Atiq Ahmed and his brother Ashraf’s murders in heavy police custody and media glare in Prayagraj city on Saturday (15 April) are no doubt a major failure on the part of Uttar Pradesh police, but it does not make the two gangsters martyrs or victims by any stretch of the imagination.
The two were dreaded criminals who had more than 160 cases of murders, kidnappings, extortion, and illegal occupation of land filed against them, and had forcibly acquired properties belonging to others worth thousands of crores.
Till his killing by three shooters on Saturday (15 April), Atiq had more than 50 of these cases under trial at various courts and had got convicted in one.
That Atiq had ordered far more killings than he was accused of, has been admitted by the former deputy general of police (DGP) of Uttar Pradesh OP Singh, who also served as police chief of Prayagraj during’s Atiq’s rise as a gangster.
In an interview to a news website after Atiq’s death, the former DGP said that Atiq ran his gang along religious lines and was looked up to among Muslims, his co-religionists.
Atiq enjoyed a massive minority vote bank, which made political parties turn a blind eye to his “reign of terror”, the retired officer said. During his prime, Atiq was associated with Samajwadi Party.
Atiq had a successful political career in the 1990s, but it was so largely due to money and muscle power, and was marred by murder of an opponent, Raju Pal, who defeated his brother Ashraf alias Khalid Azeem in the 2004 assembly elections. Earlier this year, the key witness in the case, Umesh pal, was also murdered along with his driver.
When Atiq was in jail in 2012 for one of his criminal cases and sought bail from the Allahabad high court to campaign for elections, ten judges recused from hearing his bail application.
After Atiq’s death, one expects the media, social media influencers as well as opposition party leaders to behave responsibly while expressing rightful criticism of the UP police in its failure to prevent the extra-judicial murders.
On the contrary, Atiq is being described by them as a Robinhood-like figure and profiled not as a criminal but a member of the Muslim community killed for his religious identity.
A journalist associated with UK’s national broadcaster BBC, Geeta Pandey, described Atiq in a tweet as a “‘Robin Hood, a Dr Jekyll and My Hyde type of character’ who helped poor people, paying for weddings and school uniforms, gave money during Eid”. Her post came under heavy criticism with Twitter users objecting to the sympathetic profiling of the criminal.
Several other journalists profiled Atiq by his religion and his former position of a Member of Parliament instead of his criminal activities.
Shoaib Daniyal, a staffer of news website Scroll.in, described Atiq as a “Muslim” and “ex-MP” in a tweet about his killing, completely ignoring his criminal antecedents. Rana Ayyub, columnist for American publication Washington Post, amplified Daniyal’s post to her 1.5 million followers on Twitter while also sharing another post that described the killers as “Hindutva terrorists” and Atiq as “ex-MP”.
Readers may recall that Ayyub was booked by UP police in 2021 for putting out false information of communal nature through a tweet when she posted about a Muslim man being beaten up by Hindus with chants of Jai Shri Ram. It turned out that the assaulters were from Hindu as well as Muslim community, and no evidence of the religious slogans was found. She is also an accused in a case of corruption and money-laundering.
This propensity of the big media and entertainment productions to whitewash the criminal and communal taints off the mafia dons is only well-known.
These industries have a history of profiling such mafia dons as heroes and icons by glamourising their criminal side and highlighting their acts of philanthropy as their core personality traits, especially if they come from the Muslim community.
Bollywood has made a large number of films on such mafia dons including the most recent film Gangabai Kathiawadi, which had a character named Rahim Lala based on real-life don Karim Lala, portrayed by Ajay Devgn.
Abdul Karim Sher Khan alias Karim Lala was a notorious mafia don active in Mumbai for two decades from the sixties to eighties. His gang was involved in running illegal gambling and liquor dens, and executing kidnappings, extortions, distribution of drugs and counterfeit currency, and killings.
Before Gangubai, film Zanjeer had a character modelled after Karim. Both films portrayed the don, who was known in real-life to be close to Bollywood, as a do-gooder with qualities of fierce loyalty for friends and neighbours, trustworthiness, and protective attribute towards women.
Karim’s peer Haji Mastan, also a mafia gang leader, has been glorified by Bollywood as a Robinhood-like figure for Mumbai’s poor slum-dwellers through several films, including Deewar, Once Upon a Time in Mumbai and Shootout at Wadala. Sultan Mirza alias Haji Mastan too was quite closely connected to the film business in Mumbai besides running smuggling dens.
Films such as Don, Dayavan, Sadak, Vaastav, Company, D, Gangs of Wasseypur and Satya too have glorified such mafia gang leaders by romanticising their shady activities. It came as no surprise that a newspaper has already declared Atiq’s story as “a perfect recipe for a Bollywood thriller”.
Similarly in big media, terrorists and gangsters are often presented as being family persons as was seen in journalist Barkha Dutt’s description of slain terrorist Burhan Wani as “son of a headmaster who used social media as weapon of war”.
When American forces killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi in an air strike, The Washington Post referred to him as an “austere religious leader” in the headline.
When Yakub Memon, mastermind of the 1993 Mumbai blasts, was hanged after a long trial, the Indian Express's headline said — “And They Hanged Yakub”.
The same newspaper described Hizbul Mujahideen terrorist Riyaz Naikoo as a Mathematics teacher when he was encountered by security forces. Reuters similarly described him as “Maths teacher turned rebel commander”.
One can clearly see the Left ideology, which sees some groups as permanent victims and others as permanent perpetrators, at play in profiling criminals and terrorists in such humanising and glorious manner. Muslims, of course, are permanent victims in India as per their worldview.
Most reports by national English dailies in India have highlighted poverty-stricken childhood of Atiq and his desire to overcome it, as if justifying his entry into the world of crime.
That such humanising portrayal to give ‘context’ to criminal activities of the likes of Atiq is reserved for the ‘permanent victim’ category, is evident from how the same newspapers, journalists and commentators never attempt similar writing for, say, gau rakshaks, if they are found to be involved in vigilante crimes.
Global publications have mentioned Atiq in headlines as “Indian lawmaker” (Washington Post and Reuters). New York Times highlighted Atiq ‘s Muslim identity in the sub-headline.
What emotions such coverage can trigger other than the feeling of victimisation in the minds of Atiq’s co-religionists, one struggles to understand.
Already, video statements by members of the community given to TV reporters have revealed that Atiq’s murder has been presented to them as a case of state-sponsored criminal subjugation of Muslims. So far, the three men arrested on the spot for killing the gangsters have said that they wanted fame. Their social media profiles have revealed they fancied being gangsters.
Young men from the Muslim community have called the killings the handiwork of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government. At least one young man was seen on camera threatening retaliation once the current party and UP chief minister steps down from power.
Swati Goel Sharma is a senior editor at Swarajya. She tweets at @swati_gs.
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