Atiq Ahmed, jailed since 2019, was in police custody and taking questions from journalists when attackers struck Video Credit:

On Sunday night, on live television in front of millions of viewers, and right under the nose of several cops of the Uttar Pradesh (UP) police, former don-turned-politician Atiq Ahmed and his brother Ashraf, were shot dead by two men outside a hospital in Prayagraj in UP, India.

Under arrest at the time, the politician, who was also a former member of India's parliament, was being escorted for a medical check up when he began answering questions posed by reporters at the spot. Seconds later bullets were sprayed on them, as cameras rolled.

Minutes after the news of Atiq Ahmed’s murder broke, a UP Minister tweeted justifying the killings, and quietly deleted it hours later.

Importance of due process in a democracy

Yes, Atiq Ahmed was accused of running a crime syndicate, and had around 100 cases lodged against him, but we have laws and processes in place for a reason.

Extrajudicial killings, even of criminals, cannot and should not have any place in a constitutional democracy. Those who celebrate these killings (and many are) do not realise the dangerously slippery slope we are going on.

The incident raises disturbing questions on what exactly the UP policy were doing. The fact that the killers had no fear about shooting in front of the cops and the media, should alarm all of us. It is a telling commentary on the state of law and order in India’s largest state.

In this file image, the former don-turned-politician is being escorted by UP policemen. The former lawmaker was under arrest and in police custody at the time of his killing. Image Credit: Reuters

Ironically, Atiq Ahmed had approached the Supreme Court only recently arguing that he faced threats to his life. The bench declined to intervene and said “the state machinery will take care of you”.

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Just days earlier Atiq’s son, Asad was killed in an “encounter” with the state police, the 183rd police encounter recorded under 6 years of the Yogi Adityanath government.

These encounter killings have been openly celebrated by those at helm in UP, in a complete subversion of the rule of law. The police are supposed to uphold the law, not to enable the rule of the gun.

Media ethics under scrutiny

The Atiq Ahmed story is also a stunning commentary on the state of the Indian television media, most of which has celebrated encounter killings and whose anchors have bayed for blood.

For weeks, we have watched the spectacle of this story unfold on Hindi news channels in particular, which chased Atiq Ahmed’s cars with breathless excitement as he was transferred from a Gujarat jail to the UP jail last month.

Atiq Ahmed's political graph
After winning his first election as an independent candidate, Atiq Ahmed became a state lawmaker in 1989. He went on to secure the seat for two consecutive terms. Later, he contested as a lawmaker from Samajwadi party (SP) and won his fourth term. In 2004, he won a seat in Lok Sabha - the lower house of India's parliament.

They even captured him stopping to take a bathroom break on live TV. It was a new low for India’s TV “news” media, even by their already very poor standards.

But more alarmingly, it shows the complete co-opting of media in perpetuating a narrative that such killings are perfectly justified. Yogi Adityanath has made that his USP.

Whether it is bulldozer justice, where homes and properties have been demolished without prior notice, or these encounter killings. It corrodes our Constitution and its laws.

Those who are justifying and celebrating this today, remember this could happen to any one of us tomorrow.