POSTED ON MAY 19, 2021

Many of us looked away when the state’s ruthlessness was displayed in Kashmir, the Northeast, Punjab. The killing of Mukim Kala in Chitrakoot jail shows that similar savageries are being carried out in India’s heartland.

Nakul Singh Sawhney

Several newspapers carried short reports on May 14, 2021, about a shootout in a jail in Chitrakoot, a district in Uttar Pradesh. Two inmates of the jail were killed and one was gunned down by the police.

Behind every such short news report, there is a deeply tragic story. You won’t often hear this story, because sooner or later, it will be reduced to a statistic. A number. This number will finally be the only way our collective memory will remember the brutality that many of us in India have had to face, often at the hands of the Indian state.

I have worked in rural west Uttar Pradesh for seven years with Chal Chitra Abhiyaan, a film and media collective that focuses on local issues, and by now I have lost my ability to sugar-coat the sick brutality that constitutes the UP state government. In this piece for The Wire, I will try to humanise a statistic. Please bear with me.

According to the news reports, Anshu Dixit, a known gangster, shot two people dead in Chitrakoot jail – Mirajudeen, a gangster apparently close to MLA Mukhtar Ansari, and Mukim, aka Kala. As a result, in self defence, the police allegedly shot Anshu Dixit dead.

‘Self defence’ is the explanation the UP police has used in the more than 5,000 ‘encounters’ that it has claimed it has conducted in the last four years. It is their template explanation. Since then, the numbers have increased substantially.

I didn’t know Anshu Dixit. I didn’t know Mirajudeen. I did know Mukim Kala. I know his family. I know how they have been brutalised by the UP government. I am going to share snippets from Kala’s story.

FIR fodder

Mukim was a known outlaw from West UP’s Shamli district. He was just about in his late 20s when he was declared ‘a dreaded gangster’.

Most ‘dreaded gangsters’ in West UP are in their early to mid-20s. The legendary gangster from Saharanpur, Mustafa aka Kagga, was also in his late 20s when he was killed by the UP police in 2011. He is now part of the area’s folklore. “Kagga only killed police people, never ordinary civilians” is one of the most common statements made about him. In a state where police brutality against the poor and marginalised is celebrated by the government, Kagga’s elevation to the status of legend for putting fear in the hearts of the police is understandable. Many known criminals in the area were trained by the late Kagga. According to some people, Mukim was one of them.

Mukim’s gang made the national news in June 2016 when the BJP’s late MP Hukum Singh, one of the main accused in the 2013 Muzaffarnagar-Shamli riots, had claimed there was a Hindu exodus from the Muslim majority township of Kairana because they were being terrorised by Muslims. When Hukum Singh’s claims were debunked, he changed his statement. He claimed that the exodus was happening because of Muslim criminals. Mukim’s gang was specifically named. It was said that Mukim’s gang was responsible for the murders of rich traders in the region who had not responded to their extortion threats. When Hukum Singh made these claims, Mukim was already in jail. He had already been arrested some months before these accusations were hurled.

How Mukim became a big criminal, ‘a dreaded gangster’, is a story that’s been oft-repeated. These stories almost sound like stereotypes and clichés by now. That’s because they’re true.

In West UP, it is standard practice for the police to transform petty criminals into ‘history sheeters’. The criminals are then used as fodder for FIRs and chargesheets. They are accused of almost every big crime in the area and then are pushed into becoming bigger criminals for their own safety and protection. Sometimes, like Mukim, they are declared ‘dreaded gangsters’.

Our positions of privilege may help us dismiss these stories as filmi stereotypes. But try digging deep. You’ll see that these stories become stereotypes because of how often they are repeated.

Mukim’s career in crime began when an influential local politician in his village, Jahanpura, in Shamli district, started hurling accusations at him and his family because they opposed him in the panchayat elections. One case was enough for Mukim to become an easy target, a scapegoat. The police started slapping random cases against him. Often, in such a situation, the only way out is to actually turn to crime. Usually raised in poverty, with no cushion to fall back on, no resources or access to justice, this is the only way for many young men to safeguard themselves from police brutality and oppression. It’s almost as if the state, by design, wants vulnerable young men to take to a life of crime.

The rot in the system

Mukim’s younger brother, Vasim, was killed in a police ‘encounter’ on September 29, 2017. Vasim was 17 years old. His case was one among more than 5,000 ‘encounters’ of ‘dreaded criminals’ carried out by the UP police after Ajay Singh Bisht came to power. Many people in the area, even those who have nothing charitable to say about Mukim, will tell you that Vasim had never been a criminal. He had been a daily wage labourer, struggling to get on with life. It’s pointless to say that the genuineness of the encounter was suspect. His father, Mushtakim, had been arrested in April 2017 and Mukim’s mother, Meena, had been arrested on September 13, 2017, charged with selling ‘poppy husk’, locally called ‘doda’. It is common in Kairana for the police to arrest anyone they want to on the charge of selling and possessing ‘doda’.

