Dacoits are outlaws who mostly commit robberies, kidnappings and murders. The deep ravines of Chambal have been home to many such bandits, though dacoits also exist in other parts of India. In the Chambal region, feudal lifestyles persist and oftentimes, the oppressed have no choice but to become baagis. Despite the idea of dacoits being rebels, most of them stayed firmly entrenched in beliefs of caste and region, and received support from such groups.
1. Maan Singh
Maan Singh’s active years lasted from pre-Independence to post-Independence; from 1935 to 1955, he had to his name 1,112 robberies and 185 murders (32 of which were police officers). Descended from a line of Rathore Rajput kings, Maan Singh operated in the Chambal region along with his sons, his brother and his nephews. Singh was often referred to as a ‘Robin Hood’ figure as he was helpful to the local populace. Even with a bounty on his head, he was seen talking to crowds of people. In 1955, he and his son, Subedar Singh, were shot dead by Gurkha troops while resting under a banyan tree. Today, Maan Singh is worshipped at a temple in Khera Rathore.
2. Paan Singh Tomar
Paan Singh Tomar became a dacoit due to a land dispute; before that he was a subedaar with the Bengal Engineers at Roorkee. After he joined the army, he became interested in steeplechase running though he hadn’t had any interest in sports before. He was the national champion in steeplechase for seven years. His record of 9 minutes and 4 seconds in the 3,000 meter steeplechase remained unbroken for 10 years. After early retirement, when Tomar returned to his village he got into a land dispute (over his own land) with Babu Singh, who went on to assault Tomar’s 95-year-old mother. Tomar ended up killing Babu and became a dacoit. He was killed along with 10 members of his gang by a police team of 60 officers.
3. Phoolan Devi
Born into a poor family of the mallah caste, Phoolan Devi was married off at a young age to a man 12 years her senior, but the young Phoolan was a tempestuous creature who raised hell at her in-laws place and ran away twice. After the second time, the in-laws asked her parents to keep her with them. At 16, she was sent to her husband’s place but she came home again and her in-laws refused to take her back. She soon fell in with a gang of bandits and went to her husband’s house, stabbed him and left him bleeding on the road. The gang she was part of saw a clash between thakurs and mullahs; Phoolan was held captive for 3 weeks and raped by several men. In retaliation, Phoolan killed 22 thakur men after reuniting with her gang. In 1983, she surrendered, and in 1996, she joined politics. On 25 July, 2001, she was shot dead by 3 masked men outside her Delhi bungalow.
4. Jagjivan Parihar
Jagjivan Parihar had killed the head of Brahmin family in Chorela village in UP; after that, he joined dacoit Salim Gujjar’s gang. However, differences soon arose between the two and Parihar started his own gang. Before that, he had also worked as an informant for the Madhya Pradesh police. Parihar was a real challenge for the local police because he received support from the thakur community, which is a big political force in the Gwalior-Bhind region. The thakurs supported Parihar because he had an anti-Brahmin view and stood against the gujjars. He had announced that he would kill 101 Brahmins. In March of 2007, Parihar was killed in an encounter which lasted hours. An informant had given up his location to the police; a gun battle ensued, after which the police used hand grenades and fire to ensure the bandits were dead before going in. An inspector also died in the exchange of fire.
5. Putli Bai
Putli Bai was the first documented woman dacoit of India. She was a dancing girl who was abducted by Sultana Daku and then returned. Under pressure by police to act as an informant, Putli Bai went back to the dacoit. However, she ended up falling in love with him and bearing him two children. When Sultana was killed by the authorities, Putli quarreled with and shot the man who took charge. She then became the leader of the gang herself. For three years she operated in the Chambal region and was wanted on a number of charges, including kidnapping, murder and looting; she struck terror into people’s hearts when she killed 11 people, kidnapped 7 and wounded 5 in one night as she suspected the villagers in Datia had informed the police about her. She was shot dead along with her lover Kalla Gujjar as they tried to cross a river to escape from a police hunt outside the village of Chati, around 150 miles south of New Delhi.
6. Malkhan Singh
Malkhan Singh, who went on to become a reformed dacoit of Chambal, became a baghi when the sarpanch of his village captured temple land. When Singh opposed him, the sarpanch had him arrested and had his close friend killed. The sarpanch was related to a minister and the police wouldn’t go against him. Singh, in retaliation, became a dacoit and flaunted his AK 56 in the face of the police. In 1982, Malkhan and his gang