Fifteen armed men stormed into the house of Zeeshan Mohammad, a Prayagraj real estate businessman, and pointed their guns and rifles at his family members. Startled, they froze.
Then a young man, Mohammad Ali, pulled out a phone, speed-dialled a number and barked at Zeeshan: “Talk to my father, Atiq Ahmed.”
The faces turned grim, if incredulous. Atiq, the dreaded mafiosi of Allahabad (now Prayagraj), was lodged in Sabarmati jail in Gujarat.
“I am Atiq Ahmed speaking,” said the voice on the phone. This was December 2021.
It was a scene straight out of a Bollywood movie. Ahmed told Zeeshan to transfer a certain amount to Ali’s account or face dire consequences.
“When I refused, he threatened to kill my family and me. ‘Either send the amount or transfer your land in my wife’s name,’ he said,” Zeeshan alleged. “He was speaking to me from the Sabarmati jail. Not even an inch moves in Allahabad without his permission. And he does all this from behind bars,” he added.
When Atiq Ahmed and Mukhtar Ansari, Uttar Pradesh’s gangster-turned-politicians or bahubalis, were first arrested, police, lawyers and politicians hailed it as a big step toward rupturing the “local crime network.” Having the two crime lords behind bars would squeeze and snuff out their extortion and kidnapping empires, they believed.
“In order to break the nexus, the inmates are shifted from one jail to another,” Additional Director General of Police (Prison) GL Meena had said in 2017.
But until Atiq got into trouble last month over Umesh Pal’s murder, incidents like Zeeshan’s showed how he continued to be active from afar, working through underground jail and police networks. A prime witness in the 2005 murder of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) MLA Raju Pal and his two security personnel, Umesh was shot dead on 24 February in Dhoomanganj, Prayagraj. But roughly 200 on-ground handlers still carry out Atiq’s instructions, extorting money from the city’s top businessmen and real estate agents.
Running crime rackets from jail
Umesh Pal’s murder has fractured the Yogi Adityanath government’s claims of ending the mafia system in Uttar Pradesh. Within 24 hours of the Pal’s killing, the properties of Atiq Ahmed’s associates were bulldozed, followed by a police encounter where the key suspect was shot dead.
If Ahmed was indeed involved, the UP government’s action is the loudest admission that a gangster locked in a faraway prison can run his criminal business from jail without fear of law enforcement authorities. The location of his prison is no longer a matter of concern.
Ahmed’s name is mentioned in the FIR registered by Dhoomanganj Police based on Pal’s wife’s complaint. “Everyone knows he orchestrated the murder,” said a station officer while sipping hot, sweet tea.
Inside police circles, talks around Pal’s murder don’t end at Ahmed’s long-held animosity toward the deceased; they also focus on the gangster’s attempt at reviving his fading clout. A senior police official, on the condition of anonymity, told ThePrint about the waning fear of Ahmed and people’s refusal to give in to his extortion threats. In fact, after he appeared at a special CBI court in Lucknow in October 2022, Ahmed called CM Adityanath “brave and honest.” Many viewed this statement as proof of his weakening hold.
But police officers say that Pal’s murder is Ahmed’s comeback game.
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Bribes, special treatment
Mukhtar Ansari, a five-time MLA from Mau, is no different. But he is a little more careful, says Mau Police. He intervenes only when his on-ground handlers are unable to sort things out.
He was sent to Punjab’s Roopnagar jail in 2019 over an extortion case, but his criminal empire in UP continued to thrive. His son, Abbas Ansari, and others committed several crimes in his name, religiously following his instructions.
Chotu Lal Gandhi, a human rights activist from Mau, has been receiving regular threats from Ansari’s henchmen. Gandhi has been creating hurdles for Ansari and his men by consistently protesting and writing to the administration.
“Mukhtar Ansari has done only gundagardi in Mau. He has encroached upon poor people’s land,” he said, stressing that he refuses to succumb to Ansari’s threats.
Abbas, Ansari’s son, was imprisoned in Chitrakoot jail in November 2022 after the Enforcement Directorate arrested him in a money laundering case. He, too, has demonstrated a cosy, sweetheart deal he enjoys with jail officials.
During a surprise inspection in February, the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP) MLA was caught enjoying special treatment in prison. On 7 March, Chitrakoot jail superintendent Ashok Kumar Sagar, jailor Santosh Kumar and warder Jagmohan Singh were arrested.
“The three jail officials regularly took bribes from Abbas and allowed his wife Nikhat Bano and driver to take cellphones inside the jail,” Bareilly Police said.
There were also accusations of similar “special treatment”—allowing family members in, food from outside, and cellphones—against Mukhtar Ansari when he was lodged at Roopnagar jail. He was shifted to UP’s Banda jail in 2021 on the Supreme Court’s orders.
