TSI | Issue Dated: August 19, 2007
Sixty long years after Independence, the guns continue to reverberate in Chambal. Corpses continue to pile up. Poverty continues to stalk the dry arid land. Life here has come to a standstill for the poor rural population. Travelling across the dacoit infested region, Anil Pandey touches on the life and times of people of this badland. TSI also presents exclusive photographs of the dreaded lords of
the ravines; in technicolor horror...
Our car speeds up towards Chambal... towards those (in)famous ravines, the vast crumbling maze of eroded earth & rock, peaks & dips – often looking like giant ant hills. Even after 60-years of independence, Bhind, Morena is often splattered with blood; corpses continue to pile up and guns still boom in this ‘Wild, Wild West’ of India...
It’s August 2007 now. But we couldn’t help but remember news that broke into our newsrooms that typical wintry morning in December 2004, that in Bhawanpura village in Gwalior. Dayaram Garehria (leader of the dreaded Garheria gang) along with his armed men, had surrounded this tiny hamlet. Before people could realise anything, the dacoits dragged out at least 14 of the villagers belonging to the Gujjar community. In an open field, these hapless men were shot dead one after another. They were suspected of being police informers. For those who worked as police informers, the punishment has always been death. It was thus then; and even now. Only a year back, the dacoit Dayaram Garehria was ‘eliminated’ in a police encounter.
But here and now, as our vehicle draws closer to the land of bagis (rebels), our Johny-come-lately-driver, Krishna, suddenly blurts out, taking us by surprise: “Saheb, mera man bhi banduk utha kar bagi banne ka karta hain (Sir, even I feel like picking up the gun & becoming a rebel).” And why? “My land has been captured by one of the influential men in my village. My father died because of that; and I had to leave home and look for a job in the city. Perhaps, it’s time for me to pick up the gun,” he drove on. His words reminded us of a former dreaded dacoit, Mohar Singh, who once ruled the ravines. “Jab tak anyay hain, tab tak bagi paida hote rahenge (As long as there is injustice, rebels will keep getting born),” Mohar had said.
For decades, the dacoits of Chambal captured public imagination. The dacoit, or the ‘male’ bagi, is the royal rebel who picked up gun to avenge injustice, help the helpless and save oppressed farmers and lower castes from the ostensible upper ones. But even women aren’t far behind, with she-dacoits fleeing to the ravines swearing blood revenge against their rapists and the tormentors. The target had always been that feudal lord, the oppressor. There was a time when the dacoits of Chambal were treated as Robin Hoods. They used to take up arms for social causes...
When we catch up with former Additional Director General of Police, S. S. Shukla, who led the Anti-dacoity Squad of the MP Police, he deliberates: “Earlier, these dacoits were regarded as heroes in their specific communities. One of their major aims was to help the oppressed... This trend continued till 1970. And then the rot settled in.” DIG D. C. Sagar of the Chambal range substantiates the same to us: “These days, it’s hardly for the social cause. For the last one decade, these fugitives indulge in extortion, kidnapping and in collecting protection money.”
Clearly, there’re no Red Books here any more; nor Maoism. Yes, these bagis have defied the law and embarked on their version of the ‘Long March’ towards the ravines for what they once called “social causes,” what now actually is pure banditry. Oh yes, the typically filmy (yet, quite real) tradition of Chambal has always been “khoon ka badla khoon (blood for blood)” with the revenge trips spawning generations of blood-seeking progeny buccaneers – or brigands if you may. Those who failed to avenge ‘blood’ were treated as “cowards”, looked down upon by families, and treated as outcasts till they succeed...
Near the Chambal ravines, behind the fort of Ater, Narayan is waiting patiently for us, the TSI intrepid-brigade. As he runs his fingers across his long manes, one sees the real face of a third generation-bagi. With the red sun dipping behind the rugged landscape, Narayan, with his long-flowing hair, a red tilak gleaming on his forehead, narrates his story. He had started off as a member of Jagjivan Parihar’s gang. He had picked up the gun to avenge the death of his brother. But today, he enjoys the “easy money” being earned through ransoms and extortion. “Unlike looting, the risk of being killed in an encounter is much less in a kidnapping or extortion,” he gloats. Narayan is now investing the ‘hard-earned’ money in land and property. To say that today dacoits are more similar to mafia-dons rather than social bandits (or caste and class rebels) is a foregone conclusion not many question.
But then, is there something in the water of Chambal that makes it a breeding ground for dacoits? The fact is that apart from social causes, the law enforcing agencies are equally responsible for creating criminals out of erstwhile law abiding citizens.
