- The Washington Times - Friday, November 3, 2006

ETAWAH, India — On a rainy afternoon, just a few days into the monsoon season, a tired lawyer with thinning hair stood on the courthouse veranda, wiping away sweat with a rumpled handkerchief and wondering whether business could, after so many years, be turning bad.

His client that day was a 20-year-old woman, an illiterate villager with gold hoop earrings, gentle eyes and charges that included weapons possession and attempted murder. She was, she admitted, a dacoit — a bandit — and until a few months ago was part of a gang that had kidnapped and robbed its way through the villages of northern India.

Defending bandits has always been a steady business for the lawyers of this small town, a guarantee of work in the quietest of times.

But after more than 800 years, India’s once-powerful bandits are disappearing: Hunted by aggressive police commanders, denounced by the villagers they once claimed to defend, and pushed into ever-more-hidden corners by the spread of the modern world.

Robin Hood or thug

The bandit tradition that began when emperors ruled India — a tradition tangled in myth and history, led by men who were part thug, part caste warlord and part Robin Hood — is dying.

“There is so much pressure on them now,” said the lawyer, Kumar Tiwary, who earned less than $1 for that day’s court hearing. “There are not even many bandits left.”

It’s hard to imagine they lasted this long.

Tourists mob the Taj Mahal just 50 miles to the north, and it is only a three-hour train ride to the glass-walled malls and high-tech offices that line the roads outside New Delhi, India’s capital.

But Etawah is also at the western edge of the “Chambal,” a maze of deep ravines and scrub forests that has hidden generations of outlaws. Named for a river that runs through the region, the Chambal is a place where 10-foot-deep gullies suddenly give way to gorges with 100-foot-high walls of dirt and rocks. A small army could disappear into the ravines and not be found for weeks.

Gorges and ravines

While India’s cities grow ever more modern, propelled by some of the world’s fastest economic growth, the Chambal remains poor and violent.

“It’s different here,” said Nitya Anand, a police official who insists the bandits have been nearly wiped out — but who goes nowhere without heavily armed bodyguards. “People are proud to be dacoits.”

For generations, dacoits were at the center of village life, with travelers warning of them as far back as 700 years ago. The most powerful held sway for decades, often with the open connivance of police and politicians. They made money by kidnapping landowners and robbing travelers, and earned loyalty by protecting members of their castes from raiders of rival castes.

In an area with few schools or jobs, the bandits also served as a criminal social-welfare organization: They paid for weddings and doctors’ visits, they settled village disputes, they protected the weak. In return, the villagers protected them.

‘They helped the poor’

While most stories of such Robin Hoodlike dacoits are exaggerated — much of the money taken from the rich went directly into their pockets — the old-style outlaws are remembered warmly.

“Our parents and grandparents, they raised us to believe that dacoits were good people. They helped the poor, they gave people money,” said Ram Avtar Singh, 55, a farmer walking with friends deep in the Chambal. “They were heroes.”

The most famous was Phoolan Devi, a low-caste farmer’s daughter who became internationally known as the “Bandit Queen.” Widely considered a heroine despite her 10 years of bloodshed, she surrendered two decades ago, served time in prison and became a politician before being murdered in 2001.

But the days of heroes ended in the 1970s and 1980s when more than 600 dacoits turned in their guns under increasing police pressure.

Dacoit code ignored

The remaining gangs, grown smaller, abandoned the dacoit code: Target the powerful; never harm a woman; leave the poor in peace. Today, there is only one rule: Don’t target your own caste. Everyone else — rich or poor, man or woman — is fair game.

As a result, the support network of dacoits has withered, and it is fear that now binds villagers to them.

“These men are all thugs,” said Mr. Singh, the farmer, whose village saw a local woodcutter become a powerful bandit two years ago, then quickly change into a relentless criminal, preying on nearly everyone. A year later, he was killed by police.

Few mourn him. “These bandits are like rain: Today here, and tomorrow gone,” said Mr. Singh.

The Chambal remains awash in poverty, a place of empty mud-walled homes whose residents long ago fled the poverty, where many schools remain closed because teachers fear being kidnapped, where a plow is often little more than a sharpened stick pulled by a buffalo.

Chambal is penetrated

But modern India has reached even into the Chambal. Paved roads now unravel through some ravines, and villages hidden until a few years ago behind swaying pontoon bridges can now be reached by police in minutes. Isolated hamlets now have cell phones.

Then there’s Daljeet Singh Chaudhary.

A top regional police commander, District Inspector General Chaudhary has become something of a celebrity here, and everyone from politicians to tenant farmers tells stories of his fearlessness, his honesty, and his relentless ambition to rid the Chambal of bandits. the DIG’s forces, some of whom worked openly with the bandits just a few years ago, now track them with assault rifles and electronic surveillance gear.

Inspector Chaudhary isn’t shy about proclaiming his victories.

“They have been shot, they have been arrested, they have surrendered,” he said of the dacoits. His men, he said, have killed about 30 in a little over a year, wiping out nearly every major gang.

Gangs are dying out

“Things are peaceful and there is not much movement of gangs in the ravines, and not many kidnappings,” he said. “I would say they are on the run.”

This new world — the roads, the phones, the bridges, the ambitious police commander, the angry villagers — has been devastating for the dacoits.

“At first, I had a good life,” said Sunita Pandey, the bandit waiting with Mr. Tiwary the lawyer at the courthouse. She went into the ravines when she was 15 and spent four years on the run. For an illiterate village girl, it seemed an adventure: Money, excitement, movies played on battery-powered TVs.

Everyone, including the gang’s small number of women, battled the police. “After a month, you know how to handle a gun. They’re everywhere around you, and you need to know how to use them,” she said.

But two years ago, the police began closing in, killing gang members in a series of ambushes. The teenage girl was left nearly alone. Finally she surrendered. “I was afraid,” she said. “Everybody was dying.”

A few hang on

Next to her, stood her lawyer, listening.

For years, Mr. Tiwary has heard officials promise that banditry is on the verge of extinction. Today, even he worries about his rapidly shrinking client base.

But, he said, a few will hang on.

The poverty is too great, he said, and the ravines too good a hide-out. “They’ll always be here, at least a few,” he said.

Then he sat back down on the courthouse bench, waiting with his young client for her hearing to begin.

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