It all came to an end on April 15. Atiq Ahmed, the son of a tongawalla who entered the world of crime as a teenager and gained notoriety through allegations of killings in broad daylight, fell to bullets along with his brother in the glare of television cameras and in the presence of the police. The shots were fired late at night on the premises of Calvin Hospital in Prayagraj. Just hours earlier, the body of Ahmed’s son Asad, who had been killed by the police, was buried in a graveyard nearby.
Escorted by armed policemen, Ahmed and Khalid Azim alias Ashraf had been brought to the hospital for a routine medical check-up when three shooters, posing as mediapersons, fired at them from close range at 10.35 p.m. As reporters posed questions to the gangster-turned-politicians, one assailant removed his turban and shot Ahmed in the head point-blank. Ahmed collapsed on the floor along with his brother, who had been handcuffed with him. The shooters fired 18 bullets at Ahmed and Ashraf, killing them on the spot, before being overpowered by the police. The murders, which triggered fear among the residents of a possible backlash from Ahmed’s supporters, took place in the same area from where he had launched his political career.
From Allahabad to Phulpur
Born on August 10, 1962, to a “hothead” tongawalla, Haji Feroz Ahmed, in the Kasari Masari area, Ahmed had not yet completed his matriculation when he got into petty crime. Then he began committing serious crimes: the first murder case against him was registered at the Khuldabad police station in 1979. Around the same time, he also took up municipal contract works. In due course, he reportedly came close to another gangster from the Sabzi Mandi area, Shauq-e-Ilahi alias Chand Baba, who had created terror in Prayagraj, erstwhile Allahabad, by carrying out murders and using crude bombs to target his rivals and even the police.
While in jail, Chand Baba became a corporator in 1989. He was released on conditional bail. Thereafter, the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections were announced. By then, Ahmed had made up his mind to file his nomination from the Allahabad West seat as an independent candidate and, it is said, also managed to get Chand Baba’s support. However, Chand Baba later decided to contest the poll as an independent candidate too. This led to a confrontation. Even before election results were declared, Chand Baba was murdered at a dhaba in Raushan Bagh on November 6, 1989.
“It was a power struggle between the two gangsters aimed at establishing supremacy in their community for political gains. Chand Baba’s murder brought Ahmed to the limelight, and there was no looking back for him. He won the 1989 election as an independent candidate,” said journalist Anupam Mishra in Prayagraj. “Ahmed again won the polls from the same constituency in 1991 and 1993 as an independent candidate, and then in 1996 on a Samajwadi Party (SP) ticket and in 2002 on an Apna Dal ticket.”
Located at the banks of the Ganga, Prayagraj has long been a cultural, educational and political hub. It houses the Allahabad High Court and a once top-notch university. It was also the home base of the Nehru family, and a base for the Congress party during the freedom movement. In every nook and cranny of this city, which is an important pilgrimage centre, are heritage buildings that attract thousands of tourists every year. However, over the past few decades, the city has often been hitting the headlines for the wrong reasons. “The post-Mandal Commission protests in 1990 saw the emergence of regional parties in northern India. During the same phase, there was also politicisation of criminals of the likes of Atiq Ahmed, in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar,” recalled Mishra.
Once he became a politician, Ahmed is believed to have found a lucrative option in land-grabbing for raising funds. If landowners and property dealers did not comply, he would allegedly issue threats to them. Stories are legion. For instance, a Prayagraj resident, Surajkali, told the media that her family’s 12.50 bigha land was captured by gangsters about 30 years ago. Her husband went missing and has not returned since. When she pursued the matter with the authorities, she was threatened with dire consequences. In 2016, she and her son were attacked.
According to locals, Ahmed often moved around escorted by guards carrying assault rifles. “Businessmen were terrified of him and his henchmen. For election expenses, he would force them to pay up huge amounts, up to ₹5 lakh per head,” claimed a shop owner in Dhoomanganj.
Over the past four decades, during which more than 100 cases were registered against him, Ahmed was arrested many times. Lalji Shukla, a retired officer of the Indian Police Service, said that as a Superintendent of Police (SP) he had first arrested the gangster on August 9, 1996, in a murder case. He again arrested him on February 15, 2001, for an alleged role in the murder of a man called Ashfaq in 1994. “In the Surajkali matter, I had sent a team that arrested him in July 2002. In order to get me transferred from the post of SP City, he orchestrated a bomb attack on himself and alleged that I was involved. It later turned out that apart from Atiq Ahmed, his father and brother were also involved,” he recalled.
Shukla said during his tenure, 50 properties linked to Ahmed were attached under the Gangsters Act. “We had dismantled almost his entire network. However, he got a reprieve with the return of the SP to power in Uttar Pradesh in 2003,” he said. In official records, Ahmed’s group, code-named Gang No.227, was soon shown as inactive. In several cases, witnesses were intimidated, and proceedings delayed on various pretexts.
In 2003, Atiq Ahmed, who was with the Apna Dal, rejoined the SP. The next year, he was elected as the Lok Sabha Member from Phulpur, the constituency once represented by India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. He then decided to field his brother, Ashraf, from the vacated Allahabad West Assembly constituency in the October 2004 bypoll. Ashraf lost to Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) candidate, Raju Pal.
The Raju Pal case
In the afternoon of January 25, 2005, Raju Pal was travelling in a car along with two others. His security guards were tailing them in another vehicle. Suddenly, eight persons, allegedly including Ashraf, intercepted them and opened fire indiscriminately. Raju Pal and his co-travellers sustained bullet injuries. The MLA’s supporters pulled him out of the vehicle and were taking him to a nursing home in an autorickshaw when the assailants again fired at him from close range. The third round of firing happened close to the nursing home and killed Raju Pal. His co-travellers also succumbed to their injuries.
Ashraf was arrested in the case, and Ahmed surrendered before a court and was sent to judicial custody. In the byelection, the BSP fielded Raju Pal’s widow Pooja Pal, who had lost her husband just days after their marriage. Ashraf again contested on an SP ticket and won this time. However, the murder case remained alive with the prime witness, Umesh Pal, refusing to retract his testimony. On February 28, 2006, Umesh was abducted at gunpoint, and told to remain quiet.
Days after the BSP government came to power in June 2007, Umesh Pal lodged a First Information Report against Ahmed and others for his alleged abduction. Under pressure, the gangster surrendered in 2008 and could secure bail only four years later.
During the 2014 general elections, Ahmed contested from Shrawasti on an SP ticket and lost. It was an early indication that his political career was on the wane. “However, for almost 15 years, he exercised control over the system and would decide key postings in Prayagraj. Once several judges recused themselves from hearing his bail application,” said a senior police officer on the condition of anonymity.
The don was back in the spotlight in December 2016 when a video clip showing him and his men assaulting a professor and the staff of Sam Higginbottom University of Agriculture, Technology and Sciences went viral on social media. The Allahabad High Court took note, and on February 10, 2017, summoned his criminal records. He was subsequently arrested and sent to prison. “After that, he could never come out of jail,” said Shukla. In 2017, the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in the State. Irrespective of the regime change, Ahmed continued to operate from behind bars. While lodged in Deoria prison, he is alleged to have got a Lucknow businessman, Mohit Jaiswal, abducted and beaten up in December 2018 for extortion.
Taking cognisance of a petition in this regard, the Supreme Court — which found that there were 106 cases against him, of which 26 were pending in various courts — in April 2019 directed that Ahmed be shifted to Sabarmati jail in Gujarat, and ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation to take over the investigation. The same year, despite being in jail, he contested as an independent candidate against Prime Minister Narendra Modi from Varanasi, but secured just 855 votes.
In the meantime, as part of pro-active action against gangsters, the U.P. government had clamped down on Ahmed’s network. Immoveable assets worth hundreds of crores were seized or demolished. His house in Chakiya and an office were razed. The police identified 16 companies floated for real estate and other projects, and illegally acquired land parcels retrieved. Based on the criminal cases, the Enforcement Directorate also launched investigations under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act.
Even as the exercise was under way, things took a dramatic turn when Umesh Pal and two security guards were killed by assailants outside his house in Prayagraj on February 24, 2023. The entire incident was recorded on a closed-circuit television camera. Among the shooters was Ahmed’s son Asad. The assailants fired several rounds and hurled bombs before fleeing.
An intensive police crackdown followed and the accused Arbaaz and Vijay Chaudhary were killed in “encounters” on February 27 and March 6. Ahmed and Ashraf, who claimed that there was a threat to their lives, were brought back from Sabarmati jail by road on March 27. The next day, a trial court convicted Ahmed and two others in the Umesh Pal abduction case. Ahmed was sentenced to life imprisonment. It was his first conviction in any criminal case.
Surveillance had already been mounted on Asad. He was finally traced to Jhansi where, along with his associate Ghulam, he was shot dead by the police on April 13. In the court complex, Ahmed broke into tears that day, saying only he was responsible for what had happened. The police took him and Ashraf into five-day custody in the Umesh Pal murder case. Ahmed had sought permission to attend his son’s last rites on April 15, but his plea was rejected. Hours later, he and his brother were gunned down by Arun Maurya (18), Lavlesh Tiwari (22) and Sunny Singh (23).
An uneasy calm
In the evening of April 16, the bullet-ridden bodies of Ahmed and Ashraf were buried alongside Asad’s in the Kasari Masari graveyard. “There was heavy police presence. We were not allowed to offer final prayers. After all, he was our MP and his supporters should have been permitted entry,” said Asif, a resident of nearby Chakiya, Ahmed’s den where an uneasy calm prevailed. Following Asad’s killing, hundreds of policemen and Rapid Action Force personnel were deployed in the area as a precautionary measure.
Several residents raised questions about the police’s role in the killings. “Atiq Bhai and his brother were in their custody,” said one resident on the condition of anonymity. “The police brought them from Sabarmati jail under heavy security arrangements but failed to give them adequate protection in Prayagraj. Footage of the incident shows that none of the policemen escorting the two even attempted to open fire in retaliation. The three shooters come from poor backgrounds, but they were carrying costly weapons, which indicates a larger conspiracy.”
Another resident asked: “Now that the assailants have been arrested and identified, will the authorities demolish their homes?” A shopkeeper lamented that the recent turn of events had adversely impacted businesses during Ramzan. “The government shut down the Internet, so no one was able to make any digital transaction for two days. This year, Eid celebrations will also get affected, causing huge losses.”
While the three shooters have been taken into police custody for interrogation, the hunt is also on for Ahmed’s wife Shaista Parween, a co-accused in the Umesh Pal murder case. Their two minor sons are in a juvenile centre and their two other sons are in prison. Parween’s close relatives are also untraceable.