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Up for reelection, Uttar Pradesh's ruling party tells Indian voters crime is down

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Police shootings, discrimination against minorities - these may sound like news headlines from the U.S., but this next story is from India. Voters are going to the polls in India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. It's long had a reputation for lawlessness. But the ruling party says it's dramatically reduced crime. And it's running for reelection on that. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from the state capital, Lucknow.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Kajal Singh (ph) grew up in Uttar Pradesh - or UP. She left home five years ago for a job on the other side of the country in Mumbai. But she ran into trouble trying to rent an apartment there.

KAJAL SINGH: They used to ask me, where are you from? I used to say, UP. They're like, actually, there's no flat vacant for you (laughter). It used to be known for the crimes and all.

FRAYER: Her home state was notorious. It's where the gangsters are from in Bollywood films. Kajal had to change tactics if she had any hope of finding an apartment.

SINGH: Then I started telling them that I am from a different place, not from UP (laughter). So you would lie? Yeah. I used to lie about that. But now that things have changed, now I can proudly say that I am from U.P. Now we are the same.

FRAYER: I met Kajal at night at a roadside tea stall where she might not have felt safe just five years ago. This is what Uttar Pradesh's chief minister is running for reelection on, a reduction of crime in an Indian state that was once synonymous with it. Rickshaws with megaphones strapped to their roofs are blasting his campaign songs

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing in non-English language).

FRAYER: All the thieves, gangsters and looters have been wiped out, the lyrics say. Officials say they've accomplished this with more aggressive policing, flooding the streets with officers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: In this public service announcement, police promise to be at any crime scene in 15 minutes or less. The result is that people like Kajal feel safer. And government data shows a dramatic decline in reports of rape, murder and theft. But...

MILAN VAISHNAV: You have to take official crime statistics with a giant dollop of salt.

FRAYER: Milan Vaishnav wrote a book about crime in India. He says the government's data is opaque, incomplete and probably biased. The streets may feel safer, but only for some people. The leader of UP - his name is Yogi Adityanath - is a Hindu priest and a member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist party. He's prioritized making Hindus feel safe by blaming crime on minorities and being especially aggressive with them, Vaishnav says.

VAISHNAV: In the time that Adityanath has been chief minister, there have been more sort of extrajudicial face-offs between the police and purported criminals. And a number of people have been shot dead and killed in these police encounters. Forty percent of them are Muslim.

FRAYER: Even though Muslims make up about 20% of the state's population. They're India's biggest minority. They get arrested disproportionately in UP and in India overall. They also die disproportionately at the hands of police, often before they ever face trial.

NASEEMA BANO: (Crying).

FRAYER: Naseema Bano has never felt less safe. She's a Muslim whose 18-year-old son, Faisal, died in a police station last spring.

BANO: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: "He was just trying to sell lemons in the market. But police hauled him away for violating COVID lockdown rules," Naseema told us in the courtyard of her tiny, brick home in rural UP Police handed over his body the following day. They said he had a heart attack. But the family says his skull had been crushed.

BANO: (Crying).

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing in non-English language).

FRAYER: In UP's capital, Lucknow, where the centuries-old palaces of India's former Muslim rulers still stand, an elderly Muslim lawyer rattles off a long list of names...

MOHAMMAD SHOAIB: Faisal Coban Amon (ph), Arun Valmiki, Shubham Marakay (ph).

FRAYER: ...Of victims of police violence in UP Most of them are minorities.

SHOAIB: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: "If you consider police brutality to be a crime," says Mohammad Shoaib, "then crime in UP has actually gone up," he says. UP police did not respond to our interview request. A retired officer, S.S. Darapuri (ph), says the department has become more political in recent years. And some officers may feel pressure.

S S DARAPURI: Now that things have totally changed, even a petty politician can threaten a senior officer. And if you do not submit to their wishes, then they will accuse you of being a follower of the other political party.

FRAYER: Officers compete for politicians' favor, he says. And the politicians in charge of UP have said very clearly that they put the Hindu community first. That skews crime data even more. Minorities are less likely to call the police. It's the officer's word against theirs. Except in 18-year-old Faisal's case, there's some evidence.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

FRAYER: And what are you showing us here?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I showed a video.

FRAYER: This is the surveillance video?

It turns out there were security cameras in the market where Faisal was last seen alive. And some of his neighbors got a hold of the footage. So you see a police officer on a motorbike.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, constable.

FRAYER: Oh, he's smacking someone. He's beating someone.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: And that's Faisal on the video?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: This video is part of the evidence in a rare police brutality lawsuit filed by Faisal's family against Uttar Pradesh police. The officer identified in the video is now behind bars. His trial begins in March. Faisal's family is optimistic about justice, but pretty much everyone else we interviewed for this story is not. Milan Vaishnav, the political scientist, says this may sound familiar to Americans, who've had their own reckoning with police violence against minorities in recent years.

VAISHNAV: What's slightly different in the Indian case, though, is that there is not a sense of public outrage - right? - that there are many people who are willing to tolerate police violence, police brutality, if the outcome is a perception of safer streets.

FRAYER: A perception of safer streets in UP, though, may depend on what community you belong to.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India.

(SOUNDBITE OF KALEN ELMSLEY'S "VALE OF TEARS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.