Print edition : December 16, 2005

From being an unconventional and much romanticised act of rebellion against an oppressive social order in the ravines of terror, dacoity has metamorphosed itself into a means of sharing the spoils of a corrupt system.


Nirbhay Gujjar at one of his hideouts in the forests of Uttar Pradesh. An undated file photograph.-

IN the two decades before he was killed on November 7, police records say, Nirbhay Gujjar had committed 239 serious offences: murder, kidnapping, extortion, armed robbery. Yet, Nirbhay Gujjar was no ordinary dacoit.

For centuries, Chambal's dacoits have captured the public imagination: the royal baaghi (rebel), who helped the helpless; the long-suffering farmer who took up arms against the rich feudal lord; the poor goatherd who could find no other escape from state atrocities; the woman who swore blood-revenge against her rapists.

In the real world, Nirbhay Gujjar was part of a world in transition, a world that saw the vanishing of the kind of men and women who inspired the romanticised image of the Chambal dacoit.

After he was killed in an encounter with the Special Task Force in Etawah.-REUTERS

What has replaced them is, in some senses, more terrifying. The new `baaghis' are shaped by the modern world; their crimes are made up of extortion, protection rackets, election violence and surviving off the corruption of the state.

A few gangs that claim to be `dacoits' in the traditional sense still exist. There are the Gadaraiyas, for example, who shot into national headlines when they killed 13 Gujjars in Bhanwarpura, in October 2004. Or Jagjivan Parihar, who operates near Etawah, Uttar Pradesh. But the truth is that dacoit gangs have metamorphosed into something quite different: closer in spirit and technique to the mafia don than to the social bandit or caste and class rebel.

ACROSS the globe, bandits have been known for their Robin Hoodesque characteristics, which won them popular support; they would fight for local causes, or resist oppression, in defiance of the law. As the historian Eric Hobsbawm has pointed out in his classic Bandits, almost all `social bandits' enjoy tremendous support from the immediate community. Most are careful, therefore, not to antagonise the locals, even if they do kill and loot elsewhere. Also, most `social bandits' come from farming communities and the problem of banditry is worst in times of socio-political unrest, or famine.

Hobsbawm's rules apply to Chambal as well, but with unique local characteristics. The worst era of dacoity in Chambal was in the 1970s and 1980s, when the region faced severe drought. Most dacoits came from farming families and, when they surrendered, went back to farming. However, the rebels - or robbers, thugs and kidnappers - are closely bound to their original clans and are divided sharply along caste lines. A gang comprised of "upper-caste" Thakurs, for instance, would attract other Thakurs.

Nevertheless, the fact that so many dacoits thrived in this small belt of ravine, river and forest, flanking three States, poses an intriguing question: Why Chambal?

After all, poverty, drought, land disputes and exploitation are commonplace across the country.

A village near a ravine in the Chambal valley in Madhya Pradesh.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Some people attribute this to the role of aggression and machismo in local culture, particularly among the dominant castes. Others simply shrug it off as a `tradition'. Yet others - including former dacoits - blame it on the water of the Chambal. Or the air. Or the soil.

Says Manmohan Kumar `Tamanna', a popular novelist whose books have often dealt with Chambal's violent traditions, "Dacoity isn't a problem here. It's a profession - a business that needs no investment. Except a gun, maybe."

Manmohan Kumar sees the tradition as the outcome of history. For centuries, armies have retreated to Chambal, where the terrain provided ideal cover for guerilla warfare. "Prithvi Raj Chauhan was a rebel himself," he notes. "He came to Chambal, when he lost Delhi. His followers used to loot. They took pride in making their living at the edge of a sword. Later, during the 1857 War of Independence, the Rani of Jhansi attacked Gwalior. The army was broken in spirit and torn apart between the loyalist Scindias and the freedom-fighters. As a result, there was a lot of rebellion and looting. Camels laden with treasure were whisked away."

Dacoity in Chambal, though, has a history that long predates the events of 1857. In ancient times, during the Harshvardhan era, the Chinese traveller Huen Tsang was robbed near present-day Dhaulpur. Records show a flourishing tradition of dacoity during the Rajput era, with gangs led by members of the Tomar caste and made up of individuals of royal blood who had rebelled against the throne of Prithvi Raj Chauhan. The Mughal emperor Babur mentioned dacoits in his memoirs Baburnama, recording that the empire's army had to be committed to battle them. By this time, the Chambal's baaghis were from the Jat and Gujjar castes. By the time the British replaced the Mughal rule, the Pindari Thugs emerged. India's new rulers came down very hard on them. Orders were issued that each Thug be hung in his own village as a lesson to the public, and that his family members be bonded to the government as slaves.

