By Krishna N. Das
LUCKNOW, India (Reuters) - Private security guard Ajit Singh Rana says he supports a police crackdown on gangsters in India's most populous state, even after cops gunned down an Apple executive at a road stop in what human rights activists say was the latest in a series of extra-judicial killings.
Police have said the shooting was an accident, but are adamant there will be no let-up in the anti-crime campaign, which is popular with many people in India's most politically important state.
"Goons and criminals have held back the state for years," said Rana, 31, who guards a river-front park in Uttar Pradesh's capital Lucknow in the evening and is the supervisor of a group of street cleaners in the morning.
"The government is right in killing them and everyone here appreciates it," he said.
Uttar Pradesh, in India's north, is home to 220 million people and sends more lawmakers to the lower house of parliament than any other state.
It is run by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and state Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a saffron robe-wearing Hindu priest, launched a "zero-tolerance" fight against criminals months after taking office in March last year.
Since then police have killed 67 suspected criminals in more than 2,700 "engagements", wounded 700 and arrested 6,500, according to the draft of a government report reviewed by Reuters. Four policemen died and about 500 officers were injured in the incidents.
Adityanath's state government has been boasting about the success of the crackdown and claims it has reduced major crimes significantly.
In the first nine months of this year, reported cases of murder fell 4 percent, rape 8 percent, burglary 11 percent, extortion 35 percent and robbery 40 percent compared with the same period a year earlier, according to a government document reviewed by Reuters.
"This will benefit Modi and Yogi, 100 percent. I will vote for them again, 100 percent," said Rana.
Rana's colleague Damodar Singh, 34, said he also approved of the tough stance but added crime won't end as long as there's a big jobless problem.
Opposition parties and rights activists say that as farm distress and high unemployment dent the BJP's popularity in the country, the Adityanath government is playing to the basest fears of the electorate about their safety and security.
The Apple executive, Vivek Tiwari, was stopped by two police constables on motorcycle patrol near Lucknow early on the morning of Sept. 29, and shot dead. One of the constables told reporters he fired accidentally at Tiwari, who was driving back from an iPhone store launch.
In an attempt to defuse the wave of criticism, Uttar Pradesh offered the widow a state government job and compensation for the death of her husband. Police also issued a rare public apology.
But that hasn't stopped activists and opposition politicians from demanding the state government rein in "trigger-happy" police. They say Tiwari's killing garnered attention because he was a high-caste Hindu and worked for a high-profile company but the deaths of minority Muslims and poor people at the hands of the police rarely get a public airing.
Adityanath's aides and police officers, however, told Reuters that security forces would continue to operate without fear or political interference as they needed to improve the law and order situation to attract more investment.
"The Lucknow incident has given us a setback, made us hang our heads in shame," Anand Kumar, the second highest police official in Uttar Pradesh, told Reuters. "But it really was an aberration and we are resilient enough to bounce back. In this state we can't let our guard down."
He said that courts in the state had cleared police of any wrongdoing in more than half of the so-called "encounter" deaths; that investigations were ongoing in other cases; and that 95 percent of the dead criminals had a bounty on their heads. Kumar said the perception of the state was changing from "no go" to "go go".
It is difficult to estimate the impact of the hardline strategy on next year's national election, due to be held by May, given law and order will be only one of the issues amid concerns about weak farm incomes and job creation.
An opinion poll by Times Now TV channel in August said Modi's BJP would see its parliamentary seats from Uttar Pradesh fall to 49 from 73 in 2014. There are 80 seats altogether from the state.
State BJP leaders say they will win more seats than in 2014. Sanjeev Singh, a BJP politician who is now in the state government as an officer on special duty to Adityanath, said "change is visible" to the common man and that should benefit the party politically.
Ten Hindu voters Reuters spoke with during visits to Lucknow and Shamli, a district near the site of several of the killings, said they backed the clampdown while half a dozen Muslims - who make up just 19 percent of the state's population - said they felt it was mainly targeting them.
Kumar, an additional director general of police, said there was no bias against any community or caste. He said 22 of the suspected criminals killed were Muslims, while the other 45 were Hindus.
But rights activists say the BJP government is allowing police to take the law into its own hands.
"Evidence points to use of encounters as a means to instil fear in the minds of criminals, and to raise the image of the state government and the police, in the public eye, as being tough on crime and criminals," said Citizens Against Hate, a civil society alliance, in a report in May.
The report said the alliance had found at least 17 cases of suspected extra-judicial executions, based on interviews with victims' families and analyses of police complaints and medical reports.
Showing a stamp size photo of his son's body stitched up from the front after a post-mortem examination, Meer Hasan said he hoped trouble for his family would end with the police killing of the eldest of his nine sons, Furquan.
Hasan, a Muslim, said in an affidavit to a court in western Uttar Pradesh that 37-year-old Furquan was with his cousin and a friend on the evening of Oct. 22 last year when police officers seized and beat them. Furquan, his father told Reuters, had been out on bail in connection with a village land dispute case.
He said the same night they were taken away to a jungle where Furquan was shot dead in a "fake encounter" - a deliberately staged police shootout - while his two companions were wounded in the legs and taken into custody. Hasan said his court statement was based on what his son's two companions said happened.
Police told the court that Furquan was a "dreaded" criminal with a bounty of 50,000 rupees on his head for offences including rioting, carrying deadly weapons without a licence and unlawful assembly.
According to the police version of events, a group of five men on two motorcycles fired at officers when asked to stop at a checkpoint. In the ensuing shootout, two policemen were wounded and Furquan was killed.
In January, the court dismissed Hasan's petition seeking an investigation into the killing.
Hasan said he would not pursue the case any further.
"Whatever had to happen with Furquan happened," Hasan, 68, said sitting outside his run-down red brick house in his village in Shamli. "I hope my other boys stay safe. I hope they live."
(Reporting by Krishna N. Das; Editing by Martin Howell and Raju Gopalakrishnan)