“The first time Mirzapur came on mainstream news,” Pawan Singh says in the middle of sipping chhaas, “was in 1998, when there was a new IPS here, GK Goswami. That time Kripa Choudhary, who was Munna Bajrangi’s right hand man, had killed three people with an AK47 in Hokulganj, Mirzapur. Bajrangi, accused of killing over 40 people, was a contract killer and mafia don-turned-politician, but this was still too much for the police to stomach,” he explains.
What happened next is the stuff of Uttar Pradesh Police legend. Goswami was a new IPS, and “naively energetic” according to Singh. “Goswami investigated and found that Choudhary was going to a party with the chairman of the local District Board. So the police followed them to the party wearing civilian clothes. Enroute, Chaudhary and gang thought the car with ‘civilians’ was another gang,” Singh halts his narrative midway, looking at us expectantly, like a stand-up comedian waiting to drop the punchline.
“When the police overtook them and asked them to stop, Chaudhary’s gang opened fire. The police lost one person that night and two others were injured. Many others were shot. But the gang was fully eliminated,” Singh concludes. As the news of the incident spread, Mirzapur was injected into the bloodstream of the UP crime hype machine, coming to be known as an epicentre for gang-related activity.
We are sitting in 49-year-old Pawan Singh's house, about 12 kilometres from Banaras, in a farm house with no other houses nearby. It’s under construction, with naked brick walls waiting to be painted, and a cow outside ready to graze. There are four CCTV cameras, and a black mongrel for protection. In the room adjacent to ours, his teenage son is feeding his pet turtles.
Singh has been a crime beat reporter in Banaras, Uttar Pradesh, while also covering nearby Chunnar and Mirzapur. He started in 1995, after the editor of the local paper Swapan Bharat liked a story he had filed about different species of dogs found in Uttar Pradesh. His big crime reporting break was in 1998 with the Samvasini kaand, when he broke the story of a pre-teen girl running away from a shelter. She was found a couple of days later, and spilled the story to the authorities about girls being sexually assaulted in the shelter she had left.
Another type of shelter provided in Uttar Pradesh is to gangs, and the city that’s most famous for doing so, is Mirzapur. “The city was so famous for being a safe haven that MLAs indulging in crime, like Faizabad’s Jitendra Singh Bablu, who is accused of burning down a Congress state President’s house, used to hide there,” Singh tells us. “Mirzapur is special because it touches boundaries with many states. You can go to Madhya Pradesh via Hanmana, not far from there is a way which goes into Chhattisgarh. There isn’t very active policing in these areas. And when they do cross borders, there are jurisdiction issues.”
Mirzapur is also one of the many parts of UP that falls in the way of the Ganges. Tales of evading gangsters by rowing away to Chandauli district, Singh adds, are legendary. And if it’s not by road or water, there is always the jungle, with Chandraprabha Wildlife Sanctuary not far away.
“Munna Bajrangi and team, and before them Udaybhan aka Doctor Singh, used Mirzapur as a base,” Singh tells us. “Sometimes, people, usually businessman, who gave them shelter would ask them to commit small crimes. But that is business as usual.”
Singh has seen it all in his 20-plus years of reporting, including the wedding of Don Brijesh Singh’s daughter, celebrated lavishly despite him being the mastermind behind the JJ Hospital shootout in Mumbai in 1992, when Brijesh’s people walked into the hospital and opened fire on a member of Mumbai Don Arun Gawli’s gang. “I was invited and ended up going, and later wrote a story about how his biggest rival was also present at the wedding.”
“Listen, Brijesh Singh was an educated, even brilliant guy. His dad was murdered by the influential people of his village,” says Singh. “To get revenge, he needed to be powerful, so he became a criminal. It’s always the same story, of a struggle which forces them that route. And when they’re a part of that same system they always fought, they struggle to get away. Even Bajrangi… he needed money, went to his boss to ask for a loan who didn’t give it to him. He pleaded, it led to an argument where he killed his boss. He then absconded, became a criminal. It’s a social system which creates, then kills criminals,” Singh concludes.
Bajrangi is given due credit for introducing the Kalashnikov rifle (aka AK47) in Uttar Pradesh’s gang wars. He constantly switched allegiances, supporting the Samajwadi, Bahujan Samaj, even the BJP, during his tenure as a don. He was killed earlier this year in a jail, a week after his wife told Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath that his life was in danger.
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