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What happened in Prayagraaj is a disgrace

Liberals sometimes make the mistake of assuming that ordinary people who are not particularly interested in politics are stupid.

Can they not see what is happening to the country, they ask?


There was justified liberal outrage when Atiq Ahmed and his brother Ashraf were assassinated on live television while in the custody of the UP police in Prayagraj district on 15 April.


   The circumstances of the murder were shocking. Atiq was giving an interview to a TV reporter when a man walked up to him, pointed a gun at his head and shot him at point blank range. Two accomplices then fired more shots into Atiq and Ashraf. The police were too stunned/too frightened/too deeply involved in the plot (pick whichever explanation suits your views) to intervene so the three shooters were apprehended only after it was clear that Atique and Ashraf could not have survived.


   The men also shouted ‘Jai Shri Ram’, which is clearly audible on the videos that surfaced in the immediate aftermath of the murder. (Some BJP supporters now claim that the videos were doctored and the audio track added.)


   The general reaction was one of shock: how often do you see two men being gunned to death on live TV?


   Then followed all the obvious questions. How safe are people in police custody if anyone can just go up and shoot them? Could it be a co-incidence that Atiq had claimed that a police officer had threatened him with a murder in custody? Were the police really in on the plot? There was certainly evidence of incompetence if not of outright police involvement. And so on.


   But, much to the chagrin of liberals, this horrifying incident appears to have done no damage to the political reputation of UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. Indeed, Adityanath did not bother to even suspend the senior policemen on whose watch the murder took place — which is usually a standard reaction to such incidents. As of this writing the policemen don’t expect much in the way of reprimand. A judicial inquiry that has been ordered will take time. And Aditynath is glorying in the murder, making grandiose claims about how he will eliminate gangsters from UP, etc. 


   Liberals watch all this with mounting horror. Yes, of course, Atiq was a gangster and an unsavoury character whose departure from the planet may make it a better place. But what about the rule of law? Atiq’s son had been killed in a police ‘encounter’ a few days before.


   Didn’t people realise the danger of making policemen act as judge, jury and executioner? Once you let them kill anyone they think is a criminal (though in this case, there are no doubts about Atiq’s criminal antecedents) you are effectively giving them a license to kill whoever they like because they can always claims afterwards that the victim was ‘a dreaded criminal.’


   And then there is the communal angle. Assume Atiq had been a Hindu. Assume that his assassins were Muslims who shouted Allah-u-Akbar after the murder. Wouldn’t Yogi Aditynath have reacted very differently? Didn’t it suit the politics of the ruling party that it was Muslim thug and not a Hindu gangster who had been eliminated while his killers shouted religious slogans?


   There are no good answers to these questions. On Twitter where the debate has raged, the organised, two-rupee push-button responses consist of ‘where were you when the Palghar sadhus were killed?” And “array, the UP police once killed a Hindu, Vikas Dubey also.”


  "It is easy to caricature this as mere blood lust but it is foolish to deny, that the system offers very little justice to the ordinary citizen."

   Nearly all of these answers ignore the important questions the assassinations raise. And the fact that these are the only answers offered to paid trolls to tweet suggests that, in fact, there may well be no good answers to the questions the Adityanath government must answer.


   But here’s what makes liberals collapse with frothing indignation. Even though what happened was shocking, the political situation is unchanged. Nobody is going to stop supporting the government, either at the Centre or in the state because of this incident or others like it.


   It is tempting to conclude that this is because of the communal divide in our society – and I am sure that the reaction has something to do with it. But there is a more important reason: the public has lost faith in the ability of the legal system to protect it. It is convinced that because powerful criminals will never face justice, it is easier and quicker to bump them off.


   This is not a new development. The people of India have always taken this line when we have confronted insurgencies. How do you suppose KPS Gill handled the Punjab militancy? He did not do it by relying on the courts to punish militants.


   And there are parallels when it comes to criminals as well. When I lived in Mumbai in the 1980s and organised crime terrorised the city, the police asked its officers to finish off those who were causing the most mayhem. A group of so-called encounter specialists who were glorified by the media went around Mumbai, polishing off gangsters.


   The police were not displeased when the gangster began bumping each other off either: “oh good! One less goonda” was their attitude to every murder. It got to the stage where gangsters would send hitmen to kill their rivals in open court.


   Obviously this was a dangerous trend. Many of the ‘encounter specialists’ later went on to associate too closely with the sort of criminals they were supposed to be fighting, some got rich and some allegedly functioned as hit men for the underworld. (What better way of eliminating a rival than by paying the police to bump him off?)


   Throughout this period, the public cheered the police on. They were delighted that some sort of justice was being meted out and did not worry about human rights and the dangers such an approach posed to any civilised society.


   During that phase I once moderated a panel at Mumbai’s Indian Merchants Chamber where Dr. PS Pasricha, a senior police officer, made straight-faced declarations about the rule of law. (“We do not believe in encounters”). To my horror much of the educated middle class audience pounced on him shouting “no, no. We need encounters. You must kill them.”


   It is easy to caricature this as mere blood lust but it is foolish to deny, that the system offers very little justice to the ordinary citizen. If he or she is threatened by a gangster and goes to the police, then the cops will usually do nothing, either out of laziness  or because they are on the gangster’s payroll. Even if the gangster is arrested, nothing will happen. He will get bail and come back to exact revenge on the complainant.


   Even if the courts want to help, what can they do? As The Print pointed out last year there are 4.7 crore cases pending in Indian courts. Many of those cases have been pending for over five years. Atiq also had over 100 cases pending.


   With the system so broken, politicians find it easier to co-opt the gangsters. Atique had been an MP and he was far from being the only underworld figure in parliament and the legislatures.


   So liberals need to ask themselves this: do you expect ordinary Indians to care about the human rights of criminals when victims of their savagery have no rights, no protection and no recourse?


   Of course, encounters are not the right way forward. And what happened in Prayagraaj is a disgrace. But it is also true that Indian politicians have not done very much to fix the legal system (appoint more judges, build more courts etc.). Instead many have tried to subvert the courts.


   So liberals have a right to be horrified by the public reaction. But they have no right to regard citizens as bloodthirsty fools. And they should not be surprised by public reaction.


   What else did they expect?




  • Prashant Nair 28 Apr 2023

    Great perspective on how one must look at such horrific events. There is so much more at play all the time and I think liberals must not be liberal in their disposition. Afterall, roots and flowers are part of the same tree.

Posted On: 20 Apr 2023 11:00 AM
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