In the horrific and spectacular ambush in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, on 2 July, eight policemen were killed while not even one is reported to have been killed on the gangster’s side. This shows how unequal the police battle against Vikas Dubey was. In 2001, Santosh Shukla, who held the rank of a minister in the state, was killed inside the Shivli police thana at Kanpur Dehat and the same gangster was accused. Even the powerful rank of the deceased did not get his survivors justice. If the eyewitnesses in that case—25 policemen who were present at the thana, before whom the murder took place—turned hostile, then who will ever muster the courage to depose before the judiciary? This is nothing but wilful failure of the system.
Reports about the 2 July case say that it is a policeman who had tipped off the gangster. But Dubey, rather than run away, mustered a challenge to overpower and chastise a large police force. This is a spine-chilling revelation about the quantum of power and temerity that gangsters in Uttar Pradesh have acquired. A similar ambush took place at Pratappur in Siwan district of Bihar on 16 March 2001. There, two policemen and ten “civilians” had lost their lives. The chief accused in both these cases went on to significantly enhance their criminal power and political clout.
Only a few studies have been conducted on gangsters who came to prominence in megacities, and these are mostly profiles or biographies which narrate their rise until they met their nemesis. Syed Hussain Zaidi, the journalist-author, published some best-selling popular accounts of gangsters, which even made it as plots of crime thriller movies. But small-town gangsters and the serious nature of the organised crime networks that they are spawning in rural areas remain under-explored.
In September 2018, when a former mayor was killed in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, not the better-equipped media houses, it was Kunal Varma, a resource-starved Chandigarh-based Hindi language journalist who had been educated in Muzaffarpur, who in a six-part web series published an “inside account of the underworld” in this small town of North Bihar. Even today, nobody knows who killed the former mayor but we know that on the day the Senior Superintendent of Police made a press statement that the police would soon reveal the names of the killers, she was immediately transferred out.
Muzaffarpur is the same small town from where the most horrific shelter home scandal was unearthed, in the same year. It is also the town from where a 12-year-old girl, Navaruna, was kidnapped and is yet to be traced by the police. Her helpless father Atulya Chakravarty is trudging along the blind alleys of elusive justice. Why does this small town have a consistent history of “underworld” activities since the 1970s, whereas even the capital city, Patna, does not have a comparable presence of “dons”?
With the introduction of local body elections—and the rise of bootlegging as an industry across rural Bihar ever since it declared itself a dry state—there has been a rather visible strengthening of the police-criminal nexus. These criminals are either the politicians or they are patronised by the politicians/legislators. This has given an impetus to organised crime even in rural areas. Unfortunately this aspect remains under-reported. More recently, gangsters have begun to play a crucial role in creating communal polarisations in everyday politics. In his essay, “Everyday Corruption and the Political Mediation of the Indian State”, Jeffrey Witsoe has explored the roles of neighbourhood/mohalla brokers in police and other government offices in Bihar. Ward Berenschot’s book, Riot Politics, published in 2011, looks at the same phenomenon in the context of Gujarat. Many of these neighbourhood brokers graduate to become criminals—this is the aspect which awaits further exploration. The clout that strongmen have with the police and with those who run sub-regional editions of vernacular news dailies is so strong that quite often only the versions of the criminals ends up getting published.
In one incident from 2019 in rural North Bihar, the police took months to nab a history-sheeter who had according to what eye-witnesses told me, “performed the art of” spraying bullets inside a rival bootlegger in broad daylight. Over a dozen people were watching while this happened. The local Hindi dailies reported the next day that “unknown” masked bike-riders had done this killing. If the confidentially-shared accounts of the villagers are to be believed, these rural gangsters also supply women to local police. The illegal arms trade, the crime syndicates, bootlegging, and the recruiting of youth in these “trades” have been spreading like a potent menace across rural areas.
Even the honest senior police officers are often misinformed by their colleagues on the ground about the credentials of these rural/mohalla gangsters. The criminals are often termed as “police informants” and thus these rural/mohalla gangsters gain protection from within the police forces. This practice needs to be probed with professional precision if, as is often suspected, the huge sums of money raised from illegally hoarded and illicitly manufactured liquor also fill the coffers of ruling political parties in the shape of “election funds”. These criminal forces operate not only as inter-district gangs but also as inter-provincial syndicates. One such rural gangster is from my own native village, Turkauliya in Paroo, Muzaffarpur, Bihar.
The local “dons”, in their respective local societies, bear a certain charisma regardless of whether they belong to the category of the “avengers” (to borrow a term from the noted historian Eric Hobsbawm) or are a mere trigger-maniac killers. This raises serious concerns about the kind of society which is evolving in our times. Invariably, people tend to look upon gangsters either as defenders or as a menace, based on the caste and communal blinkers they happen to be wearing.
A police officer I know once shared a casual conversation he had had with a Muslim taxi-driver in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. The driver told him that after 1997, when Latif “Don” was killed, and after the 2002 pogrom, Muslim lumpens or hoodlums were liquidated by the police with great alacrity in the state. So, members of the community now tend not to take recourse to being recruited by the underworld. Does this exchange reveal something about the biases of policing in India?
The Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh is reported to have staged “encounter killings” on a large scale in the last three years. Why did this not help it contain crime and gangsters? Is it because the regime has been unleashing its police mostly against Muslims? Other media and social biases are also prevalent. For instance, 15 years ago, a portal, sulekha.com, was quick to call a gangster in Jharkhand’s Jamshedpur—Hedayat Khan, the “Steel Don”—a “terrorist”. Was this spurred by his Muslim identity? The same portal has not used the term “terrorist” for the surviving gangster, Akhilesh Singh, also from Jamshedpur.
For Shahabuddin of Siwan fame as well, the term “terrorist” was used more easily in common parlance. But was Sohrabuddin Sheikh a gangster or a terrorist? How does one characterise Latif Don, who was killed in 1997? As a terrorist or mafia gangster? What about Chhota Rajan?
There are other questions too: why do Indian jails have disproportionately high numbers of Muslim under-trials? How many Dalit gangsters have been active among mafia dons? Why do gangsters emerge only among politically-powerful dominant castes? Is there not a power angle to be explored in how narratives about outlaws, based on caste and religious identities, are peddled? All these questions are quite pertinent. In the last few months, the constitutional protests against CAA have attracted harsh non-bailable laws like the charge of sedition under section 124A of the IPC and the UAPA, whereas Vikas Dubey was granted bail after he was accused in the killing of his own cousin in 2018. [A senior Uttar Pradesh Police official has said that they will treat Vikas Dubey “like a terrorist”, but one wonders why this kind of terminology has to be deployed at all when a specific legislation, the Gangster Act, is in force in the state since 1956.]
Andrew Sanchez, in his 2016 study of the rise of gangsters in the steel city of Jamshedpur, Criminal Capital, has pointed out that ever since liberalisation of the economy in 1991, the gangster phenomenon has acquired a menacing tone. Even a cursory look at the profiles of these gangsters clearly suggests that the rural and small-town gangsters (and their sharp-shooters) are from the villages and small towns of eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar who arrive in the industrial towns of nearby provinces.
Sadly, the culprits of these crimes, as well as of communal/ethnic violence, largely remain beyond the reach of the police or, often, the police fail to produce evidence before the judiciary. So, the culprits are quite often let off. This is now a serious concern for all of us, for only significant police-reforms will really take care of this menace.
Documentary and movie-makers who churn out films such as Gangs of Wasseypur (located in Dhanbad, Jharkhand) and Mirzapur (a city in Uttar Pradesh) are constrained and limited by their objective to entertain rather than inform. That is why academic accounts on social and political anthropology need to explore gangsterism and its rise in the grass-roots. Hobsbawm had published a small but significant volume, Bandits, in 1969, in which he classified outlaws broadly into three categories. Big media-houses should now pay greater attention to these works and provide deeper journalistic accounts about organised crime.
In 2018, an essay appeared in an academic journal, “Politics in Gorakhpur since the 1920s: the making of a safe ‘Hindu’ constituency”, but this is just one welcome step in the right direction. This paper explores the evolution of politics in Gorakhpur and around in eastern Uttar Pradesh, where ‘Hindu’ dominance has emerged from the dominance of the Gorakhpur math currently headed by Yogi Adityanath, the present Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. Giving impetus to such works is an important next step for the media, because they cannot ignore the arrival of organised crime in the hinterland. They must at least begin to give a clear accounting of how the everyday life of rural and small-town Indians is plagued by the rise of gangsters in their midst.
The author teaches history at Aligarh Muslim University. The views are personal.