They are perhaps the last surviving pack of bandits who move about on horseback. But, apart from that, they have very little in common with that Hindi-film stereotype - the benevolent, towering Robin Hood figure of the Chambal ravines. On the contrary, they are a ruthless, bloodthirsty horde of criminals controlled by the contractor-politician-caste mafia of Bihar. A mafia whose tentacles extend from the unapproachable, back-of-the-beyond diyara (riverine) areas to the Patna Vidhan Sabha. Backed by this nexus, these gangs of criminals find it easy to ride in, swoop down on their prey and indulge in a bout of murder and plunder. After which they simply melt into the hilly terrain beyond the Kiul river in the Lakhisarai, Begusarai and Munger districts.
It was on the banks of the Kiul river that 11 unsuspecting, hapless labourers engaged in sand-mining were massacred in the dead of the night on May 11 by the Hareram Yadav gang. Locals say that the marauders came on horseback and then disappeared into the diyara after killing the labourers. It was a bloody warning from a Yadav warlord to an equally-dreaded Bhumihar warlord, Janardan Singh, who controls the illegal sand-mining operations in Lakhisarai. The irony is that the victims of this fight between criminals belonging to warring castes were mainly voiceless poor Dalits who earn a meagre Rs 50 to Rs 100 per night for their toil.
There's big money behind this sand war. The amount of money the sand-mining business fetches has turned this innocuous-looking material into a profitable commodity. The Bihar State Mineral Development Corporation (BSMDC) earns crores of rupees of revenue from the fine sand the Kiul river produces. Informed sources say that this figure is less than one-fourth of the total illegal mining revenues. And that's why these criminal gangs are warring with each other. The objective: control of the sand pits on the banks of the Kiul and the Ganga. Hareram Yadav, the main accused in the Lakhisarai massacre, used to control the mining site where the labourers were killed. As he owed the local farmers Rs 7 lakh which he refused to pay, the farmers - mainly Bhumihars - invited Janardan Singh's gang to do the mining. Peeved at this, Hareram retaliated by killing Janardan Singh's labourers.
Incidentally, Hareram Yadav happens to be the cousin of the local independent mla Prahlad Yadav (supported by the ruling RJD). This explains why the state government headed by Laloo Yadav's wife, Rabri Devi, did absolutely nothing to nab the culprits apart from transferring the district collector and SP of Lakhisarai and paying one lakh rupees to the victims' families as compensation. Even a week after the massacre, the newly-posted SP Dr Paresh Saxena tried to put up a brave front when confronted by Outlook. Asked how the district police was planning to chase the criminals in the diyara area without any mounted police help, Saxena philosophised: "We may not have the infrastructure but we have our men and the law is on our side." No wonder that more than a fortnight later, the police have still not been able to trace the criminals.
These districts areas are the virtual badlands of central Bihar. Areas where teachers don't go to school because as the only salaried class, they always face the threat of being kidnapped for ransom - which in some cases, could be as low as Rs 5,000! Though the local crime industry thrives on kidnapping and extortion, in most cases there isn't any big money to be had. Says a Lakhisarai shopkeeper: "The criminals are the real rulers of this town. Very few people have big money, but these criminals still go around collecting money and nobody dare refuse. " The locals as well as lower-rung police officers admit that it is almost impossible to root out these politically well-connected gangs. "The gang-members live in camps on the hills, that's where they keep their horses as well," says a young boy from Lakhisarai who once strayed into the "out of bounds" stronghold of the criminals but was turned back when the gangsters spotted him. These gangs not only control illegal sand-mining but indulge in highway robberies and kidnappings as well. And apart from the difficulties presented by the terrain, it is the politicians who have a vested interest in protecting these gangs. There are even examples where criminals, after spreading a lot of terror and 'gaining' clout in their areas, have joined politics. The vacuum in the gangs being filled by their brothers and other family members.
Hareram Yadav's cousin, Prahlad Yadav, an mla from Surajgadha, has been a known criminal himself. There are several cases of murder, kidnapping and extortion pending against him. But now, as a member of the legislative assembly, Prahlad Yadav is lobbying for his brothers Police Yadav, Jeevan Yadav and Hareram Yadav with full force. "Hamari lokpriyata se chirh kar hamare rajneetik virodhi hamko badnaam karna chah rahe hein. Ham Lalooji se mile aur unhone kah diya hai ki aap logon ko kuch nahin hone wala hai (My political opponents are out to malign me because they don't like the fact that I am popular. But I have met Lalooji and he has assured me that nobody is going to touch us)," Prahlad Yadav told Outlook in a telephonic conversation. Prahlad also claims that all the criminal cases pending against him are the result of his "fight against the feudal elements".
Clearly, in this part of the state, caste and crime overlap. But this is something entirely different from the caste conflicts that take place in the Bhojpur area, where ideologies, in whatever form, do play some role. In the diyara area it's pure crime controlled by caste heavyweights. The emergence of obc criminals notwithstanding, big crime in the state is still dominated by Bhumihar criminals most of whom support the Samata Party-BJP combine. Janardan Singh and Khikhar Singh are two such powerful Bhumihar criminals in the Lakhisarai-Begusarai belt. These gangsters not only supported but actively campaigned in favour of the local Bhumihar candidate, Krishnakant Sharma, during the last assembly elections. "We have to take their support; call it our compulsion," says a BJP mla who belongs to the diyara area.
State BJP leader and leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, Sushil Modi, is somewhat more forthcoming. Says he: "Laloo Prasad Yadav has miserably failed to contain the already-existing criminal gangs. But what is more unfortunate is the fact that with Laloo's advent into Bihar's political scenario, a new class of backward-class criminals has emerged. The Lakhisarai incident is a mere manifestation of this tussle between two gangs belonging to different castes trying to exploit their political clout."
The prevalent political ethos in Bihar has definitely provided the criminals with a congenial atmosphere to breed and run amok. But unlike the baghis of Chambal these gangs don't spend a life-time in the ravines, hiding from the police and seeking revenge for the injustices inflicted upon them by the powerful classes. The ganglords here are 'respected' citizens who stay in the village with their families. Unless, of course, something like Lakhisarai happens and the police, for the time being, turns the heat on them. But once national attention abates, everything goes back to square one and the horses start galloping once again along the diyara.