Now that a complaint has been filed against the popular web series, Mirzapur, on the grounds that it defames the image of Uttar Pradesh, it’s worth asking if that is indeed so. Actually, excluding the personal and romantic stories of the characters, reality is often worse than what is shown in the series.

We don’t have to look beyond the jaw-dropping action and murder last year of the small-time don Vikas Dubey of Kanpur rural district, who had thrived just a few hours drive from the state capital, Lucknow. During an attempted arrest last year, his men killed eight policeman, following which Dubey was located in Madhya Pradesh and handed over to the Uttar Pradesh police, who then shot him in an alleged encounter on July 10.

Real life had become more dramatic than reel life. It was alleged that Vikas Dubey was killed because he knew too much about the politicians and policemen in his pay.

The Purvanchal region or eastern Uttar Pradesh where the series Mirzapur is set, is full of dons. Since the 1990s, the use of kattas or country-made guns, as shown in the series, became endemic – although AK 47s and pistols were also used.

But the town of Mirzapur itself has no famous gangster. Local journalists say is actually a retreat for farraris (not Ferrari) – those who run from the law and their rivals and go into hiding for a while. But it does exist in a landscape of gangsters, crime, and country-made pistols.

From Bihar to Uttar Pradesh, there are sociological reasons why gangs thrive. Lawlessness and joblessness are endemic and industrial growth stunted. A successful don begins by executing a few murders for a price, possibly to grab land, starts getting Public Works Department contracts to build roads and provides the muscle for a politician. This continues until the don becomes a politician himself and joins whichever party is in power.

Dons employ young men who strut around with guns hidden under gamchas feeling macho and employed. The don, meanwhile, builds schools, colleges and institutions even as he dispenses Godfather-like justice and doles out favours.

Vikas Dubey (right) and his aide Amar Dubey, who was killed by the Uttar Pradesh on July 8. Credit: PTI

Dons in the House

Over the years, the easiest place to meet an entire posse of dons was the Indian Parliament: several had become MPs. Almost every seat in Uttar Pradesh would have one – or several – history-sheeters in election contests, both at the assembly- and national-level.

They were occasionally unable to attend the House because they were in jail. Currently, many have metamorphosed into businessmen: after all, no one else can grab real estate so easily. In Uttar Pradesh several dons stepped in to get a cut as telecom facilities spread. Over a decade ago, they would compete over providing diesel to the early telecom towers. Now, some don-politicians have companies that employ engineers who can install 4G and 5G towers and earn money by providing power back-up, manpower and internet and cable links.

Among those now in Parliament with a record is Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the BJP MP from Kaiserganj, Uttar Pradesh (he’s also been with the Samajwadi Party for one term). He has faced charges that range from rioting to murder. In 1996, he was arrested under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act spent time in jail in the 1990s for harbouring members of the Dawood Ibrahim gang.

He is quite appropriately perhaps also the president of the Wrestling Federation of India.

Today, he describes himself as an agriculturist, social worker, musician and sportsman. It’s funny to see the Bharatiya Janata Party deny links to people with criminal records – as all Uttar Pradesh parties have – when the party harbors this WWF heavyweight champion.

Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. Credit: Prakash Singh/AFP

Thakur dons

There are some OBC politicians who became dons in in post-Mandal era in Uttar Pradesh such as DP Yadav, former member of both the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha. Yadav began his career bootlegging liquor (some of it spurious that once killed many people). In the years when I began reporting politics, he was the biggest underworld figure of western Uttar Pradesh, his rise also linked to that of his caste brother, former chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav.

More famously in recent times, he came to be known as the father of Vikas Yadav, found guilty in 2008 of killing Nitish Katara who was romantically involved with his sister. It’s the sort of thing the children of dons do.

