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S'Long, Sambha

In the cyclical pattern that is life in the Chambal, it's surrender phase. But the dacoits want to do it in style and the state is loath to play ball.

S'Long, Sambha
Illustration: Jayachandran
S'Long, Sambha
Modesty is not the strong point of Nirbhay Singh Gurjar, the reigning supremo of the Chambal Valley, Madhya Pradesh's dacoit country. The outlaw, with a reward of Rs 1.5 lakh on his head, wants to lay down arms in style, travelling in a helicopter to the surrender venue. He is even ready to bear the charges for hiring the chopper.

Chief minister Digvijay Singh, however, is playing spoilsport. "Anyone is free to surrender but the government will not accept any conditions and nothing will be done to glorify him," he said after the dacoit's emissary Rajkumari Gurjar met him.

The helicopter-borne surrender demand is not the first time the publicity-hungry Nirbhay Singh has created a sensation. Recently, he had offered Rs 10 lakh each for Priyanka Mishra, Bhind district deputy superintendent of police, and Ramlakhan Singh, bjp MP from Bhind constituency. The "rewards" were announced through letters sent to newspaper offices in Bhind. The dacoit leader even advised the press that only missives on his letterhead should be treated as authentic.

High-profile surrenders are nothing new to the Chambal. In the last 30-odd years, there have been several of these. In 1972, 511 dacoits, including the gangs led by Masho Singh and Mohar Singh, bid farewell to arms before then chief minister Prakash Chandra Sethi. Acharya Vinoba Bhave and Jaiprakash Narayan acted as facilitators. In 1982-83, Malkhan Singh and Phoolan Devi surrendered before Arjun Singh and in 1984, Ramesh Singh Sikarwar and his gang ceremoniously gave up dacoity.

Digvijay Singh, though, is against grand surrenders by dacoits which "make stars out of criminals". In 1997, he spiked the then dgp A.N. Pathak's plans to arrange the surrender of around 100 dacoits. He refused to be the chief guest at the function and declined to guarantee that the surrendered dacoits would be given favours. "The quantum of punishment will be decided by the courts. We will be exceeding our jurisdiction if we extend any such promise," he told a press conference. The government rejected the "rehabilitation package" proposed by the police and the dgp was forced to abandon his plan, which he intended to be the crowning glory of his policing career.

No wonder top cops are treading carefully this time. "We have no information about the intention of any gang to surrender," is the cautious reaction of the state dgp spokesperson. Bhind SP G.C. Meena is more forthcoming. "Surrender is not our objective. Nabbing them is. We do not propose to encourage dacoits to lay down arms as was done some 15 years back," he says.

State additional dgp Rajendra Chaturvedi, an authority on the Chambal dacoits and their ways, has an explanation for the reluctance of the police to arrange surrenders. "Persuading the dacoits to give themselves up is not an easy job. It requires police officers who have contacts with the outlaws and who can inspire confidence in them. Today, the police lacks such personalities," he says.

Chaturvedi, who as the SP (anti-dacoity) in Bhind was instrumental in arranging the Malkhan Singh-Phoolan Devi surrender in the early '80s, is against discounting the value of mass surrenders. "Surrenders bring about peace in the valley. Not that it lasts forever, but the situation eases for a few years and that is not a small achievement," he asserts. He is also not averse to the idea of conceding some of the demands of the outlaws, even if they sound outrageous. "Suppose Nirbhay Singh Gurjar comes for surrender riding a Rolls-Royce.How does it matter? It is not the form but the content which is important," he says. Crores of rupees wasted on deploying special forces can be saved, he contends.

If surrenders are nothing new in the area, that's because dacoity is as old a feature here. The deep ravines created by the Chambal river, meandering through the Gwalior, Morena and Bhind districts, have been convenient hideouts for over 1,000 years. It is an area where, even today, bandoleers and guns slung across the shoulders are an essential part of the dress code. It is an area where offence is readily taken and the only accepted way of protecting once honour is by killing the offender.

Jumping into the ravines, as becoming a dacoit is known in the area, is a common enough occurrence. (Interestingly, this area also sends a large number of its young to the army and crpf.) The Chambal ravines have been home to several legendary dacoits, some of whom had a Robin Hood-type, baghi image. Like Man Singh, whose funeral in 1955, after he was shot by the police, was attended by over 1,00,000 people. A Rajput, Man Singh had 'jumped into the ravines' after liquidating the entire family of one of his relatives. The reason: his mother was insulted by a member of that family.

For more than 50 years now, the dacoity menace has been following a cyclic pattern. Phases of high dacoity lead to the police swinging into action and the dacoit gangs are either eliminated or made to surrender. Then, the inherently exploitative and feudal social order gives rise to a fresh generation of dacoits. "Surrenders are often followed by slackened vigil and this leads to the formation of fresh gangs," says Chaturvedi.

The last few years have witnessed a sea change in the style and strategy of the dacoits. Not that they ever resembled the stereotypical image—so fondly created by Bollywood—of horse-riding, moustachioed men with a tilak on their foreheads and double-barrelled guns in their hands. Today, they have access to sophisticated arms, including Chinese slrs, AK-47s and even rocket launchers, say police sources. And instead of dacoities and loot, the focus is more on kidnapping for ransom.

In the last two years, at least 370 kidnappings have been reported from the Chambal area. And this is only the official figure. The actual figure may be many times more as families of the victims usually pay the ransom and secure the release of the "pakad", as the kidnapped person is called in Chambal lexicon, rather than involve the police. "The latest trend is to use agents for kidnapping. The victims are lured into the dacoit's hideout on some pretext and taken prisoner," says Meena.

And striking a blow for gender equality are women outlaws like Seema Parihar, Lovely Pandey and Kushma Naian, among others. Phoolan Devi's rise from the badlands of Chambal to the hallowed precincts of the Lok Sabha and the money and fame that came her way seems to be one of the main inspirations.

Along with the ladies, there are at least 20 gangs active in the Chambal region. And police and surrenders notwithstanding, guns will continue to boom in the valley for a long time to come.

K.S. Shaini in Bhopal
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