A dacoit hunt

Print edition : December 17, 2004

The authorities and the local people are intent on capturing the notorious Gadariya gang, after the massacre of 13 people in the Madhya Pradesh village of Bhanwarpura.

in Gwalior

Chief Minister Babulal Gaur in Bhanwarpura after the massacre.-PICTURES: A.M.FARUQUI

RAMBABU is a marked man, like his brother, his cousins and others who form the Gadariya gang. After the massacre of 13 people in Bhanwarpura village in Gwalior district by the Gadariyas on October 29, police are hot on their trail, and the whole Gurjar community is baying for their blood.

However, survival has always been tough here. Rebellion and robbery were common even a century ago. While local people remember with pride the legendary Pindaris and the freedom fighter Ram Prasad Bismil, in recent decades they have witnessed many an infamous Chambal dacoity.

As one plunges deeper into the countryside, one cannot help but wonder what the villagers subsist on. The earth here is unforgiving - rocky and rebellious. Even the forests are mostly scrub and thorn.

M. Geeta, Shivpuri District Collector, recalls her first visit to Harsi, home to the infamous Gadariya brothers, Rambabu and Dayaram. "This was years ago, much before the Bhanwarpura massacre. Harsi was a desperately backward area with few sources of livelihood. The Gadariyas have traditionally been an oppressed caste and most of them are landless labourers. In fact, stealing goats was the first crime that these Gadariya brothers were accused of."

She said that the region had seen caste enmity too. "Though the Gurjars are also designated a backward caste, they tend to be dominating and have a little extra cattle wealth. The structure of society here is such that no real social movements emerged to counter caste oppression. In addition, caste feuds are a matter of honour and if someone turns baaghi (rebel) it is more a matter of prestige than shame."

Guns and revenge are a way of life in the region. The poorest village offers the vision of a gun-toting farmer tramping up the hills. Police officials say that 70 per cent of the guns are owned by Thakurs and Gurjars.

In the wee hours of October 29, when the villagers, most of them cowherds, approached the shed where the cattle were kept, the Gadariya gang was lying in wait. One by one, the villagers were tied up and gagged as soon as they went in.

Apparently, the gang captured about 30 men. Those who lived to tell the tale say that there was a heated argument between the Gadariya brothers. Rambabu wanted to shoot them all, while Dayaram insisted on sparing the lives of the children. Dayaram prevailed over his brother. Finally, 13 men were killed, 12 Gurjars and a Tomar Thakur.

According to Amar Singh Gurjar, the sarpanch, the Gadariyas were angry that the villagers had opened fire on the gang following a chance encounter at Nayagaon, a neighbouring village, on October 12. Other reports suggest that the dacoits tried to enter Bhanwarpura and were greeted with a volley of bullets. The sarpanch claims that these killings were intended to warn the whole region against antagonising the Gadariya gang.

Residents of neighbouring villages said that Gopal Gadariya, a cousin of Rambabu and a gang member, might have been killed by some residents of Bhanwarpura, although the police insist that Gopal was killed in a police encounter.

According to Amar Singh Gurjar, the villagers exchanged fire with the Gadariyas on October 16. "We have five guns in the village and if only we had anticipated this attack, we would have fought them off. The Gadariya are just goons; they do not have the prestige of the old-time dacoits. They killed unarmed men. Rambabu wanted to kill many more, but Dayaram intervened and released all the children and young boys. Ours is traditionally a khoonkhaar (aggressive) village. We fought dacoits off, irrespective of caste, whenever they came to collect chandaa(extortion money). Now, the government has given us a compensation of Rs.2 lakhs per victim's family and we have been granted 60 additional gun licences. We want the administration to wipe out the Gadariyas. In the meantime, if we see them, we cannot be expected not to do anything about him," Amar Singh said.

Many a politician and bureaucrat has visited the village in the interim, including Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Babulal Gaur. Top police officials have been transferred and a police station has been set up in Bhanwarpura.

Crying over the bodies of family members killed by the Gadariya gang in Bhanwarpura village.-

But, adds Amar Singh, "The leaders have all gone back where they came from. Why will they stay here? Now, we want development and security. Let the government announce a package; let them build a web of roads all over the area, so that the police can get here sooner and we feel more secure. We need electricity. We need a veterinary hospital. We need work. Destruction can only be compensated by development."

Mahendra Singh Kushwah, the Bahujan Samaj Party candidate for the municipal elections in Shivpuri, said: "Even in Shivpuri town, between noon and 6 p.m., there is no electricity, and water comes only on alternate days. The only industry here was stone quarries. But since the area was declared a `reserved forest, most quarries have been closed down."

The local people estimate that the closure of the quarries led to at least 25,000 people being thrown out of work. Incidentally, the Gadariya brothers used to work as labourers in the stone quarries near Shivpuri before they `took to the forests'.

"The Gadariya brothers used to load stones in our quarry. We didn't expect them to turn on us. But recently, they kidnapped my uncle Nasir and my cousin Munna", said Irshad Khan, whose family has been in the stone quarrying business for over six decades.

