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Killing of jailed lawmaker on live TV puts spotlight on India’s extrajudicial violence

The slaying of a former lawmaker and his brother in police custody in India’s Uttar Pradesh state over the weekend has placed a spotlight on extrajudicial attacks and killings, driven in part by ethnoreligious divisions fomented at the highest levels of government.

Assassins posing as journalists shot and killed at point-blank range Atiq Ahmed, 60, a mobster-turned-lawmaker, and his brother Ashraf Ahmed, a former state lawmaker, as they answered questions on live TV Saturday. In the footage, gunmen continue to shoot the men as they slump to the ground.

Three suspects surrendered not long after the shooting.

Atiq Ahmed, a former member of India’s Parliament, was in handcuffs, under police escort to a routine medical checkup when his attackers opened fire. He was serving a life sentence after a conviction last month for the 2006 kidnapping of the lawyer Umesh Pal — a witness in a separate murder case. He was reportedly facing hundreds of other charges, including for alleged murder and assault, though he had no other convictions. His brother also faced criminal charges.

The Ahmeds, members of India’s Muslim minority, were killed amid a huddle of reporters asking questions. Police moved swiftly to restrain the apparent assailants, including at least one who was chanting “Jai Shri Ram,” or “Hail Lord Ram” — a religious phrase that has become a Hindu nationalist slogan, sometimes heard in crowds carrying out attacks on Muslims. A police official told the Guardian that three suspects were carrying camera equipment, a microphone with a network logo and fake press badges.

A former Indian lawmaker convicted of kidnapping, Atiq Ahmed, and his brother were shot dead on April 15. The killing was caught on live television. (Video: Reuters)

Atiq Ahmed’s son Asad Ahmed had been killed days earlier in a police encounter in Uttar Pradesh. Atiq Ahmed’s final words were a response to a reporter who asked why he wasn’t at the funeral: “They did not take us, so we did not go.”

At the root of the phenomenon of encounter killings, as they’re called in India, and why they’re so widely accepted, is a lack of public faith in the system of law and order, said Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“The average person on the street understands that all of the steps in this kind of rule-of-law supply chain are deeply compromised in a fundamental way,” he said. There are police who are often corrupt, prosecutors who are under-resourced, and a justice process that is delayed — meaning many suspected criminals never actually get convicted of crimes they’ve committed, he added.

“These sorts of killings then become shortcuts,” said Vaishnav. “They become widely accepted as part and parcel of a kind of modern policing.” And, he added, the ruling government — which has sometimes celebrated vigilante justice — has been able to sell these killings under the premise that “Well, ultimately we are getting the outcome we want.”

Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, has developed a notorious reputation for gangland violence as well as a long history of extrajudicial vigilante violence carried out by local authorities. Under the rule of Yogi Adityanath, the state’s right-wing Hindu nationalist chief minister, Uttar Pradesh has seen a surge in such encounters with police.

In Uttar Pradesh, “politics has always had close ties to power, crime and violence, and the criminal justice system has repeatedly been bent by strongmen,” said Raja Bagga, assistant director of the Jindal Global Law School’s criminal justice clinic. Majoritarianism has only fueled this trend, he added.

While Adityanath’s supporters have cheered on the chief minister’s supposed tough approach to law and order, his opponents have accused him of stoking religious tensions and creating a climate of impunity.

After Atiq Ahmed’s son — who was a prime suspect in the February killing of Umesh Pal — was killed in a police encounter last week, Deputy Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh tweeted his “congratulations” to the region’s special task force. “This was the fate that killers of Advocate Mr. Umesh Pal and the police personnel deserved,” his tweet read in Hindi.

Sanjay Prasad, Adityanath’s principal secretary, did not respond to a request for comment on the killings.

Politicians and rights advocates called the slayings a sign of deep underlying problems.

Kapil Sibal, a well-known lawyer and member of Parliament, said on Twitter that there had been “two murders”: “1) Atiq Ahmed and brother Ashraf 2) Rule of law.”

Asaduddin Owaisi, the head of AIMIM, an Indian Muslim political party, called for a Supreme Court investigation and the removal from service of the police officers at the scene.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee tweeted that she was “shocked by the brazen anarchy and total collapse of law & order in Uttar Pradesh.”

“It is shameful that perpetrators are now taking the law in their own hands, unfazed by the police and media presence,” she said.


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