Former Indian MP Atiq Ahmed, who was serving a life sentence in jail for kidnapping, has been killed along with his brother, Ashraf Ahmed, in a dramatic shooting that was broadcast live on TV. The incident took place outside a hospital in Prayagraj, in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, where the two brothers were in police custody. Three assailants, who posed as journalists, approached the brothers and fired more than 20 rounds of bullets at them from close range, killing them both on the spot. The attack was captured live on television by several broadcasters present at the scene.

The assailants, Lavlesh Tiwari, Mohit Puraney, and Arun Kumar Maurya, surrendered to the police after the shooting and handed over their pistols. One of them was heard chanting “Jai Shri Ram” or “Hail Lord Ram”, a slogan used by Hindu nationalists in their campaign against Muslims. The assailants reportedly told police that they had been following the Ahmed brothers for two days and wanted to carry out the killings to gain notoriety.

Ritesh Shukla/Reuters

Atiq Ahmed, his brother, and their wider family were notorious gangsters in the Uttar Pradesh criminal underworld, accused of running a crime syndicate involved in murder and extortion. The former politician had more than 100 different cases filed against him, including assault and murder. He was jailed for life in 2019 after being convicted of orchestrating a kidnapping while in prison. The Ahmed brothers had been in police custody relating to the murder of lawyer Umesh Pal, who had been a key witness in the case of another killing they were implicated in.

Opposition parties criticized the killings as “brazen anarchy” and accused Uttar Pradesh of operating as a “mafia raj” under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who rule both the state and central government. The state’s chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, who is one of the most hardline Hindu nationalist figures in the BJP, has regularly deployed incendiary language and a disregard for the rule of law in his pledge to crack down on crime in the state. Since Adityanath came to power in 2017, the Uttar Pradesh police have a notorious record of carrying out extra-judicial encounter shootings of criminals who they claim attempted to make an escape from custody or who fired on officers first. In the past five years, there have been almost 9,000 police shootings in Uttar Pradesh, with more than 170 fatalities, and Muslims and Dalits, the lowest caste of Hindus who used to be called untouchables, disproportionately targeted.

In February, Adityanath had told the state parliament they would “destroy the criminals” and in an infamous speech in 2017, he said said: “If anyone commits a crime, he will be shot down.” Activists and former police officers have alleged extrajudicial killings subsequently became unofficial policy in the state, carried out with impunity by police.

Adityanath said a judicial investigation had been ordered into the killings of the brothers and a report submitted to the home ministry. The internet was cut in certain areas, with large groups banned from gathering over fears the issue could escalate into protest or violence.

The incident has raised concerns about the state of law and order in Uttar Pradesh, which is India’s most populous state with over 200 million people. Nearly half the ministers, including the chief minister, have pending criminal cases against them. The killings of Atiq Ahmed and his brother have been viewed as an example of the state’s failure to ensure the safety of its citizens and a collapse of the rule of law.