India's Bandit Queen

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

Our conversation was interrupted by chaos outside the guesthouse, as a group of children began to cheer amid the screeching of tires. It was a powerful image when Mohar Singh and his entourage entered the guesthouse: the guns, the waxed moustaches, the gold jewelry, and on their foreheads bright red tilak marks, emblazoned by a priest at a nearby temple where they had earlier been. Silently Mohar Singh, a tall man of muscular build, magnificently moustached, surveyed the room. Only his obviously dyed black hair and moustache betrayed his sixty-two years. A rifle hung from his shoulder; he wore a Rolex watch, a gold bracelet, and many rings of gold. His white kurta pajama was topped by a black waistcoat. With his swiftly darting black eyes he immediately located Sharma in the room. The two men, who had attempted to kill each other many times, stared at each other awkwardly. Then they embraced. After a bit of confusion over where everyone would sit, Mohar Singh selected a chair on the far side of the room, with his back to the wall. With a sweep of his large ringed hand he instructed me to take the chair to his right.

Once again he studied us all. He had not yet uttered a word. Then he turned to me and said, "I have murdered more than four hundred men."

"He had the largest reward ever offered in the history of India on his head," Sharma added. Mohar Singh looked around the room and then he smiled.

The reward had been the equivalent of $26,500. "Why was it so large?" I asked.

"Because my gang was so terrifying," Mohar Singh replied. "It was also the largest in the ravines—a hundred and twenty-five men—and altogether we committed some five hundred heinous acts."

"Such as?"

"Murder, kidnapping for ransom [his specialty], dacoity in general," he replied. "In the early days I was very fond of killing people in order to create terror in my area, and to extend my control. If I suspected that someone was a police informer, I'd kill him rather than lose my time in asking him questions. I was a very impatient young man." He paused and added, "I killed needlessly; I can say that now."

Before his surrender Mohar Singh had controlled about 180 miles of the ravines, and had been challenged by no one: he had his own army, system of justice, and government. He also had the reputation of being a bit of a Robin Hood. I asked him about that.

"Well, there's no point in robbing the poor," he said.

I asked if he had ever had women in his gang.

"Most certainly not."

"Why not?"

"I don't believe in it," he replied. "They're useless. They compromise a gang's security; they push men too much; they're not strong enough to walk fifty or sixty kilometers in a night. Many a gang has fallen, or been infiltrated, because they have had a woman in their ranks."

"What do you think of Phoolan Devi?"

He was plainly irritated, even before he spoke. "She's not a real dacoit," he said. "If it wasn't for you people in the media, no one would have ever heard of her. She's a character-loose woman." I noticed that he chose that phrase with care. "And she never had one significant encounter with the police."

Sharma, Ram Charan, and the entourage—all of whom had relished their encounters—indicated agreement by nodding their heads.

Mohar Singh had begun to fidget in his chair, and I sensed that he wanted to leave, so I asked him what he missed most about his life as a dacoit.

"That was then and this is now," he said with a hint of nostalgia in his voice. Then he answered my question: "I was the uncrowned king of the region. I miss the authority."

"But now," the king of the dacoits went on, "although I had lakhs and lakhs of rupees, I am merely the president of the Municipal Corporation of Mehgaon. But I was democratically elected; no one even stood against me." He smiled, glancing at his entourage assembled around the room, with their rifles balanced against their knees.

I asked him what his plans were, and he replied that he would be standing in elections later in the year for a seat in the state assembly of Madhya Pradesh. He was now on an election tour of sorts, he explained, to round up former members of his gang so that they could participate in his election campaign. Then he added, almost as an afterthought, that he had also recently starred in a Hindi film, The Dacoits of Chambal—playing himself. In a bustle of activity he swept out of the room, surrounded by his men.

"Will he be elected?" I asked Sharma.

He responded, "Without a doubt."

As we watched Mohar Singh drive away in a cloud of dust, I asked Ram Charan, the No. 2, if in his opinion Phoolan Devi could return to the ravines.

He thought for a moment and then said, "Vendettas are a major part of our life here. It's quite possible that if Phoolan has killed, she will be killed in return. They will find her, of that I'm sure. It's blood for blood in the ravines."

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