Two days after the Allahabad High Court set aside a lower court order and sentenced BJP MLA from Hamirpur, Ashok Singh Chandel, and eight others to life imprisonment in a 22-year-old murder case, Hamirpur is divided over what happened and who is at fault. However, the common factor in every version of the story is how caste and the fight for political dominance was at the centre of the conflict.
Twenty two years later, members of one family in Ramedi locality of the district were celebrating the HC verdict. Sweets were being distributed and people were coming in to congratulate Rajeev Kumar Shukla, local Brahmin BJP leader and complainant in the case, who has been waging a legal battle for over two decades. While two of his police guards were standing outside, his supporters were talking how truth always wins though justice might be delayed sometimes.
In Vivek Nagar, around two kilometres from Ramedi, there was a pall of gloom over the residence of MLA Chandel, a prominent Thakur leader. In his office where his licensed double barrel gun is kept, Chandel was surrounded by his supporters who were discussing the next course of action. Chandel had already said that he would challenge the HC decision in the apex court.
The murder of five members of a family happened on January 26, 1997 shook the city. Rajeev, along with his servant Lallan, was in Subhash Market where they met his elder brother, Rakesh Kumar Shukla, Rakesh’s sons Gudda and Chandan, Rajeev’s son, Vipul, and two associates Srikant and Ved Prakash, near the gun shop of one Naseem around 7.30pm.
“They were all talking when 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 with guns and started firing. Another accused Raghuveer Singh, a contractor of liquor, his son Dabbu Singh, Chandel’s associate Pradeep Singh, relative Uttam and Bhan Singh came there in a vehicle and started firing around,” said the complaint filed by Rajeev. Rajeev’s another brother, Rajesh, who rushed to the spot also received bullet wounds. While Rakesh, Gudda and Rajesh died on the spot, Srikant and Ved Prakash were pronounced dead at a local hospital.
“I remember the day clearly. Chandel and his associates were sitting inside the gun shop when Rajeev’s car came from one side. The street was narrow and there was a vegetable cart that blocked the road. The argument between the two sides started over clearing the street. I don’t know who fired the first shot but later several round of bullets were fired from both the sides. We locked ourselves inside our shops… It was not an incident that just took place in a spur of moment. It was a fight for dominance that we all saw coming,” said a tailor who has his shop adjacent to Naseem’s gun shop. The gun shop’s licence was cancelled and it was closed down.
Remembering his fight for justice, Rajeev said that it was not an easy fight for justice and taking care of his family that lost three members.
“I believe the reason was political rivalry. In 1996, he (Chandel) contested assembly election from Hamirpur. He lost the election because being a Brahmin leader, I mobilised more than 20,000 community members against him in favour of BSP candidate. Chandel probably saw me as a threat. The incident of January 26 next year was not provocative in nature,” Rajeev told The Indian Express.
It was in 1989 when Chandel first became an MLA as an independent candidate from Hamirpur assembly seat. He again won the seat in 1993 on Janta Dal ticket and then in 2007 on SP ticket. Chandel also won the Hamirpur Lok Sabha seat in 1999 on BSP ticket. In 2017, Chandel joined the BJP and is a four-time MLA from the seat.
According to Rajeev, there was dissent in the BJP over taking Chandel to its fold but due to pressure from some leaders close to the RSS, he was welcomed to the party. Rajeev was with the BJP for most of his political career, but from 2011 to 2013, he was with the Samajwadi Party (SP), as he did not get much support from the BJP in this case.
“I never contested an election as I was always busy in my own fight to get justice for my deceased family members. My eldest brother Rajesh left behind his wife and four children. Brother Rajesh, the second of three brothers, also left behind his wife and a son. I had to take care of them all. For the past few years I have been trying to get a ticket from the BJP but I am yet to succeed,” said Rajeev.
Talking about the journey of the 22 years after the incident, Rajeev said, “Soon after the incident, Chandel was absconding for more than a year. He surrendered in 1998, soon after which he was granted bail by Additional District Judge (ADJ) RB Lal who took money from him. I moved the High Court against the bail and also complained against the then ADJ. Lal was suspended and in 2003, he was terminated.”
“In 1999, Chandel was arrested after being absconding for another one year. He spent around two-and-half years of his MP tenure in jail.
Later on July 15, 2002, he was acquitted by then ADJ Ashwani Kumar. I again went to the HC saying that Ashwani Kumar misused the legal process and acquitted the accused without any reasonable base. In 2013, Ashwani Kumar was dismissed from service,” he added.
Rajeev alleged that several times, Chandel used his political influence to put pressure on him. While in 2002, he was made accused in a firing case and spent 11 months in jail, a raid was conducted by local police at his residence in search of illegal weapons, said Rajeev, adding he was attacked several times on the behest of Chandel.
MLA Chandel refused to speak on Rajeev’s allegations and just said he would move the Supreme Court. “We respect the court decision and I have nothing to say. I have already said that I will go to the Supreme Court. As far as the question of surrender or arrest comes, I myself do not know what I have to do. I will just follow whatever I am told to do,” said Chandel.
Asked about his enmity with Rajeev, he said that there was no enmity, but Rajeev and his family were a “bunch of criminals who have been oppressing the poor”.
One of the accused Jhandu Arakh died, while another accused Rakku has been given life time imprisonment. On Friday, 10 persons, including Jhandu, out of the 12 accused, were convicted and sentenced to life for offence under section 302/149 IPC. An gunner who was mentioned in the FIR was aquitted earlier.