New Delhi, India
The brazen assassination of a former Indian lawmaker and his brother in front of live television cameras while under police custody has sparked renewed anger over the blurred lines between politics and crime in the country’s most populous state.
With more than 240 million people, Uttar Pradesh’s population is larger than most countries, yet the state has long been one of India’s poorest, held back by a reputation for corruption and organized crime.
But what took place on Saturday was especially shocking and has transfixed much of India.
Atiq Ahmed, a former lawmaker and convicted criminal, was gunned down alongside his brother Ashraf at point blank range by at least one gunman who posed as a journalist in an incident that was broadcast live.
A former Samajwadi Party member of India’s parliament, Atiq was convicted of kidnapping and sentenced to life in prison last month following a long dual career as both a politician and a mainstay of Uttar Pradesh’s criminal underworld.
The murder in the city of Prayagraj took place while police were escorting the pair for a medical check-up, the state’s Police Commissioner Ramit Sharma told reporters.
Dramatic footage showed the two handcuffed brothers surrounded by a press gaggle as a gunman fired multiple shots.
Three people who were posing as journalists at the time have been arrested for questioning, Sharma added.
The extrajudicial killing has sparked widespread concern about the state of law and order in Uttar Pradesh as well as fears of retaliation.
Gilles Verniers, a political science professor at Ashoka University in New Delhi, whose research has focused on electoral and party politics in Uttar Pradesh, told CNN Saturday’s incident represents “a break-down of the very concept of the rule of law.”
“The larger significance is what this means for the rule of law and the transformation of the meaning of the rule of law from a system of justice that is supposed to follow due process and be impartial and not be arbitrary into a form of self justice in the hand of the executive that is fundamentally arbitrary, violent and partisan,” Verniers said.
Following the incident, internet services were temporarily suspended across the city of Prayagraj, also known as Allahabad.
Internet shutdowns have become increasingly common in India, including as recently as last month when authorities blocked access to the internet in Punjab for days as police searched for a Sikh activist who was on the run.
The government has repeatedly attempted to justify blocking internet access on the grounds of preserving public safety amid fears of communal violence. But critics say the shutdowns are yet another blow to the country’s commitment to freedom of speech and access to information.
Long before he was a politician, Atiq was known for his criminal underworld links, a duality that is not uncommon in the rough and tumble of Uttar Pradesh’s political scene.
At the age of just 17, Atiq was accused of murder. A decade later, he was elected as a member of Uttar Pradesh’s legislative assembly where he served five times, from 1989 to 2004. He also served as a member of India’s national parliament from 2004 to 2009.
“He used politics to his own advantage to further not only his political career but also his criminal estate and criminal activities,” said Vikram Singh, formerly the Director General of Police in Uttar Pradesh who had several dealings with Atiq, including arresting him under the Gangsters Act in 2007.
He came from humble beginnings, as the son of a horse cart driver, and rose to be “something akin to the godfather,” Singh told CNN, adding that the list of crimes Atiq had been accused of throughout his life ranged from murder and robbery to extortion and land grabs.
In March, Atiq was sentenced to life in prison for the 2006 kidnapping of Umesh Pal, the prime witness in a 2005 murder case for which Atiq was himself the main suspect, CNN affiliate News18 reported.
Atiq’s death came a week after police shot and killed his son Asad. Asad was the main suspect in the February murder of Umesh Pal – the man Atiq was convicted of kidnapping, Reuters reported.
Police in Uttar Pradesh have killed more than 180 suspected criminals during encounters over past six years, according to Reuters.
Questions have been raised as to whether police gave adequate security to the two brothers who were surrounded by reporters.
Atiq and his brother were being escorted by police for what Singh said was a routine medical check-up when they were shot.
“The police security should have been fool proof and fail proof which it was not,” Singh said. “The shoot out that happened is unacceptable.”
CNN reached out to Uttar Pradesh police for comment on the situation but did not receive a response prior to publication.
Following the incident, the Uttar Pradesh state government announced it will form two three-member Special Task Forces (SIT) to investigate the killing of Atiq and his brother.
But the murders have raised questions about the governance of Uttar Pradesh, particularly from opponents of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party which currently holds political power in the state.
Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of West Bengal state and president of the Trinamool Congress Party, claimed in a tweet Sunday that the incident illustrated a “total collapse of law and order in Uttar Pradesh.”
Mahua Moitra, a member of parliament with the Trinamool Congress Party who has vocally criticized Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the past, tweeted that the “BJP has turned India into a mafia republic.”
Noting that the two brothers had been shot dead “in front of a zillion policemen and cameras” she declared “this is the death of the rule of law.”
The state’s former chief minister, the Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav, suggested the death of his former party member prompted concerns about public safety under BJP rule.
“When someone can be killed by firing openly amidst the security cordon of the police, then what about the safety of the general public,” Yadav tweeted.
Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party, who also previously served as the state’s chief minister, said the shooting gave way to “serious question marks” over the functioning of the government, headed by the BJP’s Yogi Adityanath.
Responding to allegations about the law and order situation in Uttar Pradesh, Adityanath said people should “not pay heed to rumors.”
Meanwhile India’s Minister of Information Anurag Thakur suggested opposition party criticism of the attack was also hypocritical.
“These same mafia leaders used to attack common people, kill and loot them,” he told reporters. “Never heard any of these politicians speaking against it.”