DIBHAULI (ETAWAH) : Nearly 12 years after Nirbhay Gujjar, the last of the big brigands, was killed, the ravines of Chambal valley in Etawah district still resonate with stories of dread and Godfather-style admiration tinged with fear.
Till a decade ago, guns were a way of life here and the farmaans (diktats) of baaghis — local parlance for dacoits — were the law of the land in areas like Udi, Chakarpur and Dibhauli Ghat. The names and deeds of Maan Singh, Malkhan Singh, Phakkad, Lala Ram, Vikram Mallah, Phoolan Devi and Nirbhay Gujjar are still spoken in awe here, particularly at poll time. Sixty-nine-year-old Tribhuvan Singh Chauhan, former block pramukh of Dibholi Ghat who now runs a huge four-storey degree college in this ravine country, remembers, “Their decree used to be the final world for the people and nobody had the courage to flout it.”
An active politician-dacoit nexus existed in these ravines. It flourished till the last of the moustached men Nirbhay Gujjar was killed in an encounter in 2004. Until then, dacoits influenced poll results in a big way. Politicians approached them to secure favourable farmaans and the brigands advised them on what they want done in return.
“Usually, they would support candidates belonging to their own caste,” says Satendra Yadav, a village leader. While baaghis were dreaded figures since the Thugee days of William Sleeman in the mid 19th century, villagers held a heart out for them right into their last days. They were Robin Hood figures, especially if you were from their caste.
The Chambal ravines are known for infertile terrain, water scarcity and frequent droughts. Farming was almost impossible, especially for the poor and those on the lowest rung of the caste ladder.
The conditions were, however, fertile for dacoity, and gangs sprang up with even upper caste outlaw groups. Phoolan Devi, in fact, achieved Indiawide notoriety for the Behmai massacre of 22 people belonging to the Thakur community. Gajendra Singh, a villager of Dibhauli Ghat, says, “The outlaws were better than the policemen of now. They extended support for girls’ marriage and treatment of the poor. Moreover, they would help release the lands of small farmers from the clutches of landlords.”
With the passage of time, as infrastructure developed and towns expanded, gangs operating in Chambal valley stopped raiding villages in Sholay style. They metamorphosed into looting for survival and led to a culture of highway dacoity and then to the phenomenon of abductions for ransom, locally called the Pakad phenomenon. Pakad means captive. “They would bring the Pakad from big cities like Delhi, Lucknow and even Bombay,” says a police officer in Chambal valley. “The Pakad would be held captive until the ransom was paid.”
Interestingly, the Stockholm syndrome existed in the Chambal too. Sometimes the Pakad refused to go back and became a gang member instead. “This happened in a number of cases, especially when the Salim Gujjar gang was active,” says Gajendra Singh.
It was during the time of the Nirbhay Gujjar gang that kidnappings took the shape of organised crime and peaked with the active involvement of authorities who were given their ‘cut’.
Nirbhay was among the most feared dacoits with 205 criminal cases against him. At the fag end of Nirbhay Gujjar’s domination of the ravines, local elders tried to persuade him to surrender. “He fantasised about flying around in a chopper and when he finally came round to the idea of surrendering, he insisted on doing so flying in a chopper,” says Chauhan. “Probably, he was driven by the way Phoolan Devi surrendered.” The baaghi was killed in a police encounter before he could live his dream of flying.