A former Indian Parliament member and his brother were killed as they were shot at point-blank range while talking to the media, handcuffed and accompanied by many armed policemen, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh on Saturday night.
The police took three attackers into custody immediately after the murder in the city of Prayagraj (popularly known as Allahabad), 200 kilometers from the state’s capital Lucknow.
Atiq Ahmad, 61, and his brother Ashraf, who were facing police interrogations in connection with criminal cases against them, were being taken for a medical checkup under heavy police escort when they were attacked.
There is no law, there is no order – Only Encounter! UP, India. pic.twitter.com/8aNoM8D23M
— Ashok Swain (@ashoswai) April 15, 2023
The murder took place within hours of the burial of the politician’s teenage son Asad, who was killed on April 13 along with his friend Ghulam Hasan by the state police in what is described as an “encounter” in the Jhansi district, 315 kilometers from Lucknow.
Asad was facing charges in connection with the February 24 murder of a lawyer named Umesh Pal in Prayagraj. Atiq and a number of other people are accused in the case.
Human rights activists criticize most “police encounters” in India as extrajudicial killings.
Often these so-called encounters happen while the accused or convicts are transported from one place to another. Often they end up dead in isolated places. Typically the police would claim the victims were trying to run away or that they had attacked the accompanying policemen.
Sometimes they die in accidents when vehicles overturn. Such incidents are either hushed up or not investigated. If there is an investigation because of public interest, the guilty personnel are rarely punished. Police are also known to go to great lengths to make them look like a genuine exchange of fire, with some policemen turning up in public with scratches, bandages or minor injuries sustained during the “encounter.”
Atiq, convicted of kidnapping, was brought to Prayagraj recently from a jail in the western state of Gujarat while his brother was earlier lodged in Bareilly jail in Uttar Pradesh.
Atiq had raised fears earlier that he would be killed and had unsuccessfully appealed to India’s Supreme Court for protection. His brother Ashraf, similarly, expressed apprehensions recently that he would be murdered within days as a police officer had threatened.
Seconds before they were shot, the brothers said the police killed Asad because he was Muslim. Atiq was also not allowed to attend his son’s funeral.
The number of accused killed in the Pal murder case has now reached six, according to the Indian Express newspaper. Some of Atiq’s family members are on the run as they have also been named as accused in the case and fear being killed by the police in “encounters”.
Uttar Pradesh is notorious for “police encounters” and more than 180 people facing various charges have been killed in the past six years.
The latest killings have shocked the country, with social activists and opposition politicians raising questions about “police encounters” and the law and order situation in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous region ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
In videos circulating on social media, Atiq and his brother’s assailants can be heard shouting “Jai Shri Ram”, a Hindu nationalist slogan often used in lynchings by gangs of cow vigilantes associated with the Bajrang Dal, which acts as a militia of the extremist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The BJP is the RSS’s political wing.
“Crime has reached its peak in UP and the morale of the criminals is high,” Akhilesh Yadav, leader of the opposition Samajwadi Party, tweeted in Hindi.
“When someone can be killed in firing openly amidst the security cordon of the police, then what about the safety of the general public. Due to this, an atmosphere of fear is being created among the public, it seems that some people are deliberately creating such an atmosphere,” he added.
Besides getting elected to the lower house of parliament in the 2004 general election, Atiq won state assembly elections a record five times.
It is not uncommon in India to see politicians facing criminal cases or people with criminal backgrounds getting elected to the national parliament or provincial assemblies.
About 20 percent of candidates who contested the 2019 parliamentary election had outstanding criminal cases against them, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), a New Delhi-based non-governmental organization.
In a press release on April 12, it said 13 of the chief ministers of 28 states and two Union Territories (federal territories with less autonomy than states), had “declared criminal cases against themselves.”
While there appears some social acceptance of politicians who face criminal cases, sensational killings like that of Atiq and his brother are not routine.
Siddharth Varadarajan, who runs The Wire online media, hit out at the ruling BJP after the killings.
“This is Uttar Pradesh. Gangsters shoot two prisoners in front of news cameras and the police do nothing. This spectacle, probably enacted, tells us the extent to which the interests of BJP, police, gangsters and ‘godi’ media (meaning lapdog media) have fused. They are making India a mafia republic,” Varadarajan said.
The three arrested assailants were promptly disowned by their families.
Eyewitnesses said in videos that the attackers came in police vehicles.
In fact, not many believe the official version of events. Hindu hardliners and Indian media close to the BJP had been talking about Atiq’s murder for many days.
“BJP has turned India into a mafia republic. I will say it here, I will say it abroad, I will say it everywhere because it is the truth. Two men in custody shot dead in front of a zillion policemen and cameras – this is the death of the rule of law,” Parliament member Mahua Moitra said.