Both Meena and her husband had been in jail when Vasim was killed. After she got out on bail, Meena, an illiterate woman, began a fight for justice for Vasim. Aided by human rights activists and lawyers in the area, her resolve to get justice for her son was admirable.

While many of the people who had initially filed cases against the police for the ‘encounters’ of their sons withdrew their cases in the face of continuous police pressure, Meena’s resolve was unshakable. In 2018, I travelled with her to Yamunagar jail in Haryana to meet Mukim. Mukim had a medium build; he was fit and looked like any another 20-something man. But his eyes displayed incessant worry for himself and his family. Meena and Mukim discussed Vasim’s case, the family finances, his condition in jail and so on. The ‘dreaded gangster’ seemed to be little more than a misguided youngster who, no matter how hard he tried, would remain trapped in the rot of the system that had made him what he was.

In February 2018, I met Wahid in Saharanpur jail. Wahid was Mukim’s rival; they’d even fought gang wars against each other. Another ‘dreaded criminal’, Wahid was just as young as Mukim and had entered the world of crime in much the same way. Ironically, the rival gangsters were patronised by the same set of politicians.

Paranoia justified

Between March 19, 2017, when Bisht (calling himself Yogi Adityanath) became Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister, and December 2019, the police carried out 5,178 ‘encounters’. Nearly 40% of the victims were Muslims. The numbers may have increased substantially since then.

In 2017 and 2018, Chal Chitra Abhiyaan’s team visited some of the families of those who had been ‘encountered’ by the police. The families were struggling financially. They didn’t have the money to get their daughters married. Their houses were small and often falling apart. I wondered where all the money that the state had accused these ‘dreaded gangsters’ of accumulating had gone.

Meena’s husband, Mushtakim, finally got bail in early 2018. We were relieved that she was no longer alone. Both of them were determined to fight for justice for Vasim. Nothing could shake their resolve. After continuous harassment by the UP police, they moved to a relative’s place in Haryana. On one of their visits to Mukim in Haryana, Mushtakim was picked up by the UP police and taken to Saharanpur jail. He has been languishing there ever since, although he did get a brief parole during the first lockdown last year. Meena continued to run from pillar to post for her son and her husband.

Mukim had been transferred to several jails since his first arrest. Meena had always feared for his life. She had sensed that he could be killed in jail or when he was presented to the court during his hearings. Her lawyers sent several faxes to the National Human Rights Commission, the district magistrates of the area and so on, urging them to ensure his security. In response to a writ petition on March 22, 2021, when Mukim was transferred to Saharanpur jail, the court had clearly stated, “We dispose of this writ petition with the direction to the respondents to conduct as per Jail Manual (sic) and thereby to see that no harm is caused to the petitioner’s son.”

Some of us felt that Meena was being paranoid about her son’s safety, but given the track record of the UP police, one never knows what to expect.

About a week before the shootout, in the middle of the worst health pandemic since Indian independence, Mukim was suddenly shifted to Chitrakoot jail. This time, given the lockdown and how everything was shut, no one was able to send the faxes to the requisite authorities. Meena was worried. I felt this was a routine transfer, made to decongest jails during the pandemic. I was wrong.

Where the guns are aimed

I marvel at the UP police. The UP government. The UP administration. At a time when thousands of dead bodies are floating in the river Ganga which flows through UP, the state machinery is invested in making nefarious plans on how to bump off gangsters they are uncomfortable with.

Make no mistake: it’s not as if crime is reducing in UP. Only selected gangsters are killed because they carry with them uncomfortable secrets about the police, politicians and people in the administration. Because the very gangsters that were once used by the powers that be are now a burden to them. Young men are made pawns in ugly political games.

Many among the privileged of the country looked away when the state’s ruthlessness was displayed in Kashmir, several Northeastern states, Punjab. Today similar brutalities are being carried out in India’s heartland, Uttar Pradesh. Initially, the bulk of the victims were Muslims, people from the other backward castes and even Dalits. Many among the privileged elite looked away. They even looked away when the houses of Muslims were vandalised by the police in Muzaffarnagar to stop the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests. But the guns are now being aimed against other communities as well.

The UP police is a heavily understaffed and crazily overworked force. A force that is just barely in control. A force that has been given a free hand to brutalise the weakest and the most vulnerable in the state. The UP government wants to introduce an Uttar Pradesh Special Security Force, a force that can arrest you and search your house without a warrant. No citizen will even have the right to file a case against any act of this special security force. Let’s not fool ourselves. AFSPA [the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act] is now right in our backyards, no longer reserved for states with religious or linguistic or ethnic minorities. We may not be too far from experiencing what Mukim and his family are suffering today.

Nakul Singh Sawhney is a filmmaker. His films include the critically acclaimed  Izzatnagari ki Asabhya Betiyaan, on crimes and killings in the name of honour, and Muzaffarnagar Baqi Hai, on the 2013 Muzaffarnagar communal violence.

Courtesy : The Wire