The notorious gangster Atiq Ahmed and his brother were assassinated under public escort—and on live TV. We look at what happened—and why the UP government is likely delighted—as are many voters.
Tell me what happened…
The lead-up: In 2005, Bahujan Samaj Party member Raju Pal was murdered—months after he defeated Atiq Ahmed’s brother in an assembly election. In February this year, Umesh Pal—a prime eyewitness—was gunned down at his home. On March 28, Atiq Ahmed was found guilty in the kidnapping of Umesh Pal. He and his brother were in the custody of the Uttar Pradesh police—and were being questioned about Umesh Pal’s murder.
The encounter killing: Ahmed’s 19-year-old son Asad was the main suspect in Umesh’s killing. According to the UP police, he was planning an attack on a police convoy carrying his father and uncle. On April 13, when the police tracked Asad and his accomplice down—they tried to escape by firing at the cops—who shot them dead.
The assassination: According to the police, they were taking Ahmed and his brother Ashraf to the hospital for a routine check-up. Then this happened:
The two got down from the police van on the hospital campus and were escorted by policemen. Both were a few yards away from the entrance of the hospital when media-persons gathered to pose questions to them. Atiq had just started responding to a question, when a gunman shot him. At the same moment, another bullet pierced Ashraf’s neck from the left side, and both brothers slumped to the ground.
The shooting was captured by the news agency ANI—which tweeted it out. We are not embedding it as the clip captures the killing of a human being. But it is available here.
A series of curious events: The police escort made a number of odd decisions that seemed to enable the assassinations:
- Although the hospital had parking space, the police vehicles stopped right outside the gate—and the handcuffed men climbed out to be paraded in front of the assembled media.
- It’s not clear why the brothers were taken to the hospital at 10 pm at night—without any pressing medical emergency. Hospital visits also require written orders.
- Also this: in high-profile cases doctors are secretly summoned to the prison.
- The police clearly did not limit access to the prisoners—or vet the “journalists” inside the perimeter of the hospital.
- A former Director General of Police also observed: “The assailants are of poor background. But they were using guns of Turkish pedigree each costing Rs 7 lakh, each round costing Rs 250. Their firing shows they had a lot of practice.”
The assassins: The two shooters—Lavlesh Tiwari and Sunny Puraney—and an accomplice (Arun Kumar Maurya) immediately surrendered to the police. They had arrived at the hospital campus posing as journalists. Lavlesh’s father has dismissed him as “jobless and a drug addict”—and Sunny has been disowned by his family as well. Both Lavlesh and Sunny have a criminal record. Little is known about 18-year-old Arun.
The motive: According to the FIR, the killers told the police: "We wanted to kill Atiq Ahmed and his brother Ashraf with the aim of completely wiping out the Atiq-Ashraf gang and making a name for ourselves.” But there may be a Hindutva angle, as they can be heard shouting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ in the video of the killing. Lavlesh claims to be a Bajrang Dal leader on his Facebook page.
Who is this Atiq Ahmed?
The 61-year-old is one of the most notorious gangster-turned-neta in Uttar Pradesh—with over 100 cases against him. Here’s the quick back story:
- In 1979, Ahmed was charged in his first murder case at the tender age of 17—and became the first person to be booked under UP’s Gangster Act.
- He became an MLA in 1989—when he won the Allahabad West seat as an independent candidate. A seat he held for five consecutive elections.
- By 1996, he was a member of the Samajwadi Party—and then moved on to join a small regional party Apna Dal.
- But he returned to SP and was elected as the MP from Phulpur — a seat once held by Jawaharlal Nehru.
- Ahmed, however, failed to be re-elected despite multiple attempts. The last election he contested was the 2019 Lok Sabha election—as an independent candidate challenging Narendra Modi in Varanasi.
The guest house ‘incident’: Ahmed made national headlines in 1995. SP leader Mulayam Singh was ruling the state—with the support of Bahujan Samaj Party leader Kanshi Ram and his protege Mayawati. But there were rumours that BSP may pull its support. Then this happened:
The Samajwadi Party workers, armed with rifles and weapons, barged into a meeting room of the BSP workers… and assaulted the BSP legislators, ‘kidnapping’ some of them. Senior BSP leaders, including Ms Mayavati, slipped into a suite reserved for her in the guest house. The Lucknow SSP, Mr O P Singh, as well as his men, were a mute witness as the SP men snapped the telephone and power lines… and started beating [the BSP MLAs] with lathis. About 300 SP miscreants were led by over a dozen party MLAs, mostly with a criminal background.
