Kanpur, sometime in 2000
Santosh Shukla slumped into a chair the moment he staggered into the inspector’s room in Shivli police station. Beads of perspiration had trickled down to form an evanescent miasma on his glasses, so Shukla, a BJP leader with the rank of a minister of state, couldn’t figure out who was around him. But, the thought of being inside a fortified police station of Kanpur, an Uttar Pradesh city known for its tanneries and factories, comforted him. Shukla lunged for the glass of water on the table in front of him.
“Shukla ji,” he heard a familiar voice ring out from behind the chair. The glass fell from his hand.
Bikru village, July 1, 2020, Around 9 pm
‘Panditji’ was reclining on a wooden cot in the courtyard of his house when the phone rang. Irritated by the sudden intrusion, he let out a series of expletives and reached for the phone. For a moment he thought about disconnecting it, but the number looked vaguely familiar. “Kaun hai be (who is this?),” he let out a volley of cuss words popular in his part of the world.
People in Bikru, his village off the Kanpur-Kannauj highway, had retreated indoors to escape the suffocating July heat made unbearable by an unusual delay in the arrival of rains. In the stillness of the night, ‘Panditji’ could hear the voice at the other end disrupt the hum of air-conditioners in his own house with three words: “They are coming.”
Kanpur, A few hours ago
Rahul Tewari’s face turned pale when an SUV screeched to a halt on a secluded road leading to the main bazaar of Kanpur. He feared for the worst as three familiar faces from the dreaded ‘Panditji’s private army’ emerged from the vehicle.
“Panditji wants to see you,” he felt a gun burying deep into his ribs. Without any resistance, Tewari got into the car. A few minutes later, Panditji’s eyes were boring into him.
“You son of ***, how dare you file a case against me? Don’t you want to live?” Panditji, also known as the Langda (lame) Don of Kanpur because of the infirmity in one of his legs, screamed at Rahul.
“Panditji, it is my father-in-law’s land. Your men have illegally encroached…” before he could complete, Rahul felt a heavy wrist thud into his face. Someone kicked him in the back; a punch flew into his nose. Rahul felt the taste of his blood on his lips.
“Go now and withdraw the case. I am giving you one more chance to save your life,” Panditji bellowed and ordered his men to drop Rahul from where they had picked him.
When he got out of the SUV, Rahul was still shaking with fear and rage for being insulted and beaten to a pulp by Panditji’s thugs. His first instinct was to go back home and forget everything like a bad dream. Rahul had heard a lot about Langda Don aka Panditji aka Vikas Dubey to not fear the consequences of a rivalry.
Dubey was just 17 when he committed his first murder—an act to avenge insults heaped on his father by some distant relatives. It was the beginning of a career in crime that was to make him a dreaded figure in a 100-km belt around Kanpur, with at least 60 cases of murder, assault, kidnapping and loot against him.
Dubey didn’t need a reason for killing: he did it to seek revenge, silence his rivals; to grab land, extort money, win contracts and also to run a thriving cartel of contract killers and shooters. Tewari had heard one of Dubey’s victims recount how the gangster had thrown 11 bombs at him and his family in 2002, creating a river of blood in broad daylight, to ensure that one of his supporters wins a local panchayat election. In another incident, he had killed the owner of an educational institute in the middle of the market.
Stories of Panditji’s political connections were the stuff of legends. He had contested and won a panchayat election himself while in jail for a murder in 2002. His patrons existed across the political divide, in every party in Uttar Pradesh. Even among cops, many were believed to be his informers and brokers. Fighting Dubey meant waging a war on the entire cartel of politicians and policemen in the region.
Fear trickled down Tewari’s spine as he thought about Panditji’s dreaded network of patrons. But, for some reason, instead of going back home, he started stumbling towards the nearest police station.
Bikru, July 1, Around 11 pm
Panditji looked at the heavily-armed men around him with pride and satisfaction. When the shimmering moonlight fell on the SLRs and AK-47s slung on their shoulders, his chest puffed with pride. There were around 30 of them, all handpicked and nurtured by him over the years with money, favours and expensive gifts. He knew they would die for him.
Soon after he was told by his snitch in the police department a special force was coming to arrest him, Panditji had started making his moves. He first thought about escaping from the village under the cover of the dark night but rejected the idea when someone told him that he might be killed in a fake encounter. After weighing his options, he decided to counterattack the cops.
His lips curved in a snarl as he addressed them in a tense voice: “That c**** Rahul went crying to the police. They are coming for me. But none of them will go back alive today.”
“Occupy every terrace. When they approach my courtyard, unleash hell,” the gangster hollered at his private army. Before they parted, everyone hugged Panditji and vowed to defend him to the last bullet.
With the smile of a fox waiting for his quarry to walk into his trap, Panditji reclined on the cot in his courtyard and dialled the local power station to give his final instructions for the night: cut off the supply at my signal.
Bikru, July 2, Around 00:30 am
Deputy Superintendent of police and commanding officer of the Bilhaur Circle Devendra Mishra raised his hand to bring the police squad to a halt on the road leading to the gangster’s house. Someone had parked a bulldozer bang in the middle of the road and there was no way the police SUVs could have gone any further.
“Break into three groups. I will lead the attack, inspector Vinay Tewari would guard the rear,” Mishra ordered.
Only a few hours ago, he had received orders from above to arrest Dubey. There were rumours that he had publicly insulted a police officer who had gone to speak to him on Rahul’s complaint and Lucknow had not taken the incident lightly. Also, there were reports that a group of shooters wanted in connection with a recent murder was hiding in Dubey’s village.
Within minutes, Mishra put together a small team of cops to raid the village at the stroke of midnight. So confident was he of the success of a quick, lightning raid that Mishra didn’t even consider wearing protective equipment despite reports that Dubey maintained his army of bodyguards and shooters. Mishra made another lethal error: he failed to keep the operation secret.
His gun cocked, Mishra moved stealthily through the dark towards the gangster’s house. Just as he was about to enter the courtyard, the village turned completely dark. On cue, the sky lit up with fire and gunshots started ringing out from every direction. He heard a few bodies fall behind him.
Unable to figure out what had struck him, Mishra rushed towards the nearest house for safety and exhorted inspector Tewari to provide him cover fire. There was none to come—scared by the sudden attack, Tewari, according to reports that were to emerge later, had already fled the scene.
As Mishra scampered for cover in the dark, he felt someone pull him inside a house. Then, an axe fell on his hand. The gun clattered to the ground and was soon covered in Mishra’s blood.
Bikru, July 2, Around 01:30 am
For nearly 30 minutes there was complete mayhem in Bikru. Villagers hiding in their homes could hear gunshots flying from every terrace around them. Heart-rending cries for help rose through the sky, merging with angry, excited voices for cutting down every cop with bullets. When the firing stopped, there was silence for a few minutes. But it was shattered by a loud burst of engines coming to life and screeching of tires. Then loud wails started piercing the night.
When the lights came back on after a few hours, villagers stepped out to survey the scene. All around them were empty shells of bullets—in all-around 200 rounds were fired by both sides—and blood. The smell of burnt fuel and gunpowder hung in the air.
In the courtyard of a house adjoining Dubey’s four cops were piled up on top of DSP Mishra’s body. A bullet was put through the DSP’s head, his hand was chopped off. Strewn outside were six more bodies—three of policemen.
The cot in Dubey’s courtyard was empty. After decimating the cops, Pandit ji had escaped with some of his trusted shooters. When some villagers heard the news, they let out whoops of delight.
The glass fell from Santosh Shukla’s house. With fear building inside him like a tsunami, Shukla turned around to meet the gaze of the man he was trying to escape.
“Pandit ji,” he screamed in horror.
“Shukla ji, you are such a ch***. You thought these cops can save you, that you’d be safe in a police station,” Dubey snarled.
Shukla looked at the tall, lanky young man in front of him. His eyes froze on the gun in his hand.
People outside remember hearing three gunshots. A few minutes later, Shukla’s blood-stained body was lugged out of the police station and sent to a mortuary.
Nobody was ever punished for Shukla’s murder in a Kanpur police station. The police said there was no witness to the incident, a happenstance that was to become the defining feature of Panditji’s string of murders.
After the shootout on July 2, police are trying to find out how was Dubey informed of the police raid on his village in advance. The needle of suspicion points to the staff of the local police station, where some people are believed to be on his payrolls.
Inspector Vinay Tewari, who was part of the squad that raided Dubey’s village, has been suspended on charges of dereliction of duty and cowardice. Some reports indicate he has a history of phone calls to the gangster.
Nobody knows exactly why the police decided to raid Dubey’s house on Rohit’s complaint. In the past, Dubey had been let off on charges that were much more serious—murder, kidnapping and extortion. After all, successive governments had refused to take action against him even when at least 60 cases were pending against him.
The grapevine in Kanpur suggests rivalry within the local cops may have played a role and the real target of the operation may not have been Dubey.
*Some of the action and dialogue in the above has been fictionalised based on first-hand accounts and ground reports.