Bandits ranging from Man Singh to Phoolan Devi have picked up guns to protest against tormentors and their oppression. Every time, instead of standing by the victims, the police threw its weight behind the moneyed oppressors. The infamous but reformed dacoit of Chambal valley, Malkhan Singh, told TSI: “The Sarpanch of the village had captured the temple land. When I opposed, he not only lodged a false complaint against me and got me arrested, but also got one of my close friends killed. The Sarpanch was related to a minister and all the police officials were in his pockets. I had no option but to pick up the gun.”
Niranjan B. Vayangankar, SP, Bhind admits that “false police cases against innocents are one of the main reasons for creating criminals.” A former MLA, Parshurama Bhadoria disclosed: “Police do not want the menace to come to an end. These bandits are a source of income for corrupt policemen.” DIG D.C. Sagar is equally critical: “There have been several instances when our strategies are leaked to the dacoits by our own men.”
Travelling across the dacoit infested areas, Gwalior, Shivpuri, Guna, Bhind Morena, Etawah and Agra, one can see that after years of independence, there is hardly any sign of development. Lack of infrastructure looks stark in the poverty-stricken rural belts of this valley. Though agriculture is the main source of livelihood, the attractive malice of the ravines continues to spread like cancer. As we stop besides the 650-mile long Chambal river, one feels history flowing past. Putli Bai, the first documented woman dacoit was shot dead when she jumped into the river to flee the chasing police force. You suddenly feel the presence of Kallan, Sultan and other paramours, shot dead on the banks of this river.
Bhadoria bemoans: “Due to lack of electricity, cultivation has become virtually impossible and the main source of employment is to join the armed forces.” From this cursed land comes a chunk of Indian soldiers. When Jaishree Ram Baghel of Bhind was plundering the region as a bagi, his younger brother was in the Indian Army fighting the nation’s enemies across the border. Take that for being ‘crook’edly ironical! Arms
and the man
Nearly 20 years back, dacoit Malkhan Singh flaunted his AK-56. During the seventies, Mohar Singh’s gang moved around with sten guns and grenades. Jagjivan Parihar, switched over to AK-47. Where do the arms come from? What is the supply channel? Mohar Singh shockingly revealed: “We used to buy arms from the Indian Army.” Since a lot of people from the Chambal region join forces, they eventually become suppliers of arms to the dacoits. The other routes to get ammunition are from Nepal, and even from the terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir. Dayaram Garehria and Babu Ram used to buy arms from the J&K terrorists. Police remains another source for acquiring arms. Incidentally, the Chambal region is virtually full of licensed arms. There are about 25,000 licensed arms in Bhind alone. Every third motorcyclist can be seen moving around with a rifle strapped to his shoulder. Imagine an Indian metro with that scenario...
With us or...get shot!
If you thought the bandit-politician nexus was despicable, relax... Today, bandits are politicians!
n Chambal, there had always been an unwritten nexus between the bandits and the politicians. As they ruled the ravines of Chambal, they did so with the protection of the local politicians. And when they decided to give up arms, these dacoits entered the political arena.
The nexus between dacoits and politicians goes back to the post-Independence period. Post 1947, the dacoits allegedly supported the Congress during the first general elections. Since then, it has always been a give and take relationship. Every dacoit had a support system among his caste and the caste identity worked to his benefit. The dacoits virtually managed the election campaign for the candidates and organised votes for the favoured ones.
If dreaded dacoit Man Singh was supposed to have campaigned for the Congress in the 50s, Rajmata Vijay Raje Scindia had reportedly sought the support of another daku Mohar Singh. Some of these dacoits have also entered politics. Taking Mohar Singh himself, after being the Chairman of Bhind municipality, he is unbelievably a member of the Congress party. Former dacoit Malkhan Singh had been winning the Panchayat polls, obviously unopposed. He had also contested the assembly polls from Madhya Pradesh as a candidate of Rashtriya Samanta Dal. Man Singh’s son, Tehsildar Singh, had contested against the Samajwadi party chief, Mulayam Singh Yadav on a BJP ticket.
Interestingly, during the early eighties, dacoits actually belonged mainly to the upper castes. As the country’s politics took a sharp turn, Chambal also followed the path. The backwards and dalits emerged as the major force among the dacoits. Head of Political Science department, Jivaji University in Gwalior, Prof. A.P.S. Chauhan quipped: “These days, dacoit gangs are created on caste lines.” Dacoits like Dayaram Garheria, Dadua, Nirbhay Gujjar, Thokia, Anup Gujjar, Nathu Jatav, Mewaram... are all from the backward community...
