According to police in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, it was suicide. The young Muslim man they had brought into their custody had, out of despair, killed himself in the police station toilets. But, as photos of the scene emerged, so too did suspicions.
The 22-year-old man, Altaf, was 165cm (5ft 5in) tall and weighed 60kg (9.5 stone), but the toilet tap he had supposedly hanged himself from was just 76cm off the ground and made of flimsy plastic. And why, as the police later claimed in court, was the CCTV in the police station mysteriously not working that day?
Family and friends tell a very different story: that Altaf, a Muslim man living in the town of Kasganj, was in love with and planned to marry a Hindu girl. That powerful local Hindu vigilante groups opposed to interfaith unions found out and reported him to the police. And that on 9 November 2021, Altaf was arrested and tortured to death in police custody and his family pressured to keep quiet.
“The police murdered my son and then gave me money to say he was depressed and took his own life,” says Altaf’s father, Chand Miya, an illiterate mason who has taken the case to the state high court. “But I will not stay quiet, I want justice.”
Last Friday, the courts ordered Altaf’s body to be exhumed and a new postmortem examination to be carried out.
Quick Guide Why elections in Uttar Pradesh matter This month, Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state and home to more than 200 million people – similar to the population of Brazil – goes to the polls in a state election that will continue until early March. Since 2017, the state has been ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which also controls India’s central government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The election is being viewed as a vote on Hindu nationalist politics on a state and national level. BJP’s Yogi Adityanath, a hardline Hindu monk with a history of allegations of hate speech, has denied any prejudice towards Muslims.
It comes ahead of India’s general elections in 2024. Show Hide
Altaf was not the first to die in such circumstances in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, which is holding a high-stakes election this month.
In six cases examined by the Guardian of deaths in custody and police shootings of suspects, allegedly in self defence, from 2018 onwards, those accused of carrying out and covering up killings are the same: the Uttar Pradesh police, under the rule of the state’s chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, and his Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) government.
Polls this month will decide if Yogi Adityanath, who has pursued a fiercely Hindu nationalist agenda, will remain Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister. Photograph: Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty
The victims of these alleged unlawful killings were all from the communities that Adityanath’s government, with its sectarian Hindu nationalist agenda, is accused of routinely targeting and oppressing: Muslims, who make up 20% of the state’s population and who have been subjected to increased lynchings, hate speech and prejudicial legislation, and Dalits, who are at the bottom of India’s oppressive Hindu caste system and were previously referred to as “untouchables”.
The elections will decide whether to return Adityanath’s state government to power for another five years. It is being seen as a referendum on Hindu nationalist politics – the push for India to become a Hindu, rather than secular, nation – on both a state and national level, and is happening against a backdrop of rising religious intolerance and anti-Muslim hate speech in India.
Not one officer who fatally shot someone in Uttar Pradesh in the past five years faced disciplinary action
Not long after he took office in 2017, Adityanath, a hardline Hindu monk, made it clear that his agenda would be twofold: a fierce promotion of Hindu nationalism and a tough crackdown on crime. “Agar aparadh karenge, toh thok diye jayenge [If anyone commits a crime, he will be knocked down],” he said in June 2017.
From that point on, lawyers, activists and ex-police officers allege that “thok denge” – slang for “shoot them” – became unofficial policy in Uttar Pradesh. Police allegedly began carrying out “instant justice”, maiming or executing those they deemed to be criminals, and were professionally rewarded for doing so.
Lawyers and families of victims describe an atmosphere of terror in Uttar Pradesh, where Muslims and lower-caste men are picked up on the streets and killed with alleged impunity by police, either in what are known as “encounter killings”, in which officers fatally shoot their captives and claim it was in self-defence, or in police custody, where they are beaten or tortured to death.
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The same police accused of the murders are often then responsible for the investigations. Subsequently, police reports are often not lodged, evidence and CCTV footage routinely disappears, charges filed to the courts are watered down to “accidental death” and some cases disappear altogether.
“The police are now mercenaries of the Yogi government,” says Rajeev Yadav, an activist running for a seat in the forthcoming election in Azamgarh, which has a large Muslim population and has experienced multiple “encounter killings” by police.
In the past five years, according to the government, there have been more than 8,700 shootings by police in the state, including more than 3,000 incidents when allegedly escaping suspects were shot, often in the knees, and more than 150 deaths. There are rarely any eyewitnesses to these encounters, according to human rights organisations that have examined many of the cases. Not a single officer who fatally shot someone in Uttar Pradesh in the past five years has faced disciplinary action.
