HIBHAULI (ETAWAH): Nearly, 15 years after Nirbhay Gujjar — the last of the big brigands — was killed, the ravines of Chambal in Etawah district, where the likes of Maan Singh, Malkhan Singh, Phakkad, Lala Ram, Vikram Mallah and Phoolan Devi spread their empire, are still replete with their memories and romanticism with terror.
Till a decade and a half ago, guns would be the way of life and ‘farmaans’ (edict) of baghis (rebels), as the dacoits are commonly called in local parlance, the ‘rule’ for the people of Udi, Chakarpur and Dibhauli Ghat areas of Etawah district which used to be the fiefdom of brigands.
At the time of elections, when the air is loaded with poll rhetoric, the tales of their hold in the region come back to haunt people. On the extent of their political engagement and participation in the polls, people of the region say that they would sway the voters’ mood in favour of the candidate suitable to them.
“Unka ek farmaan hi kafi hota thha. Woh kahelwa dete thhe ki kiska samarthhan karna hai, aur logon ki himmat nahi hoti thhi ki unki mukhalafat kar dein (Their one edict used to be the final word for the people and nobody used to have the courage to flout it),” says Tribhuwan Singh Chauhan, the 72-year-old former Block Pramukh of Dibhauli Ghat in the middle of silent, secluded ravines. Politician-dacoit nexus in the ravines was common.
It flourished till the last gang leader Nirbhay Gujjar was killed in an encounter in 2004. They influenced the victory and defeat of candidates in a big way. While on one hand, the politicians would approach them to get the ‘farmaans’ released in their support, on the other these dacoits impressed upon political parties to field candidates of their choice, at least, in the pockets where they were active. “It used to be ‘give and take’ ties. Dacoits used to earn votes for politicians who, in turn, would favour them in government contracts,” says a senior local leader with allegiance to Samajwadis.
The terror of ‘baghis’ would have a sway across villages and decide the political flavour of central UP and also stretches of Bundelkhand.
“Usually, they would support the candidate of their own caste. It all depended on the caste of the gang leader. Once Nirbhay Gujjar did not let a single person to contest the local body polls in favour of his candidate who belonged to his caste,” says a Satendra Yadav, a village leader. In fact, the direct interference of brigands in elections commenced in 1984 when Shiv Kumar Patel alias Dadua used this terror in villages of Chitrakoot and Banda to boycott polls.
The era dominated by these brigands has zillions of stories of their benevolence. Even the political masters used them only as vote bank and the rigid caste system and exploitation added to their plight. Disillusioned with the system, the desperate lot of society was forced to retreat to the gullies of barren ravines. However, later, penury remained the only factor behind rebellion transcending the barriers of caste.
Gradually, backwards, Brahmins and Thakurs, all made their own respective gangs sometimes resulting in intense inter-caste violence. Behmai massacre of 21 members of Thakur community in 1981 by the then bandit queen Phoolan Devi is an example of inter-caste rivalry. Phoolan, a mallah, took to arms only to avenge her gang rape by the Thakurs.
However, Dibhauli has some fond memories of outlaws also. Gajendra Singh maintains that the outlaws were better than the policemen. They were messiah to poor extending big help during weddings, treatment of poor. “Moreover, they would help release the land of small farmers from the clutches of zamindars,” he says.
With the passage of time, as the town limits expanded, the gangs in this part of Chambal Valley stopped raiding the villages. The typical guerrilla warfare, over a period of time, metamorphosed into loot bids for survival and ultimately a culture of highway banditry evolved. Moreover, kidnapping for ransom too came handy to earn easy money.
With as many as 205 criminal cases registered against him, Nirbhay was among the dacoits who were most feared. As per the Chakarnagar residents, he ran a parallel government in 40 villages of the area and carried a bounty of Rs 2.5 lakh on his head.
“At the fag end of Nirbhay Gujjar’s domination in ravines, we, as elders, tried to persuade him to surrender but he did not budge as he wanted to go for surrender in a chopper,” says Chauhan, adding that he was killed in a police encounter before he could live his dream of flying in a helicopter.
Flamboyance used to drive them. “Probably, Nirbhay was driven by the way Phoolan surrendered. Her subsequent rise as a Member of Parliament might have made him kindle the hope for a decent life post-surrender,” says the leader.
Now with all the big names wiped out, the ravines of Chambal stand mainly cleansed of the infamous background but the fear persists with a few splinter groups, devoid of leadership, are still active committing petty crimes.
“The dacoit leaders have been killed. The gangs are now dismantled and the members left are no longer organised,” says Dr Rajiv Chauhan, an Etawah native and an erstwhile forest official. “Majority of them have taken to different ways of life. Some are into farming, some have moved to the town in search of livelihood, while those left behind commit small time robbery or extortion,” he adds.