India's Bandit Queen

A saga of revenge—and the making of a legend of "the real India"
The King of the Dacoits"

Jora is a market town in Madhya Pradesh of some 20,000 people, a grain center with a booming black-market economy. Hidden away in the Chambal River Valley, some three miles from the jungle and the ravines, it is not far from Bhind, where Phoolan surrendered in 1983. It has also long been known as a favored way station for dacoits, who come here for relaxation, to shop, to pray, and sometimes to surrender—most often in the past to members of the Gandhi Peace Foundation and more recently to chief ministers in political celebrations, as Phoolan did. I had come here to meet the Gandhians—and perhaps a dacoit—in the hope that they could tell me about dacoit life and about whether Phoolan, who was about to embark on her election campaign, could return to the ravines, especially across the border in Uttar Pradesh, without risking her life.

I traveled with Deputy Commandant Raghunandan Sharma, the most highly decorated officer in the Indian police. He had spent his entire professional life hunting down dacoits, and had killed 365 of them. He is a portly man in his sixties, with a slight paunch, a small white moustache, and a balding head. He had just retired from the service, but he still liked to keep his pistol tucked into his pocket, or his rifle over his shoulder, comfortably resting on his hip. He had been a handpicked choice to end the dacoit menace—a Hercule Poirot of the ravines.

Earlier that morning, at his bungalow in the town of Gwalior, where Phoolan had spent her eleven years in jail, Sharma told me what it had been like then. "The dacoits almost always had the upper hand," he said. "They knew the topography, every tree and blade of grass; they held the high ground; and their weapons were far superior to ours—when we had .303 Enfield rifles, they had reloading semiautomatic guns. In the summer the temperature in the ravines goes well above a hundred and twenty degrees. It is scorching heat, there is no water, and when we marched, we kicked up choking dust. The dacoits' lookouts could chart our movements simply by watching the clouds of dust."

"There are still some ten gangs out there," he said, looking out the window in the direction of the ravines. "Despite our best efforts, the ravines and jungles are still not safe; you can enter them only with armed guards. A hundred or so dacoits are still at large, including two women—one of them a sworn enemy of Phoolan's."

I asked Sharma to tell me about the lore of the dacoits.

"They're not called dacoits here," he said. "They're called bhagis, or rebels. Every village wants one of its members to join a gang so that the village is protected. And it's often said in the ravines that if a man is blessed enough to have three sons, one will join the uniformed service, the armed forces or the police; one will stay at home and till the land; and the third will become a dacoit. The first will thus give the family legal authority, the second the assurance that the land will not go to waste, and the third will guarantee the social prestige of the family."

With that he jumped up from his chair, slinging his rifle over his shoulder and donning a navy-blue beret. "Come along," he instructed. "Let us move to the ravines."

We drove in a convoy of two cars. A second car would be necessary, Sharma explained, if we happened upon any dacoits along the way. The ravines loomed suddenly on both sides of the road: a vast, crumbling maze of eroded earth and rock, peaks and dips, they extended more than a hundred miles. They looked to me like monumental anthills. We left our car and with some difficulty managed to climb to the top of one of them. All around us the ravines towered majestically. Their combinations of cliffs and mudbanks, camel thorn and elephant grass, tangled roots and passageways, suggested an immense beige, brown, and yellow patchwork quilt. Phoolan had told me that it took her a week just to learn to run in them—the seemingly hard earth proved to be as pliant as sand. And the undulation of the land was so extreme, the passageways so narrow, that it was impossible to know whether anyone was in the ravine beyond.

"Why does someone become a dacoit, other than prestige?" I asked Sharma after we had returned to our car and commenced speeding along the road.

He replied without hesitation, "For the majority of dacoits, land is the key: they fight for it, kill for it, die for it, in the ravines. Also, some join for reasons of revenge: if the system gives you no justice, then you take justice into your own hands. And, I am very sorry to say, many become dacoits because of the high-handedness of the police: police beatings, police inefficiency, fear of the police."

Every reason he cited applied to Phoolan.

Once we arrived in Jora, Sharma made some telephone calls. "We're in luck! We're in luck!" he shouted, as he dashed toward me across a crowded marketplace. "We will be meeting the number-two man to Mohar Singh, a most dreaded and most feared dacoit. Quickly! Quickly!"

We jumped back into our cars and careered through the marketplace and down a series of narrow dirt lanes until we arrived at Jora's rather dilapidated government guesthouse. In a matter of minutes the most dreaded and most feared Ram Charan arrived, looking, at least to me, like anything but a dacoit. A man of presence and impeccable taste, he was nattily dressed in a freshly starched white kurta pajama set off by a gray silk vest and a beige silk scarf. His hair and handlebar moustache were steel gray, and his eyes astonishingly blue. He was accompanied by a lawyer who in hushed tones relayed something in Hindi to Sharma.

"I do not believe it!" Sharma exclaimed with excitement. "Madame, you are so in luck! You are about to meet the most feared and ruthless dacoit of the Chambal ravines: Mohar Singh himself." (The most feared and ruthless was at the moment at Jora's courthouse, doing municipal business, I was told. He was now the elected headman of the village of Mehgaon.) Sharma beamed. "Can you believe it? Here in one room you will have the Chambal River Valley's chief dacoit hunter, together with the chief dacoit."

As Sharma paced up and down the room, I asked Ram Charan to tell me about the terms under which he and Mohar Singh had led more than 500 dacoits in laying down their arms, in a curious spectacle that later became known as the great dacoit surrender of 1972. Dacoity was then at its height, and some 200 gangs roamed the ravines; in their encounters with the police hundreds were being killed on both sides. Then, in a highly unorthodox experiment, Jaya Prakash Narayan, a gentle Gandhian, persuaded about forty skeptical gang leaders—including Mohar Singh, an upper-caste Gujar and a former wrestler, who led the largest of the gangs—and the even more skeptical authorities to give surrender and rehabilitation a try.

Presented by

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Video

The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

Video

Stunning GoPro Footage of a Wildfire

In the field with America’s elite Native American firefighting crew

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In