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

India Today - - COVER STORY - By Ashish Misra

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

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