UNNAO, Uttar Pradesh — The story of how the brother of a newly elected lawmaker shot a police officer is one that people can’t stop telling in Unnao, a small industrial district famous for its leather shoe factories, and notorious for illegal sand mining on the Ganga.
It’s been 15 years since Ram Lal Verma of the Indian Police Service (IPS) was shot at by Atul Singh Sengar, the younger brother of Kuldeep Singh Sengar, the state lawmaker from Unnao’s Bangermau constituency.
The country has come to know him as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA who was convicted of raping a 17-year-old in 2017, allegedly plotted to have her father killed in 2018, and allegedly orchestrated a truck accident in 2019 that left the rape survivor on the brink of death and her two aunts dead.
Today, a Delhi court pronounced judgement on Kuldeep Sengar, finding him guilty.
But for the people of Unnao the signs of the Sengar family’s impunity and influence were first visible 15 years ago in the shoot-out with the police. That case is yet to go to trial.
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“He had the case against an IPS officer buried even though his own party was not in power. That’s power… That’s influence… That’s what makes him baahubali (a strongman)... He is fearsome, powerful,” are the kinds of sentiments that people in Unnao expressed.
“I cannot talk about this,” said Ram Lal Verma, the policeman Atul Sengar shot at, said when HuffPost India reached out to him for comment.
At a moment where Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has pushed his police force to commit extrajudicial murders to contain crime in his state, Kuldeep Sengar’s rapid rise and seamless movement from one political party to another, has come to epitomise Uttar Pradesh’s lawless politics.
“You speak against him, you could wind up dead. You write against him, your channel might be shut down."
The BJP’s inordinate delay in expelling him from the party has put paid to any pretences of the saffron party’s claims to clean politics and governance.
So ingrained that use of violence in Uttar Pradesh — particularly against women — that a fortnight before the Sengar judgement a rape survivor was set on fire when she was on her way to the hearing of the rape case. The woman died a few hours later.
Sengar may not be the sole cause of Uttar Pradesh’s gangster politics, but he is certainly and proponent and a beneficiary.
“You speak against him, you could wind up dead. You write against him, your channel might be shut down,” said a local BJP leader, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Bureaucrats, police officials, journalists, they are all in his pocket.”
“If he is in trouble now,” he continued, “It is only because his pot of sins is spilling over and embarrassing the BJP leadership in Delhi. In Unnao, he is baahubali (strongman).”
’Kuldeep bhaiya’ is the law
In Makhi village in Unnao, Sengar and his accuser’s family live 20 steps from each other.
On weekends before he was incarcerated, Makhi’s villagers waited for him to arrive from the city, where they have heard that he lived in a “white mansion” that was even bigger than his big white house in the village. His cavalcade, comprising a fleet of SUVs and dozens of gun-toting security guards, was always a thrilling spectacle.
As the BJP leader in Unnao put it, “You have to be powerful to dispense justice. And to be powerful, you have to look powerful.”
And no one in Makhi looked more powerful than Kuldeep Sengar, where his word was literally the law.
Each weekend Sengar, who was accused of rape, illegal sanding mining, land grabbing and beating up journalists, came to dispense justice in his village, where his family has been the “first family” since the time of his grandfather.
Villagers of Makhi described how people from near and far came to him with all manner of disputes, and how he would almost always resolve them with a few phone calls.
“Everything from brothers fighting over property, marriage problems, police harassing people, Kuldeep bhaiya, would fix it. He would call a policeman and say stop harassing so and so…or he would call an official and say get this work done,” Ashish Singh, Sengar’s 21-year-old neighbour, gushed.
Singh, who lives down the street from Sengar, and shares a boundary wall with his accuser’s family, is firmly in the MLA’s camp.
“Kuldeep bhaiya would have never done rape"
“Kuldeep bhaiya would have never done rape,” he said.
Jameel Mohammed, the elderly village butcher, only spoke of how Sengar saved his business.
“There were people who were taking away one kg, two kgs of meat, and they kept saying that we will pay you later. They did not pay, I did not know what to do,” he said. “When I went to him, he made a few phone calls and got them to pay right away.”
In Makhi village, where Sengar’s grandfather, his mother, and now his sister-in-law — Atul Sengar’s wife Archana Sengar — have served as sarpanches (village head) — there is only support for the accused.
