The business of encounters
The UP police claim that it has seized over ` 146 crore from ‘gangsters’ in the state in a matter of 11 months deserves closer scrutiny as allegations mount of arbitrariness in seizing properties
On the evening of November 7, 2017, Ishraq Shaikh, a local realtor in a village in Azamgarh district, UP, had just come home after work and was getting started to play a game of carrom with his nephews. It was around 6.30 and the game had just begun when two men walked up — one held a pistol and the other an AK-47 — and held a gun to his head and asked, “Who is Ishraq?” He got up and introduced himself. “We want you to turn over the Pakistani you are harbouring,” they said.
The two intruders, claiming to be members of the Special Operations Group of the UP police, were suddenly joined by several others. “They bound my hands, those of my children, my wife, and mother,” he recalled. The police, according to Ishraq, ransacked his house, took his cellphones (five), ` 25,000, his wife’s jewellery and ` 41,000 from his mother. This was not the end of the officers’ avarice. In search of more, they broke through all the trunks in the house. They took everything back to the police station, including his nephews.
The arrest was registered as an encounter and his land, money and other assets seized. Three months later, the 28-year-old was released from prison. According to the Gangster Act of 1986, properties and assets can be seized only if they have been gotten through illegal income. Also, such property has to be released within three months if documents of legal acquisition can be shown. While the 40-odd ‘gangsters’ who have been killed in encounters will not claim their property, there are many others who have been discharged and who are still battling to regain control over their physical assets.
Ishraq’s arrest came immediately after Abu Zaid, an original resident of Azamgarh, was picked up from Mumbai airport. Zaid had lived in Riyadh for several years and had alleged links with terror outfits in Pakistan. His detention led to a spate of arrests of hundreds of youths by the local police. A police officer told Hardnews that all these young men are criminals, thieves, and terrorists. According to him, some have been accused of ransacking a baroodkhana (armoury) and stealing ammunition and guns. Another senior police official laughed it off by saying that what the UP police was engaged in was hate-based fear mongering and that these officers have pen and paper ready to slap any charges.
Last year, the UP police, according to the state Director General of Police (DGP), seized over Rs 146 crore from arrested gangsters. It is an alarmingly high figure as most of these gangsters are petty criminals such as compulsive chain-snatchers. Surprisingly, these small-time criminals have bounties on their heads ranging from `12,000-15,000, surprising lawyers and others as to why bounties have been placed by district administration on petty criminals.
Besides chain-snatchers and petty thieves, people like Ishraq have also been targeted, who are wealthier, and have the capacity to organise lawyers, community support and create noise. They may get released due to the efforts of their families, but they have realised that they still do not get back much of the assets and money seized by the police. “I can’t get back my jewellery, my car, my money, it’s gone,” said Ishraq.
What is visible through these arrests and seizures is that it is disempowering the middle class amongst the minorities and Dalits. Rajeev Yadav of the Rihai Manch said, “It is a concerted effort to break those who oppose the government and their supporters.”
A police officer told Hardnews that all these young men are criminals, thieves, and terrorists. According to him, some have been accused of ransacking a baroodkhana ( armoury ) and stealing ammunition and guns. Another senior police official laughed it off by saying that what the UP police was engaged in was hate-based fear mongering and that these officers have pen and paper ready to slap any charges.
Recollecting his trauma, Ishraq said, “I was taken to three police stations. First to Fariha Chowki, where I was interrogated for several hours. They kept asking me whether I was harbouring a Pakistani or a Nepali. In the meantime, the police released my nephews without having to pay any bribes that would have been upwards of ` 70,000 per person.” His misery has also been documented in Rihai Manch, which was instrumental in Ishraq’s release from prison. He narrated, “Once I reached Gambhirpur, the Station House Officer (SHO) told me, We can’t do much as we have to send you to jail. So, they drew up a charge sheet in which I was charged under Sections 307, 3/25, 302, 411 and others.” And all this while the police was trying to establish Ishraq’s link with Zaid. “They were relentless, they kept on asking me whether I knew Zaid, what his plans were and there were times they assumed I knew everything,” Ishraq remembers with a shudder.
Ishraq was sent to jail and kept there for three months. According to his lawyer, Santosh Dubey, “When I presented the case in court, the judge looked at all the facts and said candidly that the entire case was false. While throwing out the case, he also threatened to suspend the police officer.” According to Dubey, the case grew even more bizarre when the police arrested another man and tried to pass him off as Ishraq’s accomplice.
Despite being free, Ishraq remains scarred by his arrest. “My earnings are erratic, some months are good and others bad. I don’t know what I did to be put in jail, they kept torturing me and asking me to give details of what I did not know. I don’t know what I did, was it the gold ring I wore? What did I do to upset those around me?”
His story doesn’t seem to be the only one. In prison, Ishraq met several others of his own faith, men picked up for no reason. However, what seems to be happening is that the mainstay of the economy in areas such as Azamgarh, Baghpat and Muzaffarnagar is being attacked. Behind the veneer of ‘breaking the back of the mafia’, the back of Muslim and Dalit wealth is being broken in the state.