If it wasn’t for Indian media’s sensationalism and distorted hype, Vikas Dubey wouldn’t be remembered today as a big crime lord who seemingly terrorised Uttar Pradesh’s Kanpur city and had connections in high offices. In fact, the gangster who shot to national infamy after the killing of eight policemen on 3 July, was a small-time criminal, with his operations confined just to Chaubeypur — a town of about 4,000 people.
Dubey had no known business empire, except petty land capture and extortion around his village. His announcement while surrendering in Madhya Pradesh’s Ujjain — “Main Vikas Dubey, Kanpur wala (I am Vikas Dubey from Kanpur)” — was not a roar of a mafia boss, but more a genuine, plaintive cry for recognition. He was not on the list of the most-wanted criminal before the fateful night of ambush, contrary to what news channels told us. It was only after the killing of eight policemen that the reward to help in his arrest was announced at Rs 50,000, which was increased to Rs 1 lakh, then Rs 2.5 lakh and finally Rs 5 lakh — all in the space of a week.
Petty and middling criminals are a dime a dozen in every district of Uttar Pradesh. As Manoj Bajpayee’s character says in Jaago (2004), “Every home in UP boasts of three netas, two gundas and one IAS.”
Distortion and conspiracy theories
The portrayal of such a nondescript gangster as some criminal mastermind deformed our understanding in three ways.
First, it gave rise to vague conspiracy theories that Vikas Dubey was murdered for holding the dark secrets of powerful politicians. It is highly unlikely that Dubey would have any political connections above the level of an MLA. Politicians patronise criminals for three reasons — as strongmen enforcers, sources of finance, and swingers of vote.
Dubey’s role as an enforcer for powerful politicians is doubtful since there are more influential criminals in Kanpur. Not only locals in Kanpur, but also players in the real estate business — Dubey’s primary field of business — had not heard of him.
You can’t be a bahubali of an area if your name does not even strike recognition, let alone fear. Except the murder in 2001 of BJP leader Santosh Shukla, who held a rank a of minister of state, none of Dubey’s other victims were high-profile, and thus the outcome of political designs. The animosity between Dubey and Shukla stemmed from the fact that Shukla was the political rival of former Vidhan Sabha speaker Hari Krishna Srivastava for the Chaubeypur assembly seat. The last time Srivastav contested and won was in 1996. Dubey’s other murders involve relatively petty disputes over land or money. He was hardly a contract killer of the likes of UP dons Sri Prakash Shukla or Munna Bajrangi.
Further, the political economy of Chaubeypur couldn’t have provided Dubey with a resource pool large enough to bribe higher-level politicians. His income was estimated at Rs 10-12 lakh a month, according to his local political rival Lallan Bajpai. This was enough to buy the support of ‘two-three accomplices in every police station’ (in Bajpai’s description), around Chaubeypur, but not higher public officials, let alone powerful politicians.
As a swinger of votes, by his own admission, even without accounting for the boasting symptomatic of criminal entrepreneurs, Vikas Dubey enjoyed ‘tremendous political clout (only) in my area’. For example, as seen in a 2006 interview, Dubey cites being village panchayat chief twice and zila panchayat member once, and his wife being a zila panchayat member. Both his political horizons and political influence was restricted to Chaubeypur.
The political patronage one would expect for such a criminal would be at most at the level of the local legislator. In another video from 2017, Dubey bragged about his political links with BJP MLAs Bhagwati Prasad Sagar and Abhijeet Sanga, saying they helped him clear his name. It need not be mentioned that the decision on whether to kill in an ‘encounter’ a criminal who had killed eight policemen, especially after intense popular anger, would not hinge with a few legislators.
A failed criminal-politician
Second, the intriguing thing about Vikas Dubey is not that he was a powerful criminal, but that he could never become one. The killing of BJP leader Santosh Shukla in 2001 should have set him up to a career path ending in a widespread business empire and political office. This was the path taken by criminal-politicians in Uttar Pradesh such as Harishankar Tiwari, Brajesh Singh, Dhananjay Singh, Ateek Ahmad, and Mukhtar Ansari, among countless others. Yet, Dubey failed to spread himself outside the vicinity of Chaubeypur for two decades.
His failure to rise as a criminal-politician provides us with deep insights into the intersection of crime and politics. Vikas Dubey failed to develop a reliable patronage network in his community, which could be leveraged into political power. ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta remarked that “Vikas Dubey became its Robin Hood [of Brahmins] in Kanpur, as Hari Shankar Tiwari might have been in Gorakhpur in the past.”
How does one become a Robin Hood by murdering people of his village and community over petty issues? It is true that all his accomplices in the gangs were Brahmins, so were almost all his victims, including DSP Devendra Mishra who was killed in the ambush. One would be hard pressed to find Muslim victims of Mukhtar Ansari or Brahmin victims of Hari Shankar Tiwari.
And, the fact that Dubey never broadened his horizons meant that all his extractive operations were confined to his own area. Usually, criminal politicians with larger ambitions use the money earned from elsewhere to dispense patronage in their villages and blocks. Vikas Dubey would more likely be seen as a pesky troublemaker than a benevolent Robin Hood.
Caste dominance feeds the rise
Third, another misreading (stemming from seeing Dubey as a Brahmin neta) is imputing wider political dynamics on his career turns. Shekhar Gupta asserts that “Brahmins and Thakur gangs came up in response to the increasing political power of the lower and middle castes”. In fact, the process is the exact reverse.
Political power (and economic affluence) precedes the emergence of bahubalis from a certain caste. For instance, backward caste bahubalis from the UP hinterland emerged in the decades after the Green revolution, in the period when they had gradually amassed a lot of economic and, consequently, political power at the local level. Brahmins and Thakurs were, in fact, the dominant bahubalis across UP before the political empowerment of the OBCs. And they remain so even today, but their dominant position is being challenged today. Similarly, Dalits have not been able to produce criminal mafias despite gaining a foothold in politics because they don’t influence the power dynamics of local political economies. Criminals emerge leveraging the local politics of the area where their caste/community is dominant or powerful.
Thus, a truer picture of the caste-criminal-political dynamics of Uttar Pradesh would help us not only better understand the nature of crime but also illuminate how our politics actually works at the ground level.
Delhi media’s fantasy
A lot of commentary emerging from Delhi not only draws on stereotypes based on a metropolitan imagination of the ‘badlands of Uttar Pradesh’, but also deepens those stereotypes. How Vikas Dubey was turned into a UP don that could overturn the government if arrested reflected a fervid fantasy of the media that made for poor discourse.
In the past few years, many mafia dons, including Ateeq Ahmed, Dhananjay Singh, or Md Shahabuddin in Bihar, have been arrested and we have not heard of any political fallout of the secrets they might have shared with investigating agencies. In fact, UP’s special task force (STF) found concrete evidence on linkages between politicians and Sri Prakash Shukla – we have not seen any demands on resignations of these politicians.
Why? They belong to all political parties. And even members of higher-level police and administrative bureaucracy benefit from this nexus.
The reality is both simpler and more complex in their own ways, and if we are to ever tackle crime, we must begin to better understand its structure and material bases. Vikas Dubey was a lost opportunity in this endeavour.
Rahul Verma is a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi. Asim Ali is Research Associate at CPR. Views are personal.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.