But the dons of Uttar Pradesh have been mostly Thakurs, along with some Brahmins (Vikas Dubey and Hari Shankar Tiwari of Gorakhpur) and a few Muslims (Mukhtar Ansari of Mau-Ghazipur). Dalits become dacoits and run criminal gangs (particularly in the Bundelkhand region divided between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh) but have not become dons.

In 2003, I witnessed the scene when various Thakur bahubalis (strongmen) that Mayawati as chief minister had jailed were released as soon as Mulayam Singh Yadav came to power in the state. The action was taking place in Lucknow’s civil hospital: after being shunted around seven district jails in 10 months, Raghuraj Pratap Singh or Raja Bhaiya, the infamous “king of Kunda”, was in the VVIP room of the Civil Hospital’s private ward.

While men with guns guarded him, marigold flowers and garlands were scattered and boxes of sweets offered as visitors came calling (among them, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and late Samajwadi Party leader Amar Singh).

Raja Bhaiya whose terrain in Pratapgarh was actually not far from my father’s ancestral village in Rae Bareli district, would tell me that he was not Gabbar Singh and that Hindi cinema had given a bad name to Thakurs. He also promised that no Dalit would be touched as an act of vengeance. People bowed with hands folded before him exactly as I had only seen before in cinema.

Raja Bhaiya was actually an oppressive feudal lord or bahubali with several criminal cases against him, from murder to kidnapping. But he was not known to run a criminal empire such as that run by his good friend Dhananjay Singh of Jaunpur. While the Raja would only be an MLA, Dhananjay Singh would become an MP from 2009 to 2014, ironically on a Bahujan Samaj Party ticket as by then Mayawati’s had evolved from putting all the strong-men in jail to making alliances with them as they did carry votes. Besides the charges of murder and kidnapping, Dhananjay Singh also faced rape charges. He was later acquitted.

Shahabuddin of Siwan

One reason why so many Thakurs became bahubalis is because the business of being a don involves first, grabbing land and holding on to it. Across the border in Bihar, a strapping six-foot-tall Muslim would be on his way to becoming the Don of Dons from the ’90s to 2005, because he gave “protection” to zamindars (landlords) who were being challenged by cadres of the CPI (ML).

Mohammad Shahabuddin was the most frightening don I ever met because he was both sophisticated and lethal. I was writing an essay on him and made two trips to Siwan, which is located near the border with Uttar Pradesh. Shahabuddin reigned over the town with an iron fist and everyone called him Saheb. (Between 1996 to 2004, he won four successive Lok Sabha terms from Siwan while still in his 30s).

Mohammad Shahabuddin. Credit: Er. Aatif salman gorakhpuri, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In June 2004 he was meant to be in jail but jail in this case was an entire floor of the Siwan Sadar hospital. There he held a daily durbar. The first visitor who came, bowing and scraping was a police officer in search of a promotion (yes, cinema does not exaggerate), next came a man who wanted an admission in a central university for his daughter, then an IAS officer who wanted his transfer stayed followed by a local landlord who gifted a long fancy rifle as a token of his gratitude.

The day went on and this man who did murder-for-hire and ordered kidnappings for ransom was treated like a king by those meant to uphold democracy.

On the first day, Shahabuddin told me he had read The Godfather by Mario Puzo and pointed to the many books he had lined up. The next day when I went to visit him, the polite talk was gone. He had information that I had visited a political rival. “He dared to come out of his house to meet you,” he said coldly, “I would thrash him in public if he came before me.”

He told me to be very careful about what I write. (Since 2015, he has been serving a life sentence for murder and last heard had been shifted to Tihar jail).

Figures such as Shahabuddin and other dons are not products of a system that collapsed but one that got stunted at infancy as hardened criminals became the people’s representatives. In the wild wild west of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the dons are still very much embedded in every political party. For me, Mirzapur is not some figment of the imagination but a well told, action packed show that depicts a reality that I have had a glimpse into.

Saba Naqvi is a veteran journalist in New Delhi and the author most recently of Politics of Jugaad.