Death live

Two men went up in flames during a TV poll discussion in Sultanpur on April 28. One was a mill worker, the other a BSP leader. A conspiracy or an accident?

It was one of the most unforgettable images of Elections 2014. It was also the most quickly forgotten. A week before Sultanpur — where the BJP’s Varun Gandhi and the Congress’s Ameeta Singh are in the fray — went to polls, a 39-year-old man erupted in flames during a live TV discussion in a busy market in the constituency and brought down with him a local BSP leader. Within three days, both were dead.

There are claims Durgesh Kumar Singh was “mentally unstable” and set himself on fire, though police have little evidence of it so far. What they have are records of Singh making calls to UP DGP headquarters and a Mau police call centre, threatening immolation. “He was having problems with his father and wife. What exactly he said in his phone calls is not yet known to me,” says Sultanpur SP Pratibha Ambedkar.

Denying that the BSP’s Kamaruzzama ‘Fauji’ was Singh’s accidental victim, his family has called the incident a political conspiracy. Kamaruzzama, who had long been in the Samajwadi Party and later the Congress, had just days earlier switched sides, and was believed popular enough to swing some votes.

Police have lodged an FIR for murder and conspiracy against unidentified persons.

What also remains unclear is what brought Singh, originally from Bellagarh village in Mau, over 200 km away, to Sultanpur.
The story that has been strung together so far rests on a mobile phone and a key to Room No. 31 recovered from Singh. Police traced the key to Hotel Raj, 500 metres from Tikonia Park, the ground where he immolated himself on April 28. Singh had checked into the hotel at 11.15 am the same day, giving his real name and address.

From Singh’s room, police claim to have recovered three bottles of beer, a half-eaten meal and another mobile phone. “Singh reached here at 10.54 am, wearing a jeans and T-shirt. He gave us his driving licence as identity proof. We noticed nothing unusual, he was normal,” says Girish Kumar, the receptionist at Hotel Raj.

The hotel’s CCTV footage shows Singh checking in with a small rucksack, which was later found in his room. Singh left the hotel on April 28 around 3.54 pm. He lingered outside his room for a while and appeared to be talking to himself. At the time of leaving the hotel, he did not have anything with him.

“He came to the reception to give me his key. I told him to keep it as his belongings were in the room,” says Kumar.

Less than an hour later, Singh turned up at Tilonia Park where around 500 people had gathered for a live debate on Doordarshan on the May 7 election. The crowd was throwing questions at representatives of the Congress, BJP, BSP, SP and Aam Aadmi Party sitting on the stage. Kamaruzzama was present as a representative of BSP Sultanpur candidate Pawan Pandey.

There was some commotion, recalls local farmer leader Hriday Ram Verma, when, in reply to a question, Congress representative Ram Kumar Singh said that most educated Muslims had left for Pakistan after Partition. “Some people started shouting at him.”

Suddenly the crowd parted, realising there was a man on fire amidst them. As everyone backed away, a burning Singh ran up to the stage and grabbed Kamaruzzama from behind. The BSP leader struggled to get free, even as people tried to separate them. By the time Kamaruzzama was able to break away, Singh had 95 per cent burns and the BSP leader around 85 per cent.

The two were carried to the district hospital in the mattresses people had thrown on them, and were both referred to Lucknow. Singh died just after reaching King George Medical University hospital, while Kamaruzzama succumbed to his injuries on May 2 at SIPS Hospital.

One of the most obvious questions is how Singh set himself on fire, if indeed he did. He did not seem to have bought petrol from the two petrol stations in the area. Neither did he have anything to carry the petrol to the ground. Kamaruzzama’s family says Singh used “some chemical” to immolate himself.

SP Ambedkar admits police have not been able to solve this mystery. “People trampled all over the place after the incident. We could not collect any samples,” she says.

Subsequent investigations have shown that Singh first checked into Hotel Vijay Deluxe in Sultanpur. He arrived at the hotel, around 2 km from Hotel Raj, at 2.15 pm on April 27. “He appeared normal, hadn’t shaved,” says R S Yadav, receptionist at Hotel Vijay Deluxe. At 10.45 the next morning, he checked out and, minutes later, was at Hotel Raj.

In his entry at Hotel Raj, Singh wrote he had come from Lucknow on “official work”. Kamaruzzama’s family says the fact that he was hiding his identity showed a conspiracy.

After Singh’s death, police contacted his family members in Mau. He is survived by his wife, who had to be hospitalised due to shock, and two daughters aged six and three.