By the first decades of the 20th century, the state had tired enough of the problem - and realised the limitations of coercion as a counter-measure. The Maharaja of Gwalior, Madhavrao Scindia, persuaded 97 dacoits to surrender in 1920. Such measures were not entirely new - powerful dacoits had often been co-opted in the past, for example by giving them rights to tax traffic across the Chambal river, in return for ensuring that the merchants had a safe passage. However, during this period, the character of the baaghi was undergoing profound transformation. Gangs began to get organised, and kidnapping for ransom, rather than looting, was the new favoured activity.

Lokman Dixit.-ANNIE ZAIDI

It was around this time that the dacoit-duo that was to give a definitive shape to Chambal's modern dacoit traditions, took to the forest. The brothers `Dongar-Baturi', following the long-standing tradition of kinsmen forming the nucleus of gangs, started out by avenging the murder of their father. Soon, however, their activities transcended their immediate cause. According to Kumar, the brothers were the most daring and powerful of all 20th century dacoit leaders. "Dongar-Baturi created the first really organised gang," he says. "They began by looting treasure from the Scindia government when it was transported through forests on bullock carts. For the sake of safety and clout, they increased the size of the gang. They were also known for cutting off the noses and ears of their enemies."

A number of gangs built upon the innovations of Dongar-Baturi. Among the best-known dacoits from the first half of the twentieth century were Pana, Sultan, Man Singh, Amritlal, Lakhan, Gabbra and Putli and Kallan, Putli Bai was the first documented woman dacoit in Chambal. Most life-stories follow a similar pattern. There would be a minor land dispute in the village, tempers would flare and someone would get killed. Faced with the option of surrendering to the police, and facing a lifetime in prison, most of them would choose to run away to the forests and join an already-established dacoit gangs. In time, the more enterprising within a gang would set up their own group, after their leader left his life of crime or was killed.

True to their Hindi-film representation, adventure seems to have been a major attraction of the baaghi life. Asked if his life in the forest was fun, 85-year-old Raghuveer Singh Gussi, a one-time member of the Madho Singh gang, replied, "Of course! We were masters of our region. It was hard work, but we had no cares. Dongar-Baturi had once caught a Deputy Inspector-General of Police from Rajasthan. Not for ransom. Just for fun. They liked to use disguises. Madho Singh was an educated man. He used to perform magic shows, just for fun."

Underpinning the adventure was a sense of moral righteousness: a sense that even the life of the outlaw was bound by a moral code. "We didn't directly distribute wealth to the poor", Gussi claims, "but would give to anybody who came asking. We touched only the rich, and wouldn't hurt a woman even if she were loaded with gold."

Raghuveer Singh fondly recalls a story to illustrate just how different the moral code of the time was to that of today's gangs. "Once," he says, "a woman helped us. She brought a man down from Delhi and we kidnapped him. He paid up the ransom and later, after we'd surrendered, he came to visit us in prison. He brought gifts for each man. He must have spent lakhs on us!" Asked why a victim would lavish gifts on his tormentors, Raghuveer Singh insisted that this was a consequence of their kindness to the man. "We were good to the pakad [kidnap victim]. We used to tell his relatives, `If we don't send back your man five kilos heavier, you can take back all your ransom.' We'd wash the clothes of the pakad, and even shine his shoes, if asked to. Today's gangs are only driven by greed. These are goondas. They will take money from anyone, anyhow. They insult and abuse good men. They want wine and women."

High morals? The old-timers agree. Lokman Dixit, known as Lukka daaku in his heyday, is 84 years old now. He grew up alongside Man Singh's sons, Tehsildar and Subedar (named for an administrator and soldier). Dixit recalls that, in his time, the gangs would not make impossible demands for ransom. "Man Singh used to tell us that if you place 10 tonnes on a man's head, he cannot stand. So we would think about how much burden a family could afford. But that has changed. Earlier, if we took one rupee from a man, we undertook to keep him safe. If a village supported us, we'd even offer to bring back their stolen buffaloes. Now there's too much bribery everywhere. In our time, we never met any policemen or tried to pay them off. We faced at least two encounters a month. There was rain and cold and thorns and mountains and loneliness. A dacoit's life wasn't an easy one."

