Prayagraj: On a still-bright Friday evening in Prayagraj’s Sulem Sarai area, bullets and blasts rang out, killing BJP member Umesh Pal just steps from his home. Former Lok Sabha MP and alleged gangster Atiq Ahmed was soon named as the prime suspect. Umesh was a key witness in a high-profile murder case against Atiq, but police say the motives behind the 24 February killing could be more complex.
According to senior Prayagraj police officers, Umesh’s increasing rivalry with Atiq, a changing power equation, and a perception of “betrayal” may have played a role in the murder. Additionally, a case that Umesh had lodged against Atiq was reaching the last stages of trial, and could have resulted in a conviction. Atiq has been named in about 100 cases in the last four decades but has never been sentenced.
So far, what has been widely reported as Atiq’s link with Umesh is that the latter was a witness in the 2005 murder of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) MLA Raju Pal.
Atiq, then in the Samajwadi Party, and his brother Ashraf are the prime accused in this case, currently undergoing trial in a CBI court.
But the events during and in the wake of this case have been neither simple nor straightforward.
In the Raju Pal case, Umesh had turned hostile in 2006 and did not testify against Atiq. However, in 2007, when the BSP was in power in Uttar Pradesh, Umesh accused Atiq and others of abducting him in 2006.
All witnesses have finished testifying in this abduction case in court. If a conviction is secured, it would be a blip in Atiq’s ‘perfect’ track record of never being convicted, though he has spent stints in prison and is currently lodged in a Gujarat jail.
Further, Umesh, who joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2019, is believed to have lodged various property-related cases against Atiq over the last few years. He is also said to have informed the police about the gangster-turned-politician’s assets and interests, legal and illegal, leading to crores worth of property being seized from Atiq and his family.
An angle that the police are investigating, sources said, is that Atiq may have tried to effect an “understanding” with Umesh by offering financial rewards, and possibly saw it as a “betrayal” when he continued to work against him.
While these theories are still under investigation, police sources as well as associates of Umesh Pal shed light on a complex web of gang violence, shifting loyalties, and politics in Prayagraj.
Meanwhile, in a letter addressed to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, Atiq Ahmed’s wife Shaista Parveen — who is also named as an accused — has claimed that the allegations against her husband and other family members are “baseless” and part of a “political conspiracy”.
“An FIR has been lodged by Umesh Pal’s wife naming nine people including my husband Atiq Ahmed, my brother-in-law Khalid Azim alias Ashraf, me and my sons and nine unknown people,” says the letter which ThePrint has seen.
“In this FIR, my husband, brother-in-law and sons have been accused of conspiracy, and based on CCTV footage, my son has been named as the shooter. This allegation is completely baseless,” it adds.
ThePrint made calls and sent WhatsApp messages to Shaista Parveen’s lawyer Saulat Hanif, but no response was received until the time of publishing this report.
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‘Hostile witness’ to Atiq accuser
A tubby man with handlebar whiskers and a piercing gaze that reportedly struck fear even in jail officials, Atiq Ahmed, now 60, was on the radar of law enforcement authorities since his late teens.
Uttar Pradesh police records in possession of ThePrint document him as the leader of the “Inter-State Gang 227” and name him in about 100 cases, ranging from murder and attempt to murder to extortion and criminal intimidation. He has also been booked in three cases of the National Security Act (NSA).
Yet, despite spells in jail, Atiq has never been convicted even once in the last 44 years.
Instead, he enjoyed a burgeoning political career, with stints in different parties. He was elected as the MLA from Allahabad (West) in 1989, serving as its legislator for five consecutive terms. In 2004, he contested the Lok Sabha elections on a Samajwadi Party ticket and was elected as the MP from Phulpur.
This political ascent was marred when Atiq and his brother were named as the prime accused in the daytime shooting murder of BSP leader Raju Pal in 2005.
At the time, Raju Pal had just won the 2005 bypoll to the Allahabad (West) seat, defeating Atiq’s brother Ashraf Ahmed alias Khalid Azim.
Yet this case, like most cases against Atiq, dragged on. A CBI court trial has been underway since 2019.
“Atiq Ahmed has a total of 100 cases lodged against him in different police stations of Uttar Pradesh at present but he is yet to be convicted in a single case. It remains a question mark on the prosecution and the judicial process,” a senior UP Police officer said.
The main issue that allegedly come in the way of securing convictions was witnesses turning hostile. Once such witness in the Raju Pal case was Umesh Pal, a close associate of the slain BSP leader.
Speaking to ThePrint, Umesh’s wife Jaya Pal claimed that her husband was pressured to testify in Atiq’s favour. “He was offered allurements, but there were also threats to his life. He was asked not to appear against Atiq,” she said.
Rajpal Yadav, a long-term friend of Umesh Pal, made similar allegations. “Atiq and his gang would ensure that no witness could testify against them, either by bribing them or by threatening them,” he said. “Courts would exonerate him since witnesses would not testify.”
In 2007, though, Umesh lodged an abduction case against Atiq, Ashraf, and several others. This case is under trial in a Prayagraj court and nearing conclusion.
Police sources said they are investigating whether an impending conviction for Atiq could be a factor in the Umesh Pal murder, but added that there could have been other sore spots between the two, too.
An ‘understanding’ and a ‘betrayal’?