“Kuldeep bhaiya” is blameless, while his accuser is a “loose girl,” with a questionable character, villagers all over Makhi said.
“She went off with two other boys didn’t she?” one villager said. “Her own family members are goons and thugs,” said another. “It’s an old rivalry and she is doing this for revenge,” a third said.
Of the many people that HuffPost India spoke with in Unnao, across political party lines, it was only the BJP leader, who spoke up for the teenager.
“That girl has been fighting so hard and for so long. She has not compromised or accepted money. Her family has been wiped out. She is lying in a hospital bed, fighting for her life, but she has not left the battlefield,” he said, earlier this year.
The girl was released from the hospital in September 2019.
The alleged rape in Makhi village
In June, 2017, Sengar allegedly raped a 17-year-old from a neighbouring Thakur family when she went to his house in search for a job, accompanied by Shashi Singh, a woman known to both families.
A few days later, the minor disappeared from the village.
Villagers say that she went with Shashi’s son, Shubham Singh, and Naresh Tiwari, his driver. The minor has alleged she was kidnapped by the two men, who allegedly sold her to a third man named Brajesh Yadav for Rs. 60,000.
An FIR was registered against the two men, Shashi Singh and her daughter.
The police recovered the survivor from a village in Auraiya, 117 kilometers from Unnao.
The survivor recorded a statement against Shubham Singh, Naresh Tiwari, and Brajesh Yadav before a judicial magistrate, accusing them of gang-raping her. The three men were arrested for gang rape under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and offenses under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO).
Villagers say that after the girl was rescued, Sengar used his influence to have Shashi Singh and her daughter’s name expunged from the FIR, and this became a bone of contention. Villagers say that in light of the circumstances, the teenager’s family felt that Shubham Singh, Shashi Singh’s son, should marry her, but Sengar did not allow it.
In July, the teenager wrote to Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, claiming that she had told the local police that she was allegedly raped by Sengar before she was allegedly kidnapped and gang-raped, but the police did not file an FIR against him.
Almost a year later, in February, 2018, the teenager’s mother moved the court of the Chief Judicial Magistrate in Unnao, seeking the registration of an FIR against Sengar. The court allowed it.
In April, Sengar’s younger brother Atul Sengar and his accomplices beat the teenager’s father Surendra, who had come from Delhi to Unnao for a court hearing related to the rape case against the MLA. They allegedly tied him to a tree and beat him with rods, belts and sticks.
A case of assault was registered against five men, but Atul Sengar was left out. In a bizarre turn of events, the police arrested Surendra on the charge of illegal possession of a firearm. He spent one night in the hospital before getting sent to jail without getting treated for his injuries.
His family members, who feared that he would be tortured and killed in jail, traveled to Lucknow and threatened self-immolation in front of the CM’s office. Surendra died in custody. The post mortem report said, “blood poisoning,” but recorded many bruises and injuries to his body.
Atul Sengar was arrested along with four others following widespread public outrage, and charged with culpable homicide not amounting to murder.
Yogi Adityanath then ordered a special team to investigate. The Allahabad High Court took suo motu cognisance of the rape case.
The minor alleged that in the garb of providing her protection, the District Magistrate in Unnao confined her to a hotel room without ’a phone, or water and guards at every corner.” Sangeeta Sengar, Sengar’s wife, threatened suicide and demanded a narco test to prove her husband’s innocence.
The matter was eventually transferred to the CBI. Both Sengar and Shashi Singh were arrested in connection with the rape case.
In July 2018, the CBI filed a chargesheet accusing Sengar and Shashi for rape under the IPC and POCSO.
The CBI charged Atul Sengar and four othersin connection with Surendar’s death.
The CBI filed a chargesheet against nine people, including Sengar, Atul Sengar, and three policemen, for framing Surendra, the rape victim’s father, in a false case of illegal firearms possession.
In August, Mohammad Yunus, a key witness in the alleged attack on the victim’s father died under mysterious circumstances and was hurriedly buried before a post-mortem was conducted.
Mahesh, Surendra’s brother, and the teenager’s uncle, alleged foul play.
Haripal Singh, Shashi Singh’s husband, registered a complaint against the teenager, alleging that she was not a minor.
In November, Mahesh, the teenager’s uncle, who was leading the campaign against Sengar, was arrested in connection with an 18-year-old attempt to murder case filed by Atul Sengar during an election dispute in 2000.