Raghuveer Singh.-ANNIE ZAIDI

Clearly, it was not. Which was why no less than 511 dacoits surrendered in 1972, responding to an appeal by Jayaprakash Narayan. Dixit had surrendered earlier, in 1960, after meeting with Vinobha Bhave, and was instrumental in persuading hundreds of his one-time comrades to give up their life of crime. He does not agree, though, that the problem of violence is specific to this region. "In Banda", Dixit asserts, "even today, people kill for less than Rs.50. Chambal is not a particularly violent place, in comparison. Elsewhere, people loot in different ways, but are not labelled `dacoits'. We have a tradition here, that's all."

It is, of course, a particularly brutal tradition. Asked how many people he must have killed in the 14 years that he was a dacoit, Dixit said: "Once, in the court-room, the judge asked me the same question. I answered, `Judge-saab, do you remember how many chapattis you eat in a month?'"

DIXIT'S stark observation strips Chambal dacoity of its romance - and suggests that the discontinuities between the past and present, at least in the matter of brutality, were not all that different. To Gwalior Inspector-General of Police Sanjay Rana, talk of an earlier generation of Robin Hood-figures is fiction. "Gangs need a social base, a network," he says. "They distribute money to the locals, to create permanent allies. The Robin Hood image is a false one. If they wanted to help the poor, they'd give away 90 per cent of what they make. Clearly, that isn't happening. They give to the poor as a survival tactic, not for altruistic motives." Rana's observations are endorsed even by some old-time dacoits. "We had the support of villagers," recalls Mohar Singh, co-leader of the feared Mohar-Madho gang, "because we paid them double for whatever we bought."

Much of the talk of an earlier generation of morally upright bandits is, in fact, fiction. Madho Singh, for example, drank himself to death, while Chhidda Singh Sikarwar - leader of the dreaded Chhidda-Makhan gang - was the only Chambal dacoit to be hanged: he had shot dead a small child. Also, many gang leaders of the time kept kidnapped women at their side. Nirbhay Gujjar had four `wives', three of whom he had kidnapped, and they had run away at the first opportunity.

Despite all their talk of respect for women, the appalling treatment of Phoolan Devi by dacoit gangs is evidence that the outlaws' world was just as oppressive as the society it came from. However, the Gadariyas are known for treating women with a degree of respect that far exceeds any that might have been exhibited in the past. Its leader Rambabu Gadariya is rumoured to touch their feet and give little presents of money every time he meets women. If something has changed, it is the economic character of Chambal - which in turn has transformed the life and structure of the region's dacoits.

Rana has observed the changing modes of dacoit activity closely. "Kidnapping is the most profitable activity today, rather than looting," he notes. But that is changing too. Often, other locals, who get a cut on the deal, deliver the kidnap victim into the hands of the gang. Sometimes, a small gang does the kidnapping, but hands over charge of the victim to a bigger gang. There is also a major protection racket going on. Many quarries in the region producing stones for export are illegal. The quarry-owners who operate in the wilderness and are exposed to danger pay protection money to the dacoits. "Dig deep enough," says Rana candidly, "and you'll find that the who's who of Madhya Pradesh is involved, including politicians. There are vested interests in dacoit-gangs."

Organised politics, indeed, has been a major force for change on the dacoit gangs. Nirbhay Gujjar himself was known to have strong political links, and used a cell-phone to communicate with his well-connected patrons in distant Lucknow and Gwalior. He was known to have organised `panchayats' where he would dispense justice. He also made himself available to the media, and made no secret of his own political ambitions.

Mohur Singh, former dacoit, who has served as chairman of the Mehangaon town panchayat after his surrender.-ANNIE ZAIDI

Several former dacoits have entered politics, and many gangs use strong-arm tactics, on behalf of various political parties. Mohur Singh's testimony suggests that this is not entirely new. "We would go to a village and order them to vote for a candidate. They used to listen to us," he says. He has served as head of the nagar panchayat of Mehangaon, where he was elected unopposed. He says, "I would not have contested, if I was opposed," adding that he intends to contest `big' elections at some point in the future.

