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India’s Law-of-the-Jungle Raj

The recent public murder of notorious Indian gangster-politician Atiq Ahmed serves as a potent reminder that Indian society and politics remain plagued by crime, brutality, and lawlessness. In fact, Ahmed's life and death suggests that the dysfunction is deepening.

NEW DELHI – At around 6 p.m. on March 26 of this year, a portly man with a twirled mustache stepped out of Sabarmati Central Jail in Ahmedabad in the western Indian state of Gujarat. A 20-member team of police was ushering him into the prisoner van that would take him to a court in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh, to face judgment in a kidnapping case. A waiting reporter asked if he was afraid, and the man – the gangster-politician Atiq Ahmed – responded, “I know their plan; they want to murder me.”

As the police convoy traveled across the country, a horde of media followed closely behind. When Ahmed urinated at a roadside stop, voyeuristic camera-wielders zoomed in on his back, with the footage broadcast live to viewers across the country. A veteran criminal was about to get his comeuppance, or so many hoped, and nobody wanted to miss a thing.

Ahmed had long gotten away with murder – literally. He was responsible for more deaths than anyone will probably ever know. He often faced charges, but repeatedly avoided conviction. This enabled him to contest and win multiple elections, first to the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly and then to India’s parliament, the Lok Sabha. Although the group of criminal-politicians has grown manifold, he was a trailblazer.

The law, it seemed, was about to catch up with Ahmed. On March 28, the court in Prayagraj sentenced him to life in prison. To many observers’ surprise, the court acquitted his brother and alleged co-conspirator Ashraf, though he too would have to remain in custody pending decisions on multiple charges against him, including one of murder. Nonetheless, the Prayagraj verdict offered a glimmer of hope that India could restore civilized norms and democratic accountability.

Vigilante Justice

The glimmer vanished quickly. Mayhem returned. On April 13, Uttar Pradesh police caught up with Ahmed’s 19-year-old son, Asad. He stood accused of killing two months previously the man his father had kidnapped years earlier. In their “encounter” with Asad, the police shot and killed him and another suspect in the murder.

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Two days after the police “encounter,” Atiq and Ashraf were taken to a hospital in Prayagraj for a medical check-up. As they walked, handcuffed, from the police van to the hospital doors, journalists descended upon them, all attempting to get their soundbite. Then, Atiq’s prediction came true: three “journalists” – young men with fake media credentialsshot the brothers dead while their police escorts froze.

Many in the Indian commentariat clicked their tongues about the absence of due process and the denial of the Ahmed family’s human rights. But many welcomed the vigilante justice by the police and private assassins: the Ahmeds would never commit another crime.

Such vigilante murders are the most visible symbols of decaying Indian social norms and public accountability. As state and private actors have learned that acting lawlessly can earn them accolades and even riches, the incentives to act dishonestly and lawlessly have increased. These norms have spread steadily from Uttar Pradesh – anarchic for decades – and increasingly infect all corners of India. The country’s economic aspirations and the survival of its democracy are on the line.

The Rise of the Gangster-Politician

Born in 1962, Atiq (alias Atique or Ateeq) Ahmed was the son of a tonga (horse-drawn taxi) driver. Rather than follow the path of education into the wilderness of unemployment and dead-end jobs, he dropped out of high school and began a life of crime – one that, even truncated, would offer vastly higher lifetime earnings. He began as a petty thief, stealing coal from railway wagons and muscling in on contracts to sell scraps of rolling stock. But he did not take long to advance his career. At 17, he committed his first murder, followed by his second and third within five years.

Ahmed marched with the times. By the early 1980s, criminal-politicians were rising to prominence across India, as the movies Ardh Satya (Half-Truth) and Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (Let it Go, Friends) portrayed. Those with criminal backgrounds had distinct advantages when contesting elections – not least the bags of black money they could use to fund increasingly expensive campaigns. They were able to present themselves as “Robin Hood” figures, who would ensure that favored constituents gained access to scarce public services.

And criminal-politicians seemed immune to justice. A 1993 report by an official committee headed by the distinguished civil servant N.N. Vohra noted that “underworld politicians” used their “financial and muscle power to make the task of investigating and prosecuting agencies extremely difficult.” Not even the judiciary “escaped the embrace of the mafia.”

These were “venal politicians,” as the economist and former governor of the Reserve Bank of India Raghuram Rajan has called them. They simultaneously perpetuated the dysfunction in public services and offered themselves as substitutes for a broken state.

Among them was Ahmed, who won a seat in the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly in 1989 and occupied it for 15 years – a period of economic stagnation and abysmal human development in the state. These years of the “jungle raj,” as The Times of India wrote in 1997, were marked by “a soaring crime rate, brutal killings, booming sales of weapons, a confused police, and a frightened populace.”

Ahmed moved on to the Lok Sabha in 2004. Underscoring the degeneration in Indian politics, he won the seat of Uttar Pradesh’s Phulpur constituency, which three times between 1952 and 1962 had elected India’s first prime minister, the renowned statesman and scholar Jawaharlal Nehru. Ahmed was among the 12% of the 2004 Lok Sabha members accused of serious crimes, including murder, rape, kidnapping, and extortion.

The prime minister of the newly elected government was Manmohan Singh. A former finance minister and celebrity reformer, he had dismantled egregious controls on Indian imports and industrial production. Now, Singh promoted a rural job-guarantee program and championed the public’s right to information.

Unmoved by this progressive agenda, Ahmed maintained a low profile in the Lok Sabha. He once asked the health minister about India’s fight against polio, and – on parole from a stint in jail – he voted against the nuclear deal with the United States. For the most part, he focused on railways – his area of specialization.

But make no mistake: Ahmed stayed busy. After he relinquished his seat in the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly, his brother Ashraf (alias: Khalid Azim) contested it, but lost to Raju Pal, one of Atiq’s rivals in the mafia and in politics. Pal was swiftly murdered – in broad daylight – allegedly by Atiq’s gang. A year later, Atiq had the prosecution’s main eyewitness to that murder kidnapped and tortured, as the court in Prayagraj ruled. Ashraf contested the now-vacant seat in the state assembly and won.

Atiq never won another election, but criminal-politicians continued to gain ground. By 2019, the share of Lok Sabha members charged with serious crimes had more than doubled, to 29%. The bad was driving out the good throughout the country. Even in a progressive state such as Tamil Nadu, a quarter of the state legislators in 2021 had outstanding charges of serious crimes.

A major driver of this trend was India’s construction boom. Criminal gangs fought over construction contracts; more ferociously, they illegally dredged sand – a key ingredient in concrete – from river beds and beaches all over India, causing profound economic and environmental damage. River beds dried up; groundwater tables sank; and plants and fish died. The perpetrators grew rich and became politicians.

Crime Without Punishment

Once out of office, Ahmed became a statistic in India’s broken criminal-justice system. A whopping three-quarters of India’s nearly 600,000 prisoners in 2021 were so-called undertrials – people in police custody awaiting trial. But while Ahmed joined their ranks, few undertrials lived like he did. Beyond contesting elections, he allegedly had a businessman kidnapped and enlisted the help of prison staff to torture and extort him. When he tired of his jail cell, he bribed and intimidated his way to luxury living quarters, including at a railway guesthouse.

The vast majority of undertrials languish in hellish, overcrowded prisons, often for longer than the sentence they would receive if convicted of their alleged crimes. Many face custodial torture to extract “confessions” – a practice that has become accepted across India.

The movie Jai Bhim described a horrific episode of custodial torture in 1993 in Tamil Nadu, where the practice continues to this day, and where 80% of those subject to it are Dalits, who reside at the bottom of the Indian caste hierarchy. In Telangana, a daily-wage laborer was killed by custodial torture after the state’s much-touted surveillance and facial-recognition systems wrongly identified him as the perpetrator of a crime. Even in Kerala, arguably the most progressive Indian state, victims of custodial torture and their families suffer, while “cops barely pay the price.”

Ahmed’s son, too, became a statistic. Police claim they had no choice but to kill Asad and his accomplice, because the suspects had attempted to shoot their way out of a dragnet. But such “encounters” with the police – in truth, extrajudicial killings – are entrenched in India’s police and governance culture.

Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi pioneered the use of “encounters” to suppress peasant and student protests in the late 1960s. Born in Calcutta and overseen by acclaimed police officer Ranjit Gupta, the practice quickly became an essential governing tool. Violent state coercion of citizens was easier, apparently, than addressing people’s grievances. Police killings subsequently helped to snuff out the Sikh uprising in the early 1990s, and to bring down Mumbai’s mafia in the 1990s, as the movie Satya (Truth) showed.

The police kill suspects so often that Indians do not bother to spell out “killed in an encounter”; alleged criminals are simply “encountered.” Indian elites, anxious to protect their gated lives, celebrate police officers described as “encounter specialists” (a reality graphically portrayed in the Netflix docuseries Mumbai Mafia: Police vs The Underworld).

A Lawless State

Beneath the veneer of democracy in India, deeply undemocratic private and state behavior has become the norm, and, not surprisingly, it is wedded to a refusal to reform India’s electoral and judicial systems. This “bad equilibrium” seems impossible to undo. The repeated depiction of broken norms in Indian cinema speaks to the hopelessness, fears, and desire for retribution in a public exposed to capricious and unfair lives. Indian and international elites are eager to portray India as a modern country, embracing digital technologies and promoting high-value startups; but the country is racing to the precipice of a jungle raj.

Today, illegal sand mining is flourishing, weapons smuggling continues, and drugs from Afghanistan and Myanmar are being trafficked in huge quantities, with India’s elites the primary beneficiaries. The movie Udta Punjab (Flying Punjab), for example, captures how drugs and arms have spawned a lawless mafia of politicians, policemen, and criminals in Punjab, a once-prosperous state where farmers and poorly educated, “unemployable” youth are under acute stress.

For Indians like Ahmed, politics is a protective cover and a lucrative business, not a means of serving their country. As long as criminal-politicians like him thrive, India’s longstanding challenges will persist. Even as a few Indians enrich themselves, the vast majority will struggle to find jobs, get a quality education, and access health care, while environmental degradation reduces their productivity and shortens their life spans. Violence – greatly amplified by Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) forces – will continue to envelop India.