In July, 2019, Mahesh was convicted and sentenced to the maximum sentence of ten years in prison, even though it was his brother, not him, who allegedly shot at Atul Sengar. (Guddu, who was widely regarded as a goon, was killed in a mob attack in 2003. People say the Sengar family was behind the attack).
On 28 July 2019, the car carrying the teenager, now 19 years old, her lawyer, and her two aunts, was hit by a truck with a blackened nameplate near Rae Bareli. Her two aunts died. One of them was Mahesh’s wife, who had been leading the charge against Sengar after her husband was jailed and convicted.
The teenager and her lawyer were admitted to the King George Medical College in Lucknow in a critical condition. Her mother and sister alleged foul play.
In August, the teenager was moved to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi. She was discharged in September.
The CBI booked ten people, including Sengar, his other brother, Manoj, and Arun Singh, the son-in-law of Rajendra Pratap Singh, a cabinet minister, in connection with road accident.
Sengar was moved from the district jail in Sitapur to Tihar jail in New Delhi.
On 9 August, a Delhi court charged him and his alleged co-conspirator Shashi Singh with rape, kidnapping and offenses under POCSO.
The second family ‘wiped out’
The Sengars and the family of his victim were close for many years. With their houses in Makhi village just 20 steps from each other, their neighbors recall them as almost inseparable. Members of the teenager’s family, villagers say, worked for the Sengars, helpling to run their house and businesses.
Villagers say that things started to change at the turn of the century. In 2000, the teenager’s family insisted on running for the gram panchayat election to be sarpanch.
The Sengars had been at the helm of village affairs since India’s independence, elderly villagers recalled. His grandfather and then his mother had served as the sarpanch of the village. In fact, with the exception of three times — which the villagers described as the times when the pandit, the dhobi, and the other thakur won — the sarpanch is always is always from their family.
“Anyone who opposes Kuldeep Singh Sengar is wiped out.”
In a span of 20 years, the teenager’s family has more or less been wiped out.
Guddu, the girl’s uncle, was lynched by a mob in Unnao city in 2008. Some say Kuldeep Sengar was behind the attack.
Surendra, her father, was thrashed by Atul Sengar, last year, implicated in a false case and died in jail. Mahesh, the third brother, who was then leading the charge against Sengar, was convicted in a 19-year-old attempt to murder case and sentenced to ten years in prison.
His wife, the girl’s aunt, who had been protesting loudly on behalf of her niece and husband, was in the car that got hit by the truck, last month. She died.
A local leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the first party that gave Sengar a ticket to contest the Assembly election, said, “Anyone who opposes Kuldeep Singh Sengar is wiped out.”
All quiet on the Unnao front
The last time that BSP won the Unnao Sadar constituency is when Sengar contested in 2002.
In the months leading up to the 2007 Assembly election BSP supremo
Mayawati, who felt that he was getting too big for his boots, chucked him out of the party.
He then won the Bangermau constituency as an SP candidate in 2007, the Bhagwant Nagar constituency from SP in 2012, and the Bangermau constituency from BJP in 2017.
He has, in other words, contested elections from three different parties, in three different Assembly constituencies, and won. Local politicians here say that he has always had an extraordinary ability to gauge the public mood, switch parties at just the right time, and do so without any bad blood.
It was two years after the teenager had accused Sengar of rape, and a year after it made national headlines, before former UP chief ministers Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav spoke against Sengar.
Given that Sengar had spent ten years in the SP, political leaders in Unnao say that he was close to Yadav. In fact, Yadav’s lashing out against Sengar, many believe, had more to do with deflecting attention away from SP veteran leader Azam Khan’s sexist remarks in Parliament and BJP’s tirade against him.
With the exception of these recent remarks from Mayawati and Yadav, politicians from rival parties in Unnao, who might have had a field day hitting out at Sengar and his party, have said nothing.
No women politicians in the state have uttered a word on the matter.
At the national level, only Congress Party’s Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has spoken, while BJP’s own women leaders — Smriti Irani, Nirmala Sitaraman, Maneka Gandhi — are mum.
Having fought and won elections from all the major parties in UP, BSP, Sengar’s influence and appeal cuts across party lines in Unnao.
