“Ajay Mishra alias Teni had enmity with my son Prabhat Gupta with respect to the recently held panchayat elections,” Santosh Gupta wrote in a complaint to the Tikunia police station in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri district, on 8 July 2000. Prabhat, also called Raju, was Santosh’s eldest son. Santosh wrote that Teni “shot my son on his temple” at a main road in “broad daylight” at 3 pm earlier that day in front of many people, including Sanjeev Gupta, one of Prabhat’s brothers. A man named Subhash then “shot my son between his stomach and chest. My eldest son fell and died on the spot.” Santosh wrote that Teni and three others then waved their guns in the air and said, “saala Raju bachne na paaye”—Bloody Raju shouldn’t make it out alive. Almost exactly twenty-one years later, on 7 July 2021, Teni was sworn in as a minister of state in the Bharatiya Janata Party government.
Three months later, Teni came into the spotlight when a convoy associated with him mowed down protesting farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri. Protesters present at the scene accused Teni’s son, Ashish Mishra, of leading the violence. While the state police filed a first-information report on the incident on 4 October, naming Ashish as an accused along with “15-20 unknown persons,” it took five days to arrest the minister’s son. Several stories emerged in which residents of Lakhimpur Kheri described both father and son as dabang—goons.
For Prabhat’s family, it was this reputation that led to Teni going scot free in the 2000 murder case. A police document based on testimonies by Santosh, Sanjeev and a third witness stated, “In addition to being a dabang—because of his terror and fear, nobody from the area is able to gather courage to say what’s right and the truth.” The police’s summary in the chargesheet said that the allegation of murder against the four accused in the case “was found to be true.” Teni evaded arrest for months before he finally received bail in June 2001, without spending a single night in jail. That year, the district government counsel wrote a letter to the district magistrate saying that the bail was “against the law and the judicial process” and the state should appeal against it. Teni was ultimately acquitted in March 2004. Appeals by the complainant and the state government challenging the acquittal remain pending in the Allahabad High Court.
The 61-year-old minister is from Banveer Pur village in Lakhimpur Kheri’s Nighasan block. Prabhat’s murder is not the first criminal allegation against him—in 1996, a history sheet was reportedly opened in his name at the Tikonia police station, which was closed after a few months.
The victim and the accused all lived closed to each other in Banveer Pur. “The spot where my brother was shot was 100–120 metres away from our house,” Rajiv Gupta, Prabhat’s younger brother who was 22 years old at the time of his death, told us. Rajiv said that Teni’s house was 25 meters away from their house and the incident took place right in front of another accused person’s house. Rajiv added that his house is merely 200–250 metres away from the spot where the convoy linked to Teni rammed through farmers this year.
Teni was threatened by Prabhat’s growing political influence, Prabhat’s family has alleged. Prabhat was a 29-year-old student leader at Lucknow University at the time of his death. “Apart from being a popular student leader of Lucknow University, my brother was also the state secretary of the Samajwadi Yuvjan Sabha”—the youth wing of the party—Rajiv told us. “He had filed nomination papers for the 2000 zila panchayat elections. Teni, who was with BJP and the vice chairman of the district cooperative bank, construed it to be a blow to his rapidly declining popularity and goodwill.” According to Rajiv, before the murder, the accused persons threatened Prabhat twice. “Teni indulged in heated arguments with my brother and threatened to kill him,” Rajeev said. He added that even Subhash had threatened Prabhat that he will call Teni and kill him.
Apart from Teni and Subhaash—also known as Maama—two others were also accused in the case: Rakesh alias Daalu and Shashi Bhushan alias Pinky. All four were booked for murder under section 302 of the Indian Penal Code.
The chargesheet in the case was filed on 13 December 2000. The police document based on testimonies by Santosh, Sanjeev and another witness was titled “details of the investigation” and attached to the chargesheet. The document had comments similar to those made by Rajiv. It mentioned that “Raju becoming an office bearer in the Samajwadi Party and his rising image was leading to Ajay Mishra Teni’s image being adversely impacted and him losing his support base. To maintain his dominance, Prabhat Kumar Gupta alias was removed from the way and was murdered.”
The document alleged that Teni was influencing the witnesses in the case. “Affidavits given by the witnesses in support of Teni were given under his influence and by those who are weak,” the document alleged. “He is pressurising a few people into giving statements through affidavits as witnesses even though they were not present at the time of the incident.” Apart from being a BJP leader, Teni was known to be a close aide of the local MLA and a former minister in the Uttar Pradesh government, Ram Kumar Verma. The document added, “Mishra forced and manipulated witnesses. Isse sparsht hota hai ki Ajay Mishra aadi ke khilaaf koi vyakti apna muh nahi khol sakta hai.”—This demonstrates that no one can dare to raise their voice against Ajay Mishra and others.
The chargesheet stated that after reviewing documents, such as eyewitness statements, accused statements, post-mortem report and FIR, “it is known that the accused persons … shot Prabhat.” It added that “the allegation of killing and murder under section 302 of IPC was found to be true.” The chargesheet mentioned that “the allegation that affidavits were submitted under pressure by the accused was found to be true.” It added, “It is requested that the accused be punished as per the evidence.”
According to Prabhat’s family, not just witnesses, they were themselves threatened for following up on the case. On 24 October 2000, the chief secretary to the chief minister addressed wrote to the chief secretary of the home department about a letter that Rajiv had written four days earlier. Rajiv’s letter said that his family was facing “jaanmaal ka khatra”—danger to their life and property—as they were being threatened. The chief secretary asked the home department to immediately ensure effective investigation of the case and “provide complete protection to the family of Mr Gupta.”
Two instances of threats to Prabhat’s family were elaborated in a letter that Mohammad Azeez Siddiqui, the district government counsel of Lakhimpur Kheri at the time, wrote to the district magistrate on 2 August 2001. Siddiqui wrote that on 25 January 2001, two of Teni’s associates threatened “the life and property” of Sanjeev while he was going from a shop to his house. “Sanjeev filed a complaint at Tikunia police station against this,” Siddiqui’s letter added. “Santosh Gupta even received an inland letter threatening him to stop following up on the case or his entire family will be killed just like his son.” The letter mentioned that the accused had threatened witnesses. Siddiqui mentioned that on 24 February, Rakesh and his associates surrounded a witness “on gun point, made him put his thumb impression on a blank stamp paper and clicked a photo as well.” He added that even this witness lodged a complaint regarding the incident at the Tikunia police station.
In 2001, Santosh said his father filed a petition against the sessions judge of Lakhimpur Kheri and others accused in the case before the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court about the lack of action against Teni. In an order passed on 10 May that year, the court said, “It is argued that Opposite Party No. 3 is not being taken into custody on the ground that the file was not available and that the Opposite Party no. 3 has been using delaying tactics and seeking exemption to avoid being taken into custody.” While Santosh died in 2005, Rajiv told me that “Opposite Party Number 3” in the case referred to Teni. The high court’s order directed the chief judicial magistrate of Lakhimpur Kheri “to make the file available before himself and proceed in the matter in accordance with law and not to permit the delay in due process of law with respect to the appearance and taking into custody of opposite party no. 3.”
And yet, as Siddiqui wrote in his letter, despite being “the prime accused” in the case, Teni was not arrested for 11 months after Prabhat’s murder. “He kept evading arrest on one pretext or the other,” Siddiqui wrote. “The investigation officer asked the court to issue a non-bailable warrant under 82–83 CrPC”—Code of Criminal Procedure—“after which the judicial magistrate of Kheri on 27 February 2001 asked him to surrender before the court on 28 March 2001 or else it will initiate punitive proceedings against him.”