Mahua Moitra on the killing of Atiq Ahmed: This is mobocracy

NB: I have argued in a recent article that the rule of law in India (and indeed in all of South Asia) has been replaced by the rule of ideology. Those who celebrate lawlessness in the name of nationalism should bear in mind that this is the first step towards social and political disintegration. But there are none so deaf as those who don’t want to listen. I salute Ms Mohua for being one of the few remaining Members of Parliament with a mind and a conscience. DS

Abhorrence for Atiq’s crimes should have led to a robust prosecution, not his elimination through extra legal means

“Iss House mein kah raha hoon, iss mafia ko mitti mein mila denge,” said Yogi Adityanath in the UP assembly on February 25, following the killing of Umesh Pal, a witness in the 2005 Raju Pal murder the previous day

Meanwhile Atiq Ahmed, gangster-turned-politician, five-time MLA, ex-Member of Parliament, accused in over 100 cases was being held in Gujarat’s Sabarmati Jail. Yogi’s police moved to bring Atiq to UP for the Umesh Pal murder investigation. In the context of Adityanath’s statement, Atiq feared the UP police would kill him in a fake encounter on any pretext — that handing him over to them would be a virtual death warrant — and he moved the Supreme Court seeking protection. The Supreme Court on March 28 refused to entertain his plea, assuring him that the “state machinery will take care” and asked him to approach the High Court instead.

Atiq and his brother Ashraf were moved to Allahabad under very high security with a huge posse of armed police. On April 13, Atiq’s son Asad and an aide, both accused in the same Umesh Pal murder case, were shot dead in Jhansi in an “encounter” by the Special Task Force of the UP police.

Atiq applied for permission to attend his son’s burial. He was refused. On the night of April 15, at about 10:30 pm, Atiq and Ashraf were taken by the police for a medical checkup to the Allahabad Medical College. As they stepped out of the ramshackle police jeep, handcuffed to each other but surrounded very loosely by only about 15-20 policemen quite a distance away from the hospital gate, media cameras were thrust at their faces. It is clear from the live TV footage that the media accessed the area around Atiq completely unchecked and unhindered by the police, in total contrast to the high threat perception around the duo. They asked him about his absence at his son’s burial: “Nahi le gaya toh nahi gaye”. They didn’t take me so we didn’t go, said Atiq.

Moments later, three young men accompanied by an outdated, oversized TV camera pumped a volley of bullets into Atiq and Ashraf at point blank range, killing them both. The boys chanted, “Jai Shri Ram” as they were overpowered by policemen. The police, notably, did not fire back. They also did not ask for police custody but were happy to allow judicial remand, clearly implying that the double murder in full public glare needed no investigation whatsoever.

The above are the bare facts surrounding the murder of Atiq and Ashraf Ahmed while in the custody of the UP police. Additionally, the protocol for high-security prisoners was not followed as is evident from the reduced security detail during the hospital visit in the public footage available. If the police were unarmed, it was a violation of SOP, and if they were armed then there was no reason to not fire back at the killers especially since only a day before, the very same police had killed Atiq’s son and aide for firing at the police. The presence of the media with unfettered access to dangerous high-security prisoners also raises questions as to whether they were tipped off about the late-night hospital visit. The timing of the medical examination at 10:30 pm itself raises suspicions about whether or not this was a staged killing.

Also in Express Opinion: The ‘suraksha’ story: How police encounters are justified in Uttar Pradesh

Following on, let us make no mistake — this was a custodial death. But even in a country like India with a history of brutal custodial deaths, for the first time perhaps, this is a death where a third party has killed a person whilst in police custody. The state is responsible for every custodial death. The question this time is, did the state actively chart out a strategy to eliminate the men in custody, by cutting short the due process of law?

Presumption of innocence is a facet of the right to life. In this case, though, there is not merely a violation of the presumption, but of the actual right to life. Convicts do not lose their fundamental rights. The right to move the Supreme Court under Article 32 is itself a fundamental right, one that Ambedkar called the soul of the Constitution. Atiq exercised this right when he approached the Supreme Court. The Court is the guardian of all rights, but the most basic human right to life is put on a special pedestal. To have relegated him to the High Court when there was an imminent threat to his life was an abdication of constitutional responsibility.

Social media is abuzz with the saffron ecosystem celebrating how, finally, we have in Yogi Adityanath a leader who does what he promises. “Bada mazaa aaya” — it was great fun watching. “Sabak sikha diya humne toh” — “we” taught “them” a lesson. It is this descent into a mobocracy that is truly frightening. When the blood lust of a mob is being fed by a state under the mistaken illusion that it will ensure its political continuity, there is absolutely nothing preventing it from disbanding the courts and eliminating due process of law.

Every senior journalist while commenting on the incident prefaces their statement with, “I have no love for Atiq”. But that’s not the point. Even the most dreaded criminal is constitutionally protected under Article 21, which states that no person shall be deprived of his life and liberty except by procedure established by law. Our abhorrence for Atiq’s crimes must lead to a robust prosecution of the same, not to his elimination through extra legal means. The death of these men in public view is as abhorrent as the crimes they allegedly committed. Atiq was serving a life term for a crime he was tried and convicted of. It is a blot on India’s constitutional democracy that he was killed for a crime he was yet to be tried for. India as a nation must see Atiq’s murder for what it is — a descent into mobocracy.

The Lady Vanishes

Four Indian intellectuals who were murdered for their ideas (2013-2017)

Gandhi’s Assassin. By Dhirendra K Jha

The law of killing: A brief history of Indian fascism

Why Gauri Lankesh was assassinated: The story of an indoctrinated engineer

Ayush Chaturvedi: Main Gandhi ke saath hun / Samar Halarnkar: A search for Hindus who will stand with Gandhi

What the Veneration of Gandhi’s Killer Says About India. By Yasmeen Serhan

Rabindranath Tagore’s essay on the cult of the nation

Rectifying the past