise pick in Raju Pal―a history sheeter and an associate of the Ahmed brothers. Pal ended up defeating Ashraf, contesting on a Samajwadi Party ticket, and is believed to have been killed to quell Ashraf’s anger and humiliation.
This was recorded in the Allahabad High Court (Smt. Pooja Pal vs State of UP and two others) on May 31, 2017, as follows: “….respondent No. 5 (Ashraf) to be the assailant who had shot Raju Pal in the head, being accompanied by others… respondent No. 4 (Atique) was the brain behind the operation.”
Umesh’s death, however, was not a result of any idealistic pursuit of justice. The CBI had actually declared him hostile in the Raju Pal murder case in 2005. Umesh had recently been trying to buy and sell land on territory that Ahmed considered his turf. This had earned him the ire of the Ahmed clan.
Ashma Izzat is a Lucknow-based lawyer whose roster of clients has included those rounded up for the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. She said that the state’s atmosphere (for her as a lawyer and a Muslim woman) was such that she had to choose her words carefully. “When I file a vakalatnama (a document signed by a client to authorise an advocate), I ask my Hindu peers to be co-signatories so that I am not singled out for harassment.”
Izzat also said that encounters, killings in courtrooms and custodial deaths had become acceptable over the past few years. “Families of clients (rightly or wrongly accused) are now of the mindset, ‘yeh to hona hi tha (this had to happen)’”.
In the weeks and months to come, many implications―political and otherwise―will unfold. Ministers, legislators and spokespersons who have been gagged for now will speak up. The “popularity” of this brand of justice will be questioned.
For while such justice might quench some primal human thirst, the manner of its deliverance and the fact that it is not dispassionate, will mean it is not really justice. Not for imagined humanitarians. Not for hardened criminals.