Sultanpur Kotwali Station House Officer V P Singh says they had found that Singh had been in the CRPF for a brief period a long time ago, but had been dismissed for “misbehaving” with his commandant. Lately, Singh had been doing odd jobs for a living.

Singh was also found to have had a criminal history. At the Haldharpur Police Station, under which his village falls, Singh had been booked in eight cases, beginning 2008, including for criminal assault and robbery, and under the SC/ST(Prevention of Atrocities) Act, Arms Act and the Goonda Act. “In 2010, he was arrested in Delhi for making several threatening calls,” says Haldharpur SHO Gyaneshwar Mishra.

Singh’s family claims he didn’t get along with them. Says younger brother Gaurishankar Singh alias Simpu: “He had met with an accident when he was four years old. The accident had damaged some nerves in his brain and he would turn nearly mad after drinking. He had given up liquor in 2004 but started drinking again a year ago.”

According to the family, Singh last visited home in February, for Simpu’s wedding. That time too, he apparently became violent after drinking and damaged his brother’s motorbike.

Singh’s cousin Sonu, who had got him his last job, at a flour mill in Amethi district, also talks about his drinking problem. Sonu claims Singh was scheduled to visit home when they heard of his death. “His wife was having problems with her in-laws and that’s why he was going to visit his village. But before that he got drunk in Sultanpur and did this,” Sonu says.

Sonu also claims Singh may have never been in the CRPF but lied about it.

The flour mill in Atwara village near Raniganj, around 50 km from Sultanpur, is locked. The owner, Sumit Singh, who wears a saffron scarf around his neck, will be voting for the BJP for the first time in Rahul Gandhi’s seat. He says: “I set up the mill in January. We needed a mechanic, and Singh’s name was recommended as a retired Army jawan. He came here on February 3.”

Sumit says Singh was a loner and extremely honest. “He would give me the money even when he had sold just 1 kg of flour. But he did not talk to anyone and only replied when asked a question.”

Sumit also remembers that Singh hardly ever ventured out. “He would run the mill till evening, cook his food, and sleep in his room.” However, he does remember Singh having frequent quarrels with his wife over the phone.

Singh left Atwara on April 26. “He asked me to lend him Rs 5,000 saying he wanted to go home. I gave him Rs 3,000 as he went on leave every fortnight on the pretext of visiting home. Later we called him and found he had killed himself,” Sumit says.

Kamaruzzama, 55, was also from these parts. A retired Army jawan from Angnakol village, about 7 km from Sultanpur city, he is survived by his wife, six daughters and three sons, the youngest just 11.

He joined politics soon after his retirement. His brother Khaliquzzama says he joined the SP in the early 1990s and stayed with the party till 2007. He contested Lok Sabha elections twice, in 1996 from Sultanpur and in 1999 from Amethi, against Sonia Gandhi, as an SP nominee.

A devout Muslim, he helped construct a mosque near his house, and ran a brick kiln near his village. He had no criminal cases against him, and was well-liked.

In 2007, Kamaruzzama joined the Congress. On April 24 this year, just before the polls, he officially moved to the BSP when Mayawati addressed a rally in Sultanpur, and was closely involved in the party’s campaign.

“I spoke to him the afternoon of the incident,” says his eldest son Farzan Ahmad, 27. “There was a lot of traffic noise around him and he promised to call back. Later, I heard on news that he had met with an accident.”

Khaliquzzama calls the incident a “rajneetik (political) murder” and says there should be a CBI inquiry. “Fauji organised a huge crowd for Mayawati’s rally. They knew that (BSP candidate Pawan) Pandey will now win and so they got him killed,” he says.

Pandey has claimed he was the target of the fire, instead of Kamaruzzama. However, Kamaruzzama’s family members contest this.

Farzan claims somebody had been threatening his father for some time and that his mobile phone was stolen the day he accompanied Pandey for filing of nomination papers.

“Humari toh kisi se ek thappad ki bhi ladayi nahin thi (We did not have even the smallest enmity with anyone)… There were so many people on the stage, why did Singh grab only him?” says Farzan.

He also claims his father tried to tell him something at the hospital, while Kamaruzzama’s eldest daughter Falaknuma says that on the way to Lucknow for treatment, he had told her that the attack was a “saazish (conspiracy)”.

Ambedkar insists police have not found any evidence suggesting this. She admits they have no proof either that Singh was mentally unstable, but are convinced that he killed himself.

“He ran towards many people but others managed to escape while he got hold of Kamaruzzama, who was looking the other way. It is possible he grabbed someone because of the pain,” the SP says.

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