Two former police officers told the Guardian that in their experience most so-called “encounter killings” were falsified by police.
In the case of Kamran, a 40-year-old Muslim water-seller from Azamgarh, police claimed he was apprehended on his way to commit a crime in Lucknow, 200 miles from his home, and then killed after a shootout with an anti-terrorism unit.
Nasim Ahmed with a photo of his dead son, Kamran. Police say Kamran died in a shootout, but his family say he was tortured and killed in custody. Photograph: Shaikh Azizur Rahman/Guardian
But a lawyer, Ashma Izzat, says the evidence, including a leaked police photograph that appears to show him alive and in police custody – a direct contradiction of the police account of events – demonstrated the events in November 2021 were covered up.
Kamran’s body was returned to his family with signs of torture. “He had a perforated eye, dark bruising around his neck and body, a broken collar bone and leg, and four of his front teeth knocked out,” said his 87-year-old father, Nasim Ahmed.
Police later filed a report that Kamran had been an absconding criminal in multiple cases with a 25,000 rupee (£250) reward on his head. But Kamran made daily visits to the police station to deliver water as part of his job, including on the day he was killed.
Uttar Pradesh has the highest number of deaths in police custody in the country. Officially, there have been 23 deaths over the past three years but Mehmood Pracha, one of the few lawyers who has taken cases of custodial killings to India’s highest court, said this was likely to be a “significant undercount”.
“The police hide these custody deaths when they can get away with it, and won’t even tell the family,” says Pracha.
In several cases, grief-stricken families said they have been pressurised or threatened by police to withdraw charges and stay silent. Faisal Husain, an 18-year-old Muslim vegetable seller from Unnao, was among those allegedly beaten to death in police custody in May 2021. The case is now in the supreme court and the Guardian listened to recordings of threats and offers of money made to Hussain’s sister, Khushnuma Banu, 28, over the phone, to pressure her to withdraw the case.
Kamla Devi’s son, Arun Valmiki, died in custody. Police say he died of a heart attack, but have withheld the postmortem report. Photograph: Shaikh Azizur Rahman/Guardian
In another two cases of killings in custody examined by the Guardian, the police had not given families details of the postmortem examination, despite them being legally bound to do so.
Police claim that Arun Valmiki, a 30-year-old Dalit man from Agra, died of a heart attack in police custody in October 2021, but withheld the postmortem report from his family, who allege he was tortured and electrocuted to death by police. “Police put pressure on me to say that my brother had heart problems but it’s not true – he was strong and healthy,” says his brother Sonu Narwal.
Ziauddin, a 38-year-old Muslim businessman, died in police custody in March 2021 after being picked up by police for alleged theft. The police claimed he died from a heart attack during questioning despite him being in robust health.
When Ziauddin’s body was returned to his family, it was covered in torture wounds, including cigarette burns, bruises around his neck and across his body, and signs he had been electrocuted, visible in photographs viewed by the Guardian. Despite almost a year of requests, the police continue to withhold the postmortem report from his family and have not submitted the legally mandated “charge sheet” to the courts. The family say they were offered money by the police to withdraw the case.
Police put pressure on me to say that my brother had heart problems but it’s not true – he was strong and healthy
“He was the most kind, honest, gentle man, who had never committed a crime,” said Alauddin, Ziauddin’s father. “I feel so terrible that he was murdered and we will never get justice for him.”
The Uttar Pradesh government denied all the allegations. “There are judicial systems in place and no extrajudicial killings have taken place. This narrative is totally false and we deny such baseless accusations,” it said in a statement.
A police ‘flag march’, or show of strength, in Noida, a town in Uttar Pradesh near Delhi, last month ahead of the forthcoming state election. Photograph: Sunil Ghosh/Hindustan Times/Getty
Prashant Kumar, the additional director general of police in Uttar Pradesh, said the Uttar Pradesh police strictly follow all procedures and guidelines laid out by the courts and the National Human Rights Commission.
Kumar described a “zero-tolerance” approach to custodial killings in which guilty officers are always suspended and jailed. However, in several of the custodial death cases examined by the Guardian, junior officers were suspended but none were in prison. No senior officer or government official under the Adityanath government has faced disciplinary action for either “encounter killings” on the street or deaths in police custody.
Kumar said there was no religious or caste bias in the police force, and no culture of silencing victims. “How can we distinguish between our own citizens? It is not possible and it is wrong,” he said. “No government can ask us to do anything which is wrong or illegal.”
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