As an example, Daduda, known as Bundelkhand’s Veerappan, had enjoyed the protection of both the SP and the BSP. Dadua’s brother once even contested election on an SP ticket. Another dacoit chief Thokia had made her mother contest elections on a Rashtriya Lok Dal ticket. But then there’s always a price to pay. When Mulayam Singh came to power, Dadua shifted his allegiance from Mayawati’s BSP to the Samajwadi Party. This time, when Mayawati romped home, Dadua was ‘coincidentally’ shot dead in a police ‘encounter’. “there’s no gang in chambal!”
(Interview of Chambal range DIG, D. C. Sagar)
What’s the situation of Chambal at this juncture?
There is no major dacoit gang operating in Chambal at this point. On March 15 last year, one of the major gangsters, Jagjivan Parihar, was killed in an encounter. Since January 2006 to August this year, 35 dacoits have been killed in 27 encounters. 195 dacoits have also been arrested.
What is their modus-operandi?
These days, it’s not looting. The dacoits have shifted to kidnapping people through their own network.
Why is it difficult to nab the dacoits in this region?
The dacoits have the support of the local people. Secondly, these people are well aware of our strategies and combing operations. They also have a sentry system, which keeps them on a perpetual alert mode. A chambal primer of ‘em all
For those who came in late, we’ve given the classiest update on who came and who exited
The history of Chambal can never be complete without the mention of daku Man Singh. This archetypal dacoit of the ravines has not merely been deified, but also has a temple to his name.
For years, Man Singh remained an icon for the bandits who followed his footsteps. Born in a village in Agra, Man Singh picked up guns following a family dispute and ruled the ravines for nearly 17 years. His son Jarnail Singh says: “Poverty did not drive Man Singh to the arid forest of Chambal. He became a dacoit for honour killing.” He claimed that Man Singh, a landlord himself, had nearly 1000 acres of land.
This so called legend was charged with 1,112 cases of dacoities and 185 murders. During 90 encounters with police, Man Singh’s gang had killed nearly 35 policemen. Man Singh ostensibly robbed the rich and helped the poor. Setting a “high moral standard” for his gang, Man Singh had reportedly banned meat and alcohol for his gang members. The gang seemingly never accosted women, nor robbed them of their mangalsutras. After Man Singh died in a police encounter in 1957, the gang was taken over by Rupa Pandit. After Rupa, it was Lukka, who took charge. But then Lukka, responding to the call of Vinobha Bhave, gave up arms. In the 60s, dacoits like Sultan, Putli Bai and Amritlal unleashed a new reign of terror in Chambal. If Putli Bai was the first bandit queen, Amritlal was the first dacoit belonging to the backward community. Amritlal was also the first dacoit to introduce kidnapping in the region. Others gangs operating during this period were of Kalla and Babu. Among the various gangs formed during 70s and 80s, the dreaded ones were of Amritlal, Mohar Singh, Madho Singh, Lakhan Singh, Murat Singh, Saryu Singh, Nathu Singh, Malkhan Singh, Phoolan Devi, Vikram Mallah, Chhabiram Anar, Pansingh Tomar, and Ramesh Sikarwar. And for women’s emancipation, apart from Phoolan Devi, other famous women dacoits were Munni and Seema Parihar. India couldn’t catch him...
Koose Muniswamy Veerappan, the brigand with his trademark handlebar moustache, had a crime life spanning nearly four decades. During this tenure, his ‘official’ toll of victims rose to nearly 124 people (including senior police officials), over 90,000 pieces of ivory and sandalwood worth millions of rupees. The man, who finally fell to the police bullets on October 18, 2004, had lorded over the deep dense jungles, stretching from Tamil Nadu to Karnataka. The small-time poacher, who became India’s most wanted fugitive, was also fondly called “Kaatu Raja (king of the forest).” Mulakkadu, the village where he is buried, has become a kind of pilgrimage. “People come from far away to visit the place and take sand as souvenir,” his wife Muthulakshmi said. Trying to take advantage, his wife contested the last assembly elections. She did not win.
Now some social activists feel that with Veerappan gone, “the forest animals are no more safe.” For them, “the forest is now ruled by the poachers, who were once scared of Veerappan.” Amusing?! Whatever may be the arguments, Veerappan was well known for his savagery and brutal killings. At the same time, smuggling and poaching do still continue unabated. One doesn’t need to wonder why at all...