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Above: BJP legislator AS Chandel may challenge the Allahabad HC verdict in the Supreme Court/Photo: facebook.com

In the caste-ridden politics of Uttar Pradesh, an MLA is sentenced by a High Court 22 years after he gunned down five people, hobnobbed with political parties and influenced two judges

By Atul Chandra in Lucknow

It was Judgment Day for BJP legislator Ashok Singh Chandel, who, along with nine others, was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Allahabad High Court on April 19. The verdict came 22 years after the convicts had gunned down five people in Hamirpur in 1997. The victims, all Brahmins, were political rivals of Chandel (a Thakur).

Although the High Court ordered his immediate arrest, the 62-year-old legislator was at home, contemplating his next move. While partly allowing an appeal filed by the state government and complainant Rajeev Kumar Shukla, a division bench comprising Justices Ramesh Sinha and Dinesh Kumar Singh reversed a July 15, 2002, decision of the additional sessions judge, Hamirpur, acquitting all the 10 accused, including Chandel.

What is unique about the case is that during the course of the trial, two lower court judges were sacked for extending undue favour to the accused. First, Chandel moved an application in the Allahabad High Court’s Lucknow Bench which stayed his arrest on October 13, 1998. Ten days later, Chandel, who had been absconding for more than a year, surrendered before the additional district judge (ADJ), RB Lal, and sought bail. The judge is reported to have granted him bail the same day. Shukla, who was an eyewitness in the case, alleged that money had changed hands. He moved the High Court for cancellation of Chandel’s bail and also complained against the judge. Lal was suspended. Eventually, his services were terminated in 2003.

When the High Court cancelled Chandel’s bail in May 1999, he filed a special leave petition in the Supreme Court, which dismissed his petition. On October 10, a day after the announcement of Lok Sabha results, the apex court issued a non-bailable warrant against Chandel, who had, by then, been elected to the Lok Sabha.

According to Shukla, Chandel was subsequently re-arrested in 1999 after having gone underground for some time. He spent more than two years of his tenure as MP in jail. In 2002, Chandel was acquitted by then additional sessions judge Ashwani Kumar.

Shukla again approached the Allahabad High Court with the argument that judge Kumar had misused the legal process to acquit the accused without reasonable ground. The High Court accepted his plea and Kumar was dismissed from service in 2013.

Although the lower judiciary in UP has been purged from time to time, this was probably the first instance in the state’s judicial history that two ADJs were dismissed for taint and biased judgments in a single case, that too of mass murder. Chandel’s influence was brought to bear not only on the two judicial officers, but also the local administration, allegedly because of his proximity to the BJP, the party he represents in the UP Vidhan Sabha. In addition, because of his clout in Hamirpur, all political parties were willing to ignore his criminal antecedents. This is clear from his political journey.

Chandel was the first elected legislator from the Hamirpur assembly seat as an Independent in 1989. He won the seat in 1993 on a Janata Dal ticket and in 2007 on a Samajwadi Party ticket. In 1999, he won the Hamirpur Lok Sabha seat on a BSP ticket. In the 2017 assembly poll, he contested on a BJP ticket and won. Once, when he was on the run, the BSP was in power.

Even as Chandel moved around freely, the police did not arrest him due to political pressure. The complicity of the police with the accused reminds one of another case. BJP Unnao MLA Kuldeep Singh Sengar, a rape accused, too was allowed to roam freely. He was arrested by the CBI only after the High Court slammed the Yogi Adityanath government.

Chandel, who now plans to move the Supreme Court against his conviction, continues to enjoy the support of his party and the RSS who have not advised him to quit the assembly. Being election time, the party is yet to decide on his expulsion. As per the Representation of the People Act, conviction in a criminal case with a jail sentence of more than two years disqualifies a legislator from being a member of the House. Chandel thus stands to lose his membership of the Vidhan Sabha.

The case, which had all the ingredients of a potboiler—deep caste divide, a man possessed by a burning desire to grab political power at all costs and a corrupt system—dates back to January 26, 1997, when five members of a family were gunned down in Hamirpur’s Subhash Market.

According to eyewitness Rajeev Kumar Shukla, he was in the market along with his domestic help, Lallan. Here, he met his elder brother, Rakesh Kumar Shukla, nephews Gudda and Chandan, his son Vipul and two associates Srikant and Ved Prakash near a gun shop owned by one Naseem around 7.30 pm.

In his complaint, Rajeev said that while they were all talking, “Naseem, Ashok Singh Chandel, his associate Shyam Singh, Chandel’s personal gunners Sahab Singh and Jhandu Arakh and driver Rukku came out of the shop and started firing at them. Another accused, a liquor contractor Raghuveer Singh, his son Dabbu Singh, Chandel’s associate Pradeep Singh, relative Uttam and Bhan Singh” also reached the spot and began firing. Rakesh, Gudda and Rajesh (another brother of Rajeev) who rushed to protect his kin, died on the spot. Srikant and Ved Prakash were pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital, the complaint said.

There were 12 accused in the case, one of whom, Jhandu Arakh, died. Another accused, Rukku, was handed a life sentence earlier. It was a bloody fight for dominance and Rajeev attributed it to political rivalry. He told a newspaper that in 1996, Chandel lost the assembly election because Rajeev was able to mobilise “more than 20,000” Brahmins against him. Tension began to simmer between the factions in the criminal-infested district, which is part of the Bundelkhand region.

Chandel, who has several cases of murder and attempt to murder against him, regarded himself as an “undisputed” leader of the Thakurs. Shukla, a mining contractor, on the other hand, proved his appeal among the Brahmins by mobilising them against Chandel.

As Chandel’s next move is awaited, one wonders whether the authorities will wait for him to challenge the sentence, something that can be done from behind bars too, or carry out the Court’s order and arrest him immediately.

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