BUNDELKHAND, STILL BANDIT COUNTRY
THRIVING ON FEAR AND LOCAL SUPPORT, AND BUOYED BY FRESH RECRUITS IN THEIR RANKS, DACOIT GANGS ARE AGAIN REARING THEIR HEAD IN THIS VAST TERRAIN OVERLAPPING TWO STATES Combing operations against dacoits in Chitrakoot
The dacoits are suspected of funding local political leaders and being the real power behind the scenes
The glistening road from the police station in Bharat Koop, through Chitrakoot in Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh, dulls quickly on the zigzag path to Kalinjar in Madhya Pradesh. At the foot of the Vindhyas, it disappears completely. Several kilometres in, through the hilly, rain-fed forests, is the Kolhua jungle. Located in the triangle of Chitrakoot, Bharat Koop and Satna districts across both UP and MP, the jungle has been a safe haven for dacoits and bandits for three decades.
On June 30, the police found the bodies of three men burnt beyond recognition. Acting on a tip, the UP police believe the men were abducted from Satna in MP by the Lalit Patel gang. Patel is from Nayagaon in MP, and his alleged victims were men from nearby villages and thought to be informers. Not, of course, for the police, which has little control over or access to the gangs, but for Patel’s rivals. The police are arranging for DNA tests to identify the bodies. Patel, they say, operates mostly in MP, but is thought to relocate across the border to UP to evade local police attention. UP police say that while Patel does not have a rap sheet in the state— though police in the area did have a brief encounter with him in the week before the bodies were discovered—a huge manhunt is underway. Information is proving difficult to obtain.
Kolhua Mafi village, in Karwi tehsil, near the jungles where the bodies were found, is extremely poor. About 1,000 people live in mud huts, without electricity. A primary school built a decade ago has still to open. No one is interested in talking about gangsters. Despite the notoriety of the area, 70-yearold resident Putaan Kol will only say that there is “no threat from dacoits”. But further south in Chitrakoot, 40-year-old Tulsi Yadav, a contractor with UP Jal Nigam, a state water and sewage management company, was kidnapped in May while working on a project to instal a submersible pump. Yadav’s wife Asha is the head of their village, Karka Padriya. A sum of Rs 1 lakh and licenced rifle were demanded as ransom. The gang let Tulsi go after a “first instalment” of Rs 25,000 was paid. “Now,” says Tulsi, “they want the rest and are threatening to kidnap me again.”
Tulsi’s kidnappers, the Ramgopal or Goppa Yadav gang, are Patel’s rivals, operating in the same ravines and preying on similar targets. Since the killing, in a police encounter two years ago, of notorious gangster Swadesh Patel, better known as Balkhadia, the forests of Chitrakoot have been quiet, even peaceful. But the dacoits, it appears, have just been biding their time. Balkhadia has been replaced by Babbuli Kol, so wanted a criminal that the UP government is offering a bounty of Rs 5 lakh for his capture. The MP government has thrown in an additional Rs 30,000 and is also offering tens of thousands for the capture of his lieutenants. Kol has reportedly kidnapped half a dozen people in just
the last three months. In June, three police teams were dispatched to Naagar village to arrest Kol. Police say he escaped after as many as 40 women, led by Chunni Devi, the village head, attacked the officers with bricks and sticks.
In April, in Jhansi, the so-called ‘Gateway to Bundelkhand’, UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath instructed the police to wipe out dacoity. The police insist they are working towards that goal. But it appears that police action is only making the dacoits reassert themselves. On May 3, dacoit Raju Singh (Rs 50,000 on offer for his capture) is alleged to have killed a pharmacist. Just days later, as the police were reportedly tightening the noose, Raju struck again, robbing a wedding party, teasing the women and shooting the bride’s brother. He picked the wrong target though because as the wedding party grew larger he was overpowered and then beaten to death.
Mob justice is one thing, but the police appear to have few answers. They’re not even sure what weapons the gangs have access to. One police officer, who has been involved in direct confrontations with Kol, says the “dacoits are using semi-automatic rifles and often get their weapons and bullets from the police and special forces because of corruption”. Another officer who wished to remain anonymous said the “biggest problem is that there are never any witnesses. People who you turn to for information or you’d like as informers are scared. They don’t want to be
preyed upon by gangsters”. And there’s also the lack of funding and suitable equipment for the special cells created to tackle dacoits. “Look at these,” says an officer, gesturing to his frayed Goldstar shoes, “how much help are they going to be on rocky paths and rugged jungle terrain?” Their bullet-proof jackets also weigh between 25 and 30 kg, draining energy and leaving officers too exhausted to chase light-footed bandits for long.
But Balwant Chaudhary, additional superintendent of police, Chitrakoot, argues that there is reason for hope. He is camping in the forests with his team, searching for dacoits. He says that the most dreaded dacoits killed in recent years by the police were trapped during the monsoon. “We have weakened,” he claims, “the financial networks of these criminals. It’s only a matter of time before the police win.” But the neglect of parts of Bundelkhand, particularly in Chitrakoot and Banda, the lack of opportunities and development mean that it is also only a matter of time before others pop up to replace whatever dacoits the police do kill or arrest. Sudhir Sonkar, a social worker in Manikpur, says: “Young people in banditplagued villages have little else to do but join gangs.” The Kol tribals are specially prized by the gangs because of their knowledge of the jungles.
Politicians, many in the villages and even official circles allege, are often too enmeshed with the gang leaders and too willing to take their cut, to have the will to stamp dacoity out. Last month, Swatantra Dev Singh, UP minister for transport, told journalists on a visit to Chitrakoot that dacoits were “spoiled children in the family who have gone astray. They need to be brought onto the correct path”. These mild words, even empathy, raised many eyebrows in the area. After police arrested the husband of Chunni Devi, accused of helping Babbuli Kol escape arrest, the BJP MP from Banda, Bhairon Prasad Mishra, got into an altercation with the police. Using his influence, Mishra ensured the suspension of a pair of officers. “The police,” Mishra claims, “are torturing innocent people under the pretext of dacoits.”
This apparent warmth between politicians and gangsters is not surprising. Dacoits, locals joke resignedly, control Bundelkhand. Many are suspected of funding local political campaigns and being the real power behind the scenes. Ashish Sagar Dikshit, a local social worker, says: “Dacoits have a lot of popular appeal and can make or break political careers. Disobeying them is risky.” Shiv Kumar Patel, aka Dadua, the famous dacoit killed by special forces in 2007, was nicknamed ‘the kingmaker’ precisely because of his political connections. His brother was a former MP. For all the flurry of police action, is the political will to put away a new generation of Bundelkhand bandits any stronger?
The dacoits, says a police officer, often source their weapons and bullets from the police and special forces
HOT ON THEIR HEELS