Khan added that the closure of the quarries was a huge mistake. "The forests do not have any cheetahs or tigers. The hills are ideal for stone-mining. Many quarries exist unofficially, because top politicians in Gwalior and Bhopal have a stake in them. The Gadariyas were given money to `protect' the mines and ward off forest officials."

Irshad Khan agrees that weapons are freely available to most people. "We need them around here. I am training my children, including the girls in the family, to use guns."

Another victim of the Gadariyas, Dr. M.K. Gupta, recounts how the gang had been willing to surrender until recently. Employed at the government Ayurvedic hospital in Shivpuri, he recounted how he had gone to Mohammadpur about 15 km away, for a health camp. "On August 9, our team was stopped by the Gadariya gang's bullets. There were health workers and nurses in the team. The gang touched the women's feet, gave them Rs.50 each, and took us away. I was held until September 3, when they released us in the Bura forest. On August 15, the gang heard a radio announcement that the administration wanted dacoits to surrender. Dayaram was in favour of surrendering. They discussed it, but Rambabu refused. The discussions about surrender continued into the next two days. Finally, when they released us, they gave us a letter for the SP (Superintendent of Police) of Shivpuri and warned us that they would be scanning the papers for news of us having delivered the letter."

The police are on the trail of the gang.-

The police are under fire from the administration and some personnel have been roughed up by angry local people. J.S. Rajput, Additional Superintendent of Police, Shivpuri, had arrested the Gadariya brothers several years ago. "They were arrested in 1996, for killing Bhagwan Lal, a police informer. They escaped when they were being taken to court. They were awarded life imprisonment in three cases. If they had stayed in jail, they would never have come out alive."

Rajput added that the gang had been able to survive only because there were no informers in the area. "Gadariya [Rambabu] enjoys local support. He is known to respect women and he pays well when he stays at someone's house. Plus, there is the fear factor. If the gang tried operating in Morena, we would have found several informers by now. Bloodlines are a factor - almost all the major gangs have been linked through family ties and people hardly ever `betray' a relative."

The Gadariyas' sister Ramsri, the sarpanch of Tuki, a poor, arid village near the forest, is in prison, facing charges of harbouring criminals. Her mother-in-law, Raja-beti, aunt to the Gadariya brothers, is tired of the whole business. "They [Police] took Ramsri. They have taken her six or seven times to various police stations. Once, they kept her in jail for six months. I do not know what to expect now - whether she will come here or her corpse will. Her sisters and daughters have all run away. My son has also run away. The police harass us quite a bit. When they came here last time, they destroyed my property,'' she said.

Antagonism runs high against officialdom in this village for denying people access to the neighbouring forests. Raja-beti said: "The forest officials do not let us enter because it is a reserved national park. They also suspect that we go to feed Rambabu in the forest. Once a cow or a buffalo is caught, they (forest officials) charge us a fine of Rs.500. - Rs.500 an animal a day. If 20 buffaloes get lost in the forest for four days, the forest officials charge us Rs. 40,000. Even the forest rest house is not worth that much."

Sanjay Rana, Inspector-General of Police, Gwalior, denies the allegations of police atrocities. "Police brutality and `the system' are blamed for the rise of gangs such as the Gadariyas. This area specifically has been fostering dacoits, for which there are historical, sociological and geographic factors. The terrain is a major problem because the dacoits know the hills and forests well. To bring about a lasting solution, one must try to change the terrain. We should convert it into fields, bring in irrigation, as was done in Morena. The pressing need is development. The people need alternative ways of livelihood. Many surrendered dacoits in Bhind and Morena turned to farming and transport businesses."

The police also blame the local mindset for the problem. Deputy Inspector-General of Police Sanjay Mane elaborates: "The keyword here is revenge. There is an established precedent for killing and then escaping into the hills as a baaghi. A lot of people follow the precedent. It is common to see women who refuse to don the widow's garb if their husband is murdered, until his death is avenged. The whole village will egg on a brother or son to take up arms."

The police are also fighting off allegations that the local police are hand in glove with the dacoits, and even supplying them ammunition. Mane said: "Such allegations are not going to stop until they are either arrested or shot."

Rana explained: "It is not hard to get a regular supply of ammunition. The locals sell at inflated rates to the dacoits, who can afford to pay. In a place as small as Bhind, there are 80 weapons shops. You can imagine the scale of weapons and ammunition access around here."

Rana, who has recently been transferred as IG, faces a task as formidable as the gang itself, which faces about 111 cases of murder, dacoity, kidnappings and theft.

Surrender is no longer an option. "It is true that we were trying to get the gang to surrender but then the leadership changed. And Bhanwarpura had not happened then. Now, asking for or inviting surrender will be tricky, since the matter is politically sensitive."

Irshad Khan, the former employer to Rambabu Gadariya, says that the latter would probably be eager to surrender now. "Since Bhanwarpura, he knows he can no longer count on the support of the local people. If the police do not get him, the Gujjars will. He is a marked man and he knows it."

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