A veteran Congress politician, who knew Sengar when he was head of its youth organisation in Unnao, remembered him as “courteous.
A Samajwadi Party local leader, who worked closely with him for 10 years, said, “You cannot survive in UP politics without some crime, but he is very popular among politicians and people. I remember him as someone who was very easy to work with.”
One reason why hardly anyone speak ill of the “baahubali” of Unnao is because almost everyone expects him to be cleared of all charges and return to Unnao, sooner or later.
If he isn’t out by the next Assembly election in 2022, the BJP is likely to throw its support behind his wife Sangeeta Sengar, chairman of the Zilla Panchayat, the most important local body of the district..
Local residents call her the “First Lady of the district.”
As a BSP politician, speaking on the condition of anonymity, put it, “She has a red batti (red light on top of her official car). It’s a cabinet level position.
First lady of the district
The BSP leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that he will never forget how the Sengar finessed the 2016 Zila Panchayat election for his wife.
In 2016, Sengar was a SP lawmaker from Bhagwant Nagar constituency, when he asked Akhilesh Yadav for a ticket for his wife to contest the local body election.
Akhilesh Yadav picked Jyoti Rawat, the wife of Jai Prakash Rawat, an SP leader, to contest the Zila Parishad election.
At the time, Sengar got SP workers to rail against the party chief’s decision.
When the party leadership stuck with Jyoti Rawat, Sengar made his wife contest as an independent candidate against her.
Zila Panchayat elections, in which the corporators from urban local bodies elect a chairman, tend to be bitterly contested contests in UP, with bribes, threats and blackmail all too common.
The results of the 2016 election came down to the wire, local politicians recalled. Some say Jyoti Rawat won 28 votes, two votes more than Sangeeta Sengar, while others say that she got 27, one more than the MLA’s wife.
“Kuldeep Sengar’s might and power is so much that no one can decode it.”
But then, for reasons that remain unclear, Saumya Agarwal, who was the DM of Unnao at the time, voided the extra vote or votes. Some say there was a dot on one ballot paper. To break the tie, the DM conducted a lottery by putting the names of two candidates on two chits and picking one.
Sangeeta Singh won. Some say the lottery was rigged.
Sengar, who had defied his party leadership, declared it to be a victory for the SP.
“He went against his own party, made his wife contest as an independent against his own party’s candidate, and ensured that she won,” the BSP leader said. “That takes guts. Now do you understand why everyone says he is powerful?”
A journalist, who saw Sangeeta Sengar for the first time at a function organized for BJP president J.P. Nadda in Unnao in January, recalled how BJP leaders called her “didi” and “bhabhi” as they touched her feet.
The journalist, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said, “Kuldeep Sengar’s might and power is so much that no one can decode it.”
A journalist who was almost silenced
Journalists in Unnao are vulnerable to intimidation, threats and even violence from strongmen politicians like Sengar.
The story of how Sengar’s brother shot a cop is the one that is told and retold in Unnao, but there are also chilling tales of the Sengar brothers beating and threatening reporters, who have dared to cross their family.
Virendra Yadav, a reporter based in Unnao, shared the oft-repeated story of how a “Jagran reporter was once thrashed and locked up by Manoj Sengar,” Sengar’s younger brother. He then spoke of his own encounter with Sengar.
Yadav, who broke the news of Atul Singh Sengar thrashing the teenager’s father on 3 April, 2018, says that he was hounded by a senior police official to not run the video of Surendra lying in the district hospital.
News Nation, the channel for which he worked as a stringer, initially ran with the news report, but, in a matter of weeks, fired him.
Yadav said, “First, you get the TRPs, and then when you cannot stand the heat from a powerful politician or the government, you hound the reporter and kick him out.”
“If he has met you once, he will pick you out from a crowd of 1,000 people. If he walks into your neighborhood, he will yell out your name.”
Recalling his coverage of the story, Yadav said, “If you saw her father lying in the hospital, there was no place that he was not bruised.”
As he persisted with reporting this story, Yadav noticed a strange pattern. The two times that he phoned Unnao’s then Superintendent of Police (SP) Pushpanjali Mathur for a statement, he said that he received a call from Arun Singh, the block pramukh, telling him not to run the video from the hospital.
“When I called the SP, the block pramukh would call me. He said, ‘Don’t run the story. You know what the ground realities are here.’ I said, ‘This is not the right way to speak with a journalist.’”