“A convict or an undertrial who disobeys the law of the land cannot oppose his transfer from one prison to another, and the courts cannot be helpless bystanders when the rule of law is being challenged with impunity,” the Court had said. This ruling came after the Adityanath government filed a writ petition seeking Ansari’s transfer from Punjab to UP, alleging he was conducting “illegal criminal activities” from his cell in Roopnagar. As per a Deccan Chronicle report, the Supreme Court noted that the UP Police was denied custody of Ansari 26 times, between 14 February 2019 and 14 February 2020, on “trivial grounds” such as diabetes mellitus, skin allergy, hypertension, backache, and throat infection.
Ansari has also reportedly threatened jailers. He was sentenced to seven years in 2022 for abusing and pointing a gun at a jail official in 2003. Ansari had threatened to kill jailer SK Awasthi after he checked the people who had come to meet him.
His prison swag is part of police folklore now.
Anand Lal Banerjee, former DGP (2014-2017), has a story about the luxuries that Ansari was afforded in Ghazipur jail, where he was lodged in 2010.
“He would use the pond in prison to keep fish he got from outside for dinner. He caught and ate the fish as and when he felt like it,” said Banerjee.
He says only solitary confinement can contain the likes of Ansari, “but that [decision] has to come from the judiciary.”
Running a reign of terror — from jail
In 2018, a real estate businessman from Lucknow, Mohit Jaiswal, was kidnapped allegedly by Atiq Ahmed’s handlers and taken to the Deoria prison complex, where Ahmed was lodged at the time. Here, Jaiswal was “beaten up” and forced to transfer property worth Rs 40 crore in the gangster’s name, as per the FIR.
According to the complainant, this happened in full knowledge of the police. Not just that, Ahmed’s three-hour meeting with and thrashing of Jaiswal was also removed from prison CCTV cameras.
“I shouted, cried, but nobody came to help,” Jaiswal had said. Following the incident, Ahmed was shifted to Bareilly jail in January 2019, then to Naini prison in April and back to Gujarat’s Sabarmati jail in June.
Ahmed’s terror is not limited to the outside world; he is feared equally inside prisons. Days after he was shifted to Bareilly jail, the district administration wrote to the UP government, requesting to move Ahmed to another prison. And this was not the first such plea. Deoria jail authorities had made a similar request in July 2017 after SIM cards, phones, knives and pen drives were found in Ahmed’s barrack during a surprise raid.
With Ahmed now back in Sabarmati prison, his brother Ashraf, imprisoned in Bareilly jail since July 2020, runs the extortion business. However, nothing happens without Ahmed’s explicit permission, as per a top UP Police source.
Dhoomanganj police listed the Ahmed gang as “inter-state gang 227” in 2007. As per official documents, it has around 150 members as of today.
“Many of his handlers are still out, including Khalid, Mohd Miya, Javed and Abbusad. They are absconding,” said a head constable at Dhoomanganj police station. Ahmed has five sons, two of whom—Ali Ahmed and Umar Ahmed—are in prison. Ali is in Naini jail, while Umar is in Lucknow district jail. His third son, Asad Ahmed, an accused in Umesh Pal’s killing, is absconding.
A jail official told ThePrint that these gangsters dig out the family history of jail staff and use it as a tool to threaten them.
“And that’s how the bribe system comes into place. They pay the jail staff and get their work done. Those who refuse have their family members killed,” said a police officer who has worked at Tihar Jail in Delhi.
However, DGP Prisons (UP) Anand Kumar calls it “an affair of the past” and says prisons are now well equipped with new technology. He claims there has been a “paradigm shift” in how things work.
“Every jail in Uttar Pradesh has an average of 60-70 cameras, which vary depending on the size. We also have a video call wall, and monitoring is done through artificial intelligence,” Kumar underlined.
However, this ‘success’ is inconsistent and very much a work in progress.
“The mobile jammers and CCTV cameras have been installed, but in several cases, they are dysfunctional,” said Vikram Singh, who served as UP DGP between June 2007 and September 2009. “The government is also complicit. We need to have better jail reforms. Only people with unimpeachable dignity should be allowed to run jails,” Singh said.
On 8 March, UP Police made two arrests from Bareilly jail — prison guard Shivhari Awasthi and one Dayaram associated with the jail canteen — for facilitating meetings between Ahmed’s brother Ashraf and his associates in lieu of payments.
As per the officials, Dayaram would transfer cash and other items while supplying vegetables at the canteen. Awasthi and Dayaram ensured Ashraf was able to meet a dozen people on a single ID twice a week. The police recovered two mobile phones that Ashraf was using.
“You think the government doesn’t know that Ashraf and Atiq are running their empires from prison? It’s happening right under their nose,” said a jailer.
“This FIR and bulldozing is an act to calm the flaring tempers. It will start again in a while.”
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)