Gangster-neta Mukhtar Ansari’s transfer to an Uttar Pradesh jail from Punjab is seen as a victory for the Yogi government. How will the politics play out?
The Banda district jail on Police Line Road has seen a flurry of activity in the past few days. Even DIG (Jails), Prayagraj range, P.N. Pandey, was camping here, ostensibly to strengthen the jail’s security system. The preparations were for mafia don-turned-neta Mukhtar Ansari, 63, who arrived here in the wee hours of April 7, after travelling 900 km from Ropar Jail in Punjab escorted by a 150-strong police patrol. His relocation followed a Supreme Court order on March 26, which backed the Uttar Pradesh government’s plea that he be brought back to the state. Ansari should be familiar with the place, he was in Banda jail for 21 months before being shifted to Ropar in January 2019 based on a warrant from the Mohali court there.
Citing the fact that he had missed his hearings, the UP government had filed a petition in the Supreme Court saying there were serious criminal cases pending against Mukhtar in the state. Mukhtar’s counsel had opposed the plea, saying there was a threat to his client’s life in UP jails (he was earlier shifted from Lucknow Jail to Banda for this very reason). Barrack No. 15 will be Mukhtar’s new home, same as earlier. The tanhai (isolation) cells will have a new entry gate, a half platoon of the PAC (Provincial Armed Constabulary) and 10 new CCTV cameras in Barracks 15-16 as part of the new security arrangements.
Meanwhile, a pall of gloom has descended over Mukhtar’s ancestral residence in the Tailor Tola locality of Yusufpur in Ghazipur district, about 400 km from Banda. Mukhtar may be a known ganglord, but his family has an illustrious history. His grandfather, Dr Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari, was a freedom fighter and president of the Indian National Congress in 1926-27 as well as a founding member of the Jamia Millia Islamia University. Mukhtar’s father, Subhanullah Ansari, was a Communist leader. Former vice-president Hamid Ansari is also a relative.
The youngest of three brothers, Mukhtar’s early schooling was in Yusufpur, and he got a bachelor’s degree from the Ghazipur Government PG College in 1973. Lawyer Azizul Halim, also an alumnus of the PG College, says, “Mukhtar was quite handy with the slingshot. He was also in the cricket team and played many tournaments for the college.”
Mukhtar’s entry into the world of crime was in the 1970s when several development schemes were launched in the Purvanchal region. Of the different gangs that emerged to grab the public contracts, the Makanu Singh gang and the Sahib Singh gang called the shots in eastern UP. Mukhtar was the main henchman for the Makanu Singh gang, while Brijesh Singh, a resident of Varanasi, was his counterpart in the Sahib Singh gang. Later, Mukhtar and Brijesh formed gangs of their own and began competing with each other for railway and power department contracts in eastern UP. Then sub-inspector Pradeep Singh, who was posted in Mau in the 1980s, recalls: “In 1985, the gangs had a run-in over a plot of land in the Saidpur area of Ghazipur. This started the war between Mukhtar and Brijesh in Purvanchal.”
The first major criminal case against Mukhtar Ansari was registered in 1988 in Ghazipur, where he allegedly killed contractor Sachidanand Rai over a contract for the mandi parishad (agri produce market board). The case is still pending in court. Pradeep Singh says, “Sachidanand Rai’s murder ‘established’ Mukhtar in east UP. Soon, he had henchmen in every district deciding on contracts of various government departments.” On January 22, 1997, Nand Kishore Rungta, eastern UP’s biggest coal dealer and then treasurer of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, was murdered in the Bhelupur area of Varanasi. Mukhtar was alleged to be behind the kidnap-murder. A CBI inquiry into the matter ended with Mukhtar getting a clean chit. Likewise, when Lucknow prison superintendent R.K. Tiwari was shot dead in front of the Raj Bhavan in Lucknow in February 1999, there was no conclusive evidence to nail him. Again, when BJP MLA Krishnanand Rai and seven others were massacred in an ambush shooting on November 29, 2005, in Ghazipur, Mukhtar and his associates Munna Bajrangi, Rakesh Pandey, Sanjeev Jeeva and Maheshwari were named even though Mukhtar was lodged in Fatehgarh jail at the time. The case was investigated by the CBI but Mukhtar and the other accused were acquitted in July 2019 after all the witnesses turned hostile.
Former UP DGP Brijlal explains how Mukhtar got away every time: “Mukhtar may be vicious but he’s also very canny. He is never directly involved, lets his men carry out the attacks, and invariably manages to buy off, intimidate or kill witnesses, which puts him at an advantage during the trial. The Krishnanand Rai and R.K. Tiwari murder trials are perfect examples. During both these incidents, Mukhtar was in jail.” Ten years ago, there were 46 cases registered against Mukhtar Ansari, today there are just 10.
Mau-based social activist Chhotelal Gandhi, who is leading a campaign against land-grabbing in eastern UP, says, “Mukhtar’s political career started in 1995 from the Mau assembly seat. More than 30 per cent of the population in Mau are Muslims, and they have stood with him.” In 1996, Mukhtar contested the assembly election from Mau on a Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) ticket and won. Since then, he has won five consecutive elections from here. According to Chhote Lal, Mukhtar has a Robin Hood image in Mau. The big government contracts he cornered helped him connect with the poor, a reason why he stayed popular. A close friend of Mukhtar’s says he likes luxury goods, and has a fondness for gold-framed glasses, .375 magnum rifles and revolvers, and black SUVs with registration numbers ending with 786.
Mukhtar’s brother Afzal Ansari lost the Mohammadabad assembly seat to Krishnanand Rai, then a prominent BJP leader in east UP, in the 2002 assembly election. Rai had Brijesh Singh’s support. It was after this election that there was a polarisation of Hindu-Muslim votes in Ghazipur and Mau. Mukhtar was first jailed for his role in the Mau riots of October 2005. Since then, he has been in and out of jail. In 2008, Mukhtar again joined the BSP. Then chief minister Mayawati even defended him as a “messiah of the poor” but later raised the criminal cases bogey to expel him from the party in 2010.
Mukhtar then formed a new party with his brothers, the Qaumi Ekta Dal. In 2012, he once again won the Mau assembly seat. In 2014, Mukhtar announced he would contest the Varanasi Lok Sabha seat against Narendra Modi, but later withdrew his decision. Just before the 2017 assembly election, his elder brother Afzal merged the Qaumi Ekta Dal with the BSP. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Afzal became an MP on a BSP ticket from Ghazipur.
Mukhtar reportedly began to fear for his life after the formation of the Yogi Adityanath-led BJP government in UP in 2017. The new dispensation’s tacit support for an ‘encounter’ culture in the police and the murder of his close associate Munna Bajrangi in Baghpat Jail in July 2018 lent an edge to these concerns. His avowed enemy, Brijesh Singh, now imprisoned in Varanasi Jail, is believed to be behind the Bajrangi murder. Mukhtar managed to get himself transferred to a Punjab jail and has been fighting extradition to UP since then (he had managed to stall on medical grounds 26 court warrants issued against him by the Prayagraj special court). His brother Afzal, though, told INDIA TODAY that the UP government was pursuing a “political vendetta”.
‘The state government is taking revenge for the BJP’s defeat in the Ghazipur Lok Sabha seat. In such a situation, Mukhtar’s murder is a big possibility,’ his wife Afshan Ansari wrote in a letter to President Ram Nath Kovind on March 31. Mukhtar, she wrote, was ‘an eyewitness in a case in UP in which legislative council member and mafia don Brijesh Singh and his partner Tribhuvan Singh are accused. Given Brijesh and Tribhuvan’s proximity to the state government, I fear my husband will be killed in a fake encounter while being brought to Banda…’.
Meanwhile, the state is also trying to close down his ‘illegal’ businesses. An ongoing operation led by ADG Brij Bhushan Sharma of the Varanasi zone has razed his alleged illegal constructions and released government land worth over Rs 192 crore, say the authorities. Sharma says, “The illegal fish business in east UP, flourishing under Mukhtar’s protection, has been completely stopped in Mau, Varanasi, Bhadohi, Jaunpur and Chandauli. The Mukhtar gang used to earn around Rs 33 crore a year from this. Also, 94 arms licences given to Mukhtar’s family have been cancelled and 125 people associated with his gang sent to jail under the Gangster Act.”
Afzal insists these actions are just efforts by the Yogi government to divert attention from the rising corruption and crime in the state. In the guise of targeting Mukhtar, he says, “the government is committing atrocities on our whole family, relatives and close ones”. Political analysts observing the Mukhtar saga have a different take on the issue. Brijesh Kumar Misra, an associate professor in the political science department of the Jai Narayan PG College in Lucknow, says, “With the action on Mukhtar, the Yogi government is trying to serve a two-fold objective: apart from giving the impression that the state is tough on hardened criminals, by taking action against the don (Mukhtar), it is trying to woo eastern UP’s Hindu voters ahead of the 2022 assembly election. This is doubly important as Adityanath is from east UP’s Gorakhpur district.”
The big case now against the mafia don is a triple murder in 2009 in Mau. Contractor Ajay Prakash Singh a.k.a. Munna was killed by bike-riding assailants. Later, Prakash’s associate Ram Singh Maurya and gunner Satish were also murdered. The trial is in the final stages
In 1991, Awadhesh Rai, brother of Congress leader Ajay Rai, was murdered in Varanasi. Hearings have been fast-tracked in the case at the special MP-MLA court at Prayagraj. Four other cases under the Gangster Act are also pending against Mukhtar at the special court
Mukhtar’s sons Abbas and Umar have been accused of illegally occupying ‘enemy property’ in the Hazratganj area of Lucknow. The case, registered in August 2019, involves forgery, conspiracy and illegal possession of land. The HC has stayed the arrest of the two accused