Three weeks later, as he stood before a top executive of the news channel in Noida, Yadav was told that he had been accused of ferrying the accuser’s family to Lucknow on 8 April, the day of the attempted self-immolation.
Yadav recalled that he was at a loss for words. He asked if there was any proof that he had ever undertaken this trip; photos of his car in Lucknow, a record of him crossing the toll booths, the location of his mobile phone.
“I said that this is a complete lie,” he said. “I said, ‘This is the Yogi Adityanath government. If I had done something like that, I would already be in jail.’”
Yadav, who is president of the Unnao Press Club, quit as a stringer from News Nation, but he did not take it lying down. He launched a social media campaign to draw attention to how he was treated for reporting on the Sengar family. In one Facebook post, he accused Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s media advisor Mrityunjay Kumar of pressuring the New Nation channel owner Sanjay Kulshreshtha into firing him.
Yadav said, “I was just doing my job.”
Then, after a pause, he added, “At least, I didn’t get beaten or shot.”
In an emailed response, the News Nation said, “Mr. Virendra Yadav has never been an employee of News Nation, though he might have worked as a stringer. We therefore, could not have fired anyone who is not our employee.”
Despite his own personal ordeal, as he drove past Sengar’s ‘White House’ in Unnao city, Yadav described him as a “brilliant politician who knows the pulse of the people.”
He said, “If he has met you once, he will pick you out from a crowd of 1,000 people. If he walks into your neighborhood, he will yell out your name.”
A sandminer’s encounter with Sengar
Sengar pumped his fist into the air as he spoke of sand mining on the Ganga to Laxmi Kant Bajpai, a businessman in Unnao.
Bajpai recalled him as saying, “It takes guts to do this work. You writing and reading types cannot do it. You better give it up. This is my area.’”
Bajpai, who was just getting into the sand mining business in Unnao, wanted to retort but he said nothing. He feared the consequences of backtalk.
“I knew that they beat up people in their homes. I just stood quietly. I didn’t want to feel a blow to the back of my head,” he said.
It was March 2012 and Bajpai had been summoned by Sengar to his ‘White House’ in the city. There were around 200 people meeting to wait Sengar, he recalled, as the MLA told him to give up his newly acquired 20 bhigas for sand mining.
Bajpai, who had paid Rs.10,000 per cubic meter to the government for a three-month project to remove sand from agricultural land, was desperate to break even. He agreed to, he said, doing all the work and splitting his earnings with Sengar.
“I don’t know why, but nothing has happened till now, but my family is afraid every time that I go out."
“Even that did not work out. It’s impossible for anyone else to operate in the area. They have the police and the district administration in their pocket. The police will harass you everyday, conduct random checks, stop your trucks, and there is nothing you can do,” he said. “Because your money is in it, you either compromise or you surrender.”
Bajpai gave up two weeks after he started operating, he said. He tried, he said, complaining about Sengar to the district administration, but no one paid any attention to him.
In 2015, Bajpai, one of the few people in Unnao to stand up to Sengar, moved the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court, accusing Sengar of illegal sand mining worth Rs.125 crores. That, he said, went nowhere after the district administration stood in his way. He lost his will to pursue the matter and the case was dismissed due to his “’non presence.”
In June 2016, Bajpai moved the UP Lokayukta, an anti-corruption ombudsman, accusing Sengar of illegal sand mining worth Rs. 125 crores.
On 20 July, this year, the local newspapers in Unnao reported that
the Lokayukta had demanded that the Yogi Adityanath government call for a CBI probe into the Sengar’s alleged sand mining in Unnao.
The Lokayukta, which made its demand in the Assembly session on 19 July, has said that allegations against Sengar can be clubbed with the CBI investigation against Gayatri Prajapati, the mining minister in the previous Akhilesh Yadav government, accused of illegal sand mining. Prajapati is also accused of rape.
After he moved against Sengar in 2015, Bajpai claimed that he received phone calls from the MLA, telling him to back off or face the consequences.
Sengar, Bajpai said, had asked him to come to then mining minister Prajapati’s official house in Lucknow, but he refused.
The businessman man from Unnao has learnt to live with fear.
“I don’t know why, but nothing has happened till now, but my family is afraid every time that I go out,” he said. “I live with the feeling that any day could be the last.”