Raju Pal’s wife Pooja, now a Samajwadi Party MLA, has claimed to mediapersons that she cut off ties with Umesh in 2017 after she learnt that he had been meeting with Atiq Ahmed and his associates. She even offered to take a “narco test” to back her allegations.
ThePrint tried to contact Pooja Pal over the phone, but did not get a response.
The police, meanwhile, are exploring the theory that Umesh may have taken some “allurements” from Atiq, but perhaps did not keep his side of a possible bargain.
A senior Prayagraj police officer who is privy to the probe claimed that Umesh was believed to have taken “Rs 5 crore from members of Atiq’s gang” in return for not testifying in the abduction case, but still went ahead. “This could have infuriated Atiq,” the officer told ThePrint.
Shaista Parveen’s letter notes that Umesh’s testimony in that case was recorded in August 2016.
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Land, politics, and growing clout
Umesh Pal’s property business in Prayagraj’s Dhoomanganj and surrounding areas had grown in recent years, said the police officer privy to the probe.
Umesh was also developing some political heft. After he joined the BJP, he was reportedly seen in the company of top leaders, including UP Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya and Union minister S. P. Singh Baghel.
Atiq Ahmed, meanwhile, was stuck in jail ever since his 2017 arrest for an alleged assault on staff members of a Prayagraj university.
It was starting around this period, the officer said, that Umesh may have targeted Atiq.
“Umesh’s influence in the area grew with his interests in properties. After Atiq was jailed (in 2017), several cases were lodged in Dhoomanganj, Khuldabad, Kareli, and Puramufti police stations against his gang for criminal intimidation, extortion etc. Atiq felt that the cases were false and was frustrated because of this. His men smelt Umesh’s role behind the cases,” the police officer claimed.
Umesh also purportedly “leaked” details about Atiq’s properties to the police, the officer added.
“Details of properties of Atiq were leaked to the police, after which property seizures and demolitions of properties controlled by Atiq’s gang had been weakening him. This frustrated his gang especially Atiq’s brother Ashraf,” the officer said.
So far, Rs 11,684-crore worth of properties belonging to Atiq and his family have been either seized or demolished by the UP government.
While being brought to court in a police van on October 2022, Atiq unexpectedly remarked that Adityanath was a “brave, honest, and hardworking” chief minister. Police sources said Atiq and his associates were more upset about the alleged “backstabbing” by Umesh.
K.K. Roy, a senior advocate at Allahabad High Court who has fought cases for those whose properties have been demolished by the Prayagraj Development Authority, claimed that there was a tussle between Atiq and Umesh over several acres of land in Dhoomanganj, Pipari and parts of Kaushambi district.
“Land in Pipari and large parts of Kaushambi district was being eyed by the land mafia. This is a tussle for property and there are political links too,” he alleged.
The Prayagraj district administration is currently identifying land in the floodplain area and elsewhere under control of Atiq Ahmed and his gang.
“A process has been started. There are secret things that cannot be divulged at this point,” district magistrate Sanjay Kumar Khatri told ThePrint, refusing to provide information about the number of plots under control of Atiq’s gang.
Umesh Pal murder
There is no mystery to how Umesh Pal was killed, said UP additional director general of police (law and order) Prashant Kumar.
“The assailants have been caught on camera, throwing bombs and spraying bullets. Their identity is not an issue and they will be arrested. So far, a reward of Rs. 2.5 lakh each has been declared on each identified accused. If required, the amount will be increased,” he told ThePrint.
As reported earlier by ThePrint, the identified accused in the 24 February murder include Atiq Ahmed, wife Shaista Parveen, son Asad and his brother Ashraf. Also named are a “bomb specialist” called Guddu and Mohammad Ghulam, the brother of BJP minority cell member Rahil Hasan (who was removed from his post after the incident).
Atiq and Ashraf are already in jail in connection with different cases. The other suspects are at large, except for two who were killed in alleged police encounters. Arbaaz, the alleged driver of the assailants’ vehicle, was shot dead on 27 February. On 3 March, Vijay Chaudhury, who the police said fired the first shot, was killed during purported retaliatory firing.
Police sources suspect that Ashraf oversaw the plan to eliminate Umesh and allegedly hand-picked the attackers.
A probe by a special investigation team is currently underway to probe the role of jail officers in facilitating Ashraf’s meetings with his brother-in-law Saddam and others inside Bareilly jail. A guard and a vendor who supplied vegetables to the jail have been arrested, so far.
Meanwhile, Atiq’s wife Shaista Parveen has written an open letter to CM Adityanath, alleging that the accusations against the family are part of a “political conspiracy” to keep her away from contesting in Prayagraj’s mayoral elections. Parveen joined the BSP in January 2023.
This letter says that the Umesh Pal case should be transferred to the CBI.
“My son has been termed as a shooter on the basis of a footage which is totally baseless. The reality is that a cabinet minister in your government wanted to keep the mayor post with himself and wanted to keep us away from elections and hence, as per the conspiracy, killing of such a person was orchestrated whose was likely to fall on my husband,” she wrote.
The minister hinted at in the letter is Nand Gopal Gupta ‘Nandi’, whose wife Abhilasha Gupta is currently Prayagraj mayor. He has called Parveen’s allegations “laughable”.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)
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