How turf wars over sugarcane factories started a circle of crime in badlands of…

Inside the Kairana police station in western Uttar Pradesh’s Shamli district, inspector Bhagwat Singh is practising hard to get used to writing with his left hand. Singh has returned to office after three months. He was shot thrice in a shootout – the bullets hit his hand, abdomen and leg.

But the physical discomfort fades under the satisfaction of shooting dead Mohammed Shabir, one of Uttar Pradesh’s top gangsters wanted for murdering three police officers, on a cold night on January 2.

Singh’s team lost a constable in the shootout that night.

“This night is safe. You can walk freely in Kairana, Muzaffarnagar or any part of western Uttar Pradesh. All the hardcore criminals are underground (hiding) or behind bars,” Singh said. This sense of security stems from a heightened crackdown on criminals, a step chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s government ordered in keeping with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) promise during the assembly elections last year to reduce the crime rate in India’s most populous state.

Though there are critics of the policy, at least 50 criminals were killed in shootouts with police since the BJP rule began in March last year. More than 90% of the deaths were reported in western UP. According to police records, more than 1,000 criminals have surrendered till end-March 2018, as against less than 100 the previous year.

“Till a few years ago criminals would stop your car and rob you. This was western UP before this government came to power,” inspector Singh said.

The police station on Singh’s watch is on the outskirts of Kairana, a small town infamous for its chilling crimes and history of communal riots.

A surrendered criminal at his home in Kairana Uttar Pradesh. (Burhaan Kinu/HT Photo)

Kairana is within UP police’s Meerut zone, comprising nine districts of western UP bordering New Delhi, Haryana and Uttarakhand. It’s the “Wild West”.

“Western UP was a problem area back then too. We weren’t able to control the crimes fully there. With kidnappings, highway robberies, road holdups, murder, extortion and all sorts of organised gangs, it was UP’s Wild West in the true sense,” said retired IPS officer Prakash Singh, who was the director general of police between 1990 and 1993.

The reasons behind the region’s high crime rate are hidden in history and the lush sugarcane fields dotting the countryside — acres upon acres of plantations visible after crossing the concrete jungle of Ghaziabad for any traveller moving eastward from New Delhi.

This is the sugar belt of northern India, with more than 50 factories and the oldest from the early 1900s.

In the early years, the wealthy factory owners hired local contractors to run the plants, thereby spawning the thekedari or contract system. “The contractors hired local musclemen to run the factories. They created their turf and this led to turf battles. And this led to crimes,” additional superintendent of police Ranvijay Singh said.

The historically martial nature of the region’s inhabitants played its part too in the spurt in violent crimes, the officer said. “These districts always reported gang wars and violence. Remember, this is where (Meerut) the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny started. This is where Indian soldiers challenged the British. The soldiers were mostly locals. Most locals do not forget that. They challenge when they feel they have been wronged. When they take up arms, they cross the other side of the law and get into crime.”

A reporter in Muzaffarnagar blamed politics, caste divide and communal animosity for the rise in crimes. From the 1987 Hashimpura riots in Meerut 1987 to the Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013, there have always been inter-faith and inter-caste tensions in the region.

“Communities have always clashed in western UP. Not just Hindu-Muslims but Dalits against Thakurs or Gujjars against other castes. This has always been a boiling pot. A dreaded gangster in the early 1980s, Mahendra Fauji, was a Gujjar and was the rival of gangsters from Yadav and Tyagi communities,” the reporter said, asking not to be named.

“The criminals are so politically connected that Fauji’s encounter in 1994 in Bulandshar (in western UP) caused a major rift between the then ruling Samajwadi party and the Bahujan Samaj party,” he added.

The BSP chief demanded removal of senior superintendent of police OP Singh, who led the shootout that killed Fauji. Singh is Uttar Pradesh’s director general of police now.

“Every big gangster here is linked to a politician. The mix of castes and faiths helped politicians divide people and encourage criminals, who were their musclemen. Western UP criminals had considerable influence and did not respect police. Until the spate of encounters, the morale of UP police was at an all time low,” Singh said.

According to police records, the Meerut zone has at least 517 gangs, having 2,470 criminals collectively.

Their clout runs from the industrial areas of Ghaziabad, Noida and Greater Noida to the villages of Saharanpur, Shamli and Muzaffarnagar.

Several gangs such as the ones headed by Sunder Bhati and Mukeem Kala have a multi-state reach.

These crime syndicates are involved in extortion, kidnapping, contract killing and robbery — from Uttar Pradesh to New Delhi to Haryana.

The security establishment was shocked when a contract killer, arrested by UP police’s special task force (STF) this February for the murder of a BJP leader and his two guards in Greater Noida last year, told interrogators that the Bhati gang is well-entrenched in New Delhi.

“The man told us how the Bhati gang has captured the MCD toll booth of New Ashok Nagar-Noida border and extorts money from private contractors. Bhati’s musclemen collect money from vehicles entering Delhi but hand over only 50% of the tax receipts to the Delhi municipality,” said an STF officer who refused to be named.

“They do this at many border points. Such is the extent of their operation. There are at least 48 border points. The loss to the municipality is in crores of rupees every month. We have informed Delhi police,” he said.

UP police have arrested 964 members from 493 “registered” gangs in Meerut zone over the past year, but at least 665 are on the run — suspected to be hiding in New Delhi and Haryana. Police have announced rewards between Rs 1 lakh and Rs 20,000 for 295 fugitives.

The gangsters come in all shapes and sizes — and age. The most wanted gangster in western UP is 61-year-old Sushil Moonch of Muzaffarnagar. He is a suspect in the murder of a 60-year-old woman and her son in Meerut’s Sorkha village on January 25. His victims were witnesses in another murder case against Moonch.

The gangsters carry an array of weapons — mostly firearms made locally in small illegal units that are dime a dozen in western UP. Police seized 700 countrymade pistols in a factory set in a sugarcane field in Kairana last year. Another factory in a sugarcane field was busted in Muzaffarnagar.

“Nobody depends on pistols from Munger or Bhopal. The bigger gangs may use sophisticated carbines and 9MM pistols, but petty criminals buy local pistols for Rs 3,000,” said constable Ratan Singh.

The security forces were surprised when gangster Shravan used an AK-47 assault rifle during a shootout in Noida on March 24.

The AK-47 couldn’t save him, but the weapon’s appearance in a criminal’s hands worried police. Similarly, gangster Shabir killed a constable with a carbine before he was shot dead in Kairana.

“UP police is not like Delhi or Mumbai police. Criminals take advantage of our outdated system. Constables like me get Rs 150 a month as bicycle expense. Imagine chasing criminals on cycles,” said a constable from Muzaffarnagar, who refused to be identified.

The Meerut zone additional director general of police Prashant Kumar drew from the epic Mahabharata to describe the region’s historical connection to violence. “This was Hastinapur during the Mahabharata days. But now things have settled. Criminals are surrendering or have fled to other states. These nine districts in western UP are seeing peace for the first time,” he said.