On April 6 morning, when an Uttar Pradesh (UP) Police team in Punjab’s Roopnagar district was completing formalities to take custody of gangster-turned-legislator Mukhtar Ansari, chief minister Yogi Adityanath was keeping a close watch on the developments. After four years in the UP hot seat, Adityanath now had another achievement to exhibit in his administration’s fight against organised crime.
On April 7, Mukhtar, 58, was back in the same Banda jail from where he had managed to shift to Punjab’s Ropar jail in 2019.
Mukhtar’s rise and fall over the last three decades is also the story of how politics has changed in the state, and is a testimony to the many twists and turns in the corridors of power.
THE RISE OF A DON
In the mid-1980s, Afzal, Mukhtar’s elder brother, was the first among the siblings to venture into state politics. Coming from an illustrious family in eastern UP’s Ghazipur district, Afzal won the Mohammadabad assembly constituency in 1985 as a candidate of the Communist Party of India.
It was the time when UP was witnessing a rising tide of saffron politics in the backdrop of the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid controversy. On the other hand, there was the idea of social justice, marked by Dalit politics.
Mukhtar’s rise began soon after. He built his clout and then ventured into organised crime, while focusing on lucrative scrap tenders of the railways and other government departments. Soon, he was a force to be reckoned with in the Mau-Azamgarh-Ghazipur-Chandauli belt of eastern UP. The Mukhtar gang was accused of some high-profile kidnappings for ransom, and extortion.
By the mid-1990s, Mukhtar had decided to take a direct political plunge. The politics of social justice, in its urge to check the saffron surge, didn’t see any harm in mingling with the don. Mukhtar was not an untouchable for Samajwadi Party (SP) leader Mulayam Singh Yadav or for Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) founder Kanshi Ram and Mayawati.
The BJP, too, had direct or indirect contacts with local bahubalis (musclemen) — from Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh in Gonda to Raghuraj Pratap Singh in Pratapgarh — if they ticked the political equations.
By 1996, Mukhtar had caught BSP leader Mayawati’s attention. The don was given a party ticket and he won the assembly elections from Mau. In the complex caste and religious equations of the state, Mukhtar was politically important.
Since then, Mukhtar has won several elections, often on BSP ticket and twice as an independent. Even from behind the bars — he has been lodged in jails across UP on different charges since 2005 — Mukhtar retained his clout. At present, he is a BSP MLA, while his brother, Afzal, is a BSP MP from Ghazipur.
Political patronage under governments by the BSP and the SP emboldened Mukhtar at his peak. Brijesh Singh, who is presently a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLC and lodged in a Varanasi jail, had to flee UP and go into hiding after an attempt to kill Mukhtar in a 2002 shootout in Lucknow. In 2008, Singh was finally caught by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) from Odisha’s Bhubaneswar.
In 2004, the UP Special Task Force (STF) made a sensational claim that Mukhtar’s gang was trying to buy a light machine gun from international arms dealers. STF also warned of intense rivalry between Mukhtar and Krishnanand Rai, the then BJP MLA from Mohammadabad seat in Ghazipur district. However, no action was taken.
In December 2005, Rai was gunned down in a daring attack using AK-47 assault rifles. The role of Mukhtar, Afzal and their associates was suspected. Critics said Mukhtar could not tolerate the rise of a BJP leader on his home turf, as it hurt his political and the business interests.
Following a massive outcry by the BJP, the investigation into the case was handed over to CBI. After a long trial, Mukhtar and Afzal were acquitted by a CBI special court on grounds of lack of evidence. However, it was a turning point for Mukhtar, who appeared to have run out of luck.
THE BJP’S RISE
After registering a massive win in the 2014 national elections, the BJP gradually consolidated its political hold in UP. With the party coming to power in the state in 2017 and Yogi Adityanath becoming the chief minister, focus was back on Mukhtar and his operations. The UP government was quick to bring in a new law aimed at dealing a blow to organised crime networks.
During the initial months of Adityanath’s rule, pressure increased on Mukhtar and his men. The MLA was shifted to Agra jail from Lucknow; many of his associates were arrested and put behind the bars. In July 2018, Munna Bajrangi, a dreaded gangster said to be a key associate of Mukhtar, was murdered inside the Bagpat district jail.
Meanwhile, in the new administration, several criminals were gunned down, with the controversial encounters coming under scrutiny and critics accusing the government of targeting small-time criminals.
The crackdown on Mukhtar lost steam.
As the government got entangled with other priorities, the don-turned-politician managed moving out of the state in 2019 on grounds of a pending trial in Punjab. This was an apparent embarrassment for the administration, which made it an agenda to bring him back and dismantle his empire.
Subsequently, government agencies went after Mukhtar’s gang members and his financial resources aggressively.
The Adityanath government says properties worth Rs 192 crore related to Mukhtar and his gang members have either been demolished or attached. Out of the 52 pending cases against Mukhtar, the government is trying to speed up trial in at least 10. Ninety-six members of his gang have been arrested and sent behind the bars, while some have been killed in encounters.
That the government will continue cracking the whip against Mukhtar’s men and project their downfall as a law-and-order success is clear. But the question is: will the BJP able to rein in Mukhtar the politician? Will he become irrelevant, or will he still remain a key figure in the opposition camp against the BJP? 2022 will give the answers.