When gangster-politician Atiq Ahmed’s son Asad was killed along with one of his associates in Jhansi on April 13, Prashant Kumar, Uttar Pradesh Special DG, Crime and Law & Order, who briefed the media, said, “This happens to be the 183rd encounter killing since 2017 while keeping the promise of elimination of crime and criminals.”
According to information provided by UP Police sources on March 16 this year, more than 10,000 encounters and 5,967 arrests of alleged criminals have taken place across the state in the last six years of the Yogi Adityanath government.
Many years before Adityanath, there was another Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, someone far removed from the incumbent on several counts — then Congress leader Vishwanath Pratap (VP) Singh, who was Chief Minister of the state for two years and 39 days. Yet, their record on encounters has uncanny parallels.
Singh, a Thakur from Prayagraj, happens to be one of only two UP chief ministers who went on to become Prime Minister of India (the other was Charan Singh). It is said that on June 9, 1980, on his way to Lucknow to take oath, he asked Sanjay Singh of Amethi (then in the Congress, now BJP) for his opinion on the biggest problem faced by the people of UP. “Dacoity,” Singh replied.
While dacoity was indeed a problem in the heartland – as it grappled with extreme levels of poverty, poor road connectivity and electricity, and an ill-equipped police force– by the early 1980s, the situation had become worse.
Weeks after taking oath, Singh launched a campaign against dacoits. Police encounters or dacoities made it to newspaper headlines almost every other day.
The Behmai massacre of February 14, 1981, was one such – an incident that tarnished Singh’s image since it came in the midst of his government’s crackdown on dacoits. That day in Behmai, a village near Kanpur, members of ‘bandit queen’ Phoolan Devi’s gang attacked and killed 20 Thakurs.
More encounters followed and so did rumours that Phoolan Devi had been killed or arrested.
When grilled by Opposition members to issue a statement on the matter, Singh responded, “We don’t simply issue statements; we show results.” Despite the bravado, the state police could not arrest Phoolan Devi. She finally surrendered in February 1983 in Madhya Pradesh, saying she didn’t trust the UP Police.
In his book VP Singh: The Quest for Power, Janardan Thakur quotes Singh with reference to the encounters that took place during his tenure, “Mere haath khoon se lathpath hain, par khooniyon ke khoon se lathpath hain (My hands are awash in blood but they are bloodied with the blood of criminals).”
As calls for Singh’s resignation stepped up, Mohan Singh, MLA of the Lok Dal, the main opposition party those days, said, “There are efforts to divide the state administration on caste lines by deploying officials of a caste.” He was referring to the CM’s Thakur caste. Singh responded by saying, “Human blood has no caste.”
The Lok Dal launched a ‘jail bharo’ movement against “fake encounters” and Singh’s policies. Several Lok Dal leaders and workers were beaten by the police – one of them, Radhey Shyam Patel, MLA from Soraon (the seat from where Singh was first elected as an MLA), reached the Assembly on a stretcher.
In his book, Janardan Thakur quotes Mulayam Singh Yadav, then Lok Dal leader, as saying, “So many people have not been killed in encounters in even a hundred years as during the past year and a half.” Mulayam submitted to the Governor a list of 418 people who were allegedly killed in “fake encounters”.
Yet, nothing put the brakes on the state government’s anti-dacoity campaign.
In Manzil Se Jyada Safar, a biography of Singh written by Ram Bahadur Rai, the former PM talks about the dacoity problem he grappled with as UP CM.
In the book, Singh talks about three big gangs that operated in UP those days – one headed by a Thakur, another by a Yadav and a third by someone from the Mallah (boatmen) caste.
He also describes the encounter death of Chhaviram Yadav, a dacoit with a gang of nearly 200 members. On March 3, 1982, when Chhaviram was killed in an encounter, Singh visited the spot. He is quoted as saying, “I saw that policemen had tied his body to a pillar. I told them that we don’t have the right to insult the body. I visited his home and helped his family members as well.”
And then, the dacoits struck closer home. On March 20, 1982, Singh’s brother Justice Chandra Shekhar Prasad Singh, a sitting judge at the Allahabad High Court, and his 14-year-old son, were killed by dacoits. Within three weeks of the incident, Jagatpal Pasi, one of the accused in the case, was killed in an encounter with the police in Banda.
It was a vicious cycle of death and revenge killings.
On the night of June 27-28, 1982, a gang of dacoits gunned down 10 Yadavs in Kanpur; in Mainpuri, alleged dacoits killed members of the Scheduled Castes.
That day, Singh sent his resignation to the Governor saying “people want results and not alibis and they cannot go on waiting for results indefinitely. Why should the people pay the price of my failure?”
On June 28, 1982, Singh stepped down as CM and returned to the Centre.
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