One of the mobsters accused in the Lucknow guest house case was none other than Atiq Ahmed. FYI: the incident gets prominent billing in the web series ‘Madam Chief Minister’—which is loosely based on Mayawati’s career.
Point to note: The police claim that Ahmed admitted to links to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Islamic terror group Lashkar-e-Toiba under interrogation. There is zero evidence as of now for this new allegation.
What’s the reaction to these killings?
Opposition leaders have unsurprisingly railed against the Yogi Adityanath government—citing it as evidence as the complete collapse of law and order. An advocate has filed a Supreme Court plea calling for an independent investigation.
But, but, but: BJP leaders have been smug about the murders, dismissing it as a case of bad karma: “Paap aur punya ka hisaab isi janam mein hota hai” (sin and virtue are accounted for in this lifetime). Another called it an “aasmani faisla” (cosmic decision) that everyone must accept. It reflects the Yogi Adityanath’s take-no-prisoners approach to law and order—which has proved bountiful during elections.
Yogi’s encounter raj: The killing of Atiq’s son Asad marked encounter killing #183—since Adityanath became CM in 2017. It was the third such killing in the first two weeks of April. In fact, with Atiq’s death, six people linked to Umesh Pal’s murder have been killed since February. The UP government is proud of its bloody record:
Adityanath has repeatedly and forcefully commended the lengthening list of encounters by UP Police. He has sought to normalise them in a “thok denge (we’ll knock them down)” narrative of muscular governance that redefines the fundamental relationship between “vikas” (development) and “suraksha” (safety/security), “shaastra” (rulebook) and “shastra” (weapons/violence).
Yogi’s ace card: Human rights activists and opposition rivals rightly condemn this blatantly illegal policy. But the ‘shoot-first’ mantra has been an election winner for Adityanath—especially with women—who account for 44% of the electorate. In the 2022 elections, they picked BJP over SP by a whopping 16%. The gap for male voters was just 4%. Female voters cite greater safety for women as a key reason why they picked the saffron party over Akhilesh Yadav’s ‘goonda raj’. And they played a key role in Adityanath’s landslide victory.
Quote to note: In 2022, Yogendra Yadav offered two reasons why Adityanath shocked political experts by returning to power—despite botching the pandemic and farmers protests:
But a question about the performance of the Adityanath government gets a surprisingly positive response: “Achhi sarkar hai, theek kaam kiya hai” (It’s a decent government, has done good work). Before you can ask, they recount two benefits. Everyone got additional foodgrain, over and above the standard quota, plus cooking oil and chana. And almost everyone, including many Samajwadi Party (SP) voters, mentions improved law and order. “Hamari behen betiyan surakshit hain” (our women are safe) is a standard refrain.
Key point to note: The ‘law and order’ pitch is highly effective thanks to the Samajwadi Party—which allowed gangsters free rein when it was in power—rewarding the biggest goondas election tickets. That some of them were Muslim further established a twisted kind of ‘secular’ credentials:
The backdrop to this Thursday and Saturday also folds in an earlier time in UP. It includes the fact that many of those being killed in police encounters are history-sheeters, and that some earlier regimes sought to establish their secular credentials not by ensuring equality of opportunity for the minority community, or by protecting the spaces for it to be heard, but by allowing the lumpen elements within it to flout the law and get away with it — and be seen by the majority to get away with it too.
The bottomline: The number of murder and rape cases have been steadily decreasing since 2017—as have cases of kidnapping. Of course, the government has since emerged as the purveyor of violence—but it is carefully aimed at unpopular (mafia) or vulnerable (Muslim) targets. As Vandita Mishra points out in the Indian Express, the killing of an Atiq Ahmed allows the government to “wilfully and dangerously” blur the lines between “mafia and crime on the one hand and identity and community on the other.”
Indian Express has the best reporting on the case. Look at the overview of the killings, report on security lapses, background of the assassins. For a detailed profile of Atiq Ahmed, check out India Today. Yogendra Yadav’s analysis in The Print of Yogi’s winning election formula is worth revisiting.