A pipe dream? Most dacoits who did surrender have been living peaceably, farming the 30 bighas of land that the government allotted them. Many admit that they ran away after the first accidental killing, simply because they were poor and were afraid that they would not even be able to afford bail. Makhan Singh, now settled in Ajitpur village, says, "If we had money to fight court cases, we would not have become dacoits. I've even forgotten what my original dispute was about! But there were laathis and there was a fight and somebody got killed. It was a little thing."

Little things, as Lokman Dixit puts it, turn into big things. "You see," he says, "the problem is that the police force was made by the British, for their own purposes. It was made for the bureaucracy, to protect the government. It wasn't ever intended for the poor. If it was, things might have been different." Asked why he did not enter politics himself, Dixit wrinkled his nose: "It is too dirty!"

WHAT of the future of the Chambal dacoits? Police authorities are working hard at eliminating the gangs that still remain. Sanjay Mane, Deputy Inspector-General of the region, claims that gangs led by Shakti-Kaachi, Hazrat Rawat, Bharat Yadav-Damodar and Lakhan Lodhi, and a branch of the main Gadariyas, the Prakash Gadariya gang, have been eliminated. "There is a smaller one, Vakila Gujjar, operating in my region, but he's not causing much trouble yet. Jagjivan Parihar operates in the Uttar Pradesh police's region. The only powerful gang left is the one led by Dayaram and Rambabu Gadariya. It is weakened, down to six members. We've had two encounters and are getting lots of information. We'll track them down soon."

It is not easy work, though. The police admit that they are at a disadvantage since there are hundreds of people whose monetary interests are tied to that of the dacoits. In addition, there is a measure of social sanction for dacoity. Caste entanglements and questions of social prestige all play a role. In a research paper, "Crime and Prevention in Chambal Division (M.P.) - A Geographical Analysis", geographer Dhirendra Pal Singh Rathor notes that Chambal's hostile terrain, divided by small tributaries like the Parbati, the Seep, the Kuns, the Soank, the Kwari, the Aasan, the Vesli and the Sindhu, makes tracking dacoits difficult, and also provides fertile ground for recruitment to the gangs. "On the one hand," he says, "there aren't enough roads or bridges, which makes policing very difficult. On the other, farming land is not plentiful, but there are no other economic avenues."

IGP Rana points out that his task is also complicated by caste politics. "We cannot act too harshly against the tribal people who harbour dacoits because we understand that they also face tremendous pressures," he says. "We are walking on a razor's edge when we pick up the harbourers. If viewed as informers, they would be killed. But the Gujjars are different. They are politically articulate; there is a political hue and cry if we act against them. Yet, it is true that for every 100 suspected harbourers, more than 70 are Gujjars. Their motives are economic. On the other hand, a dacoit from your own clan is a matter of prestige. There is a progression towards power. A certain empowerment of the traditionally downtrodden Gadariya caste is taking place. They are standing for village elections. Caste equations are changing - and with it, the character of crime."

Makhan Singh, who along with Chhidda formed a deadly duo in Chambal, surrendered in 1972 to Jayaprakash Narayan along with 511 dacoits. In this photograph, he is with his grandchildren and great grandchildren at Ajitpur in Morena district.-ANNIE ZAIDI

Chambal's gun culture, along with issues of geography, caste and class, provides a fourth layer of complication. According to one estimate, there were 15,524 gun licences in Morena district. Local residents believe that there must be an equal number of illegal guns. It is not hard to find farmers in Chambal wearing broken shoes and riding an old bicycle - with a gun worth Rs. 60,000 slung over their shoulders. Part of the reason for buying a gun is, of course, security but social prestige also drives the decision. Where there are guns, even minor feuds often escalate into events that claim lives. As a result, the crime graph in the Chambal division is constantly rising. The methods change, the violence does not.

Will a fresh surrender initiative help solve the problem? Nirbhay Gujjar had spoken of wanting to surrender several times, before he was killed, while the Gadariyas have also sent notes to the administration, seeking to discuss terms of surrender. However, Rana is not pleased with the option. "I detest surrenders if they are based on terms," he says. "In the 1970s, they were unable to handle dacoits, so the government gave in to all their conditions. They got land, money, jobs, petrol-pump allotments, MLA tickets... It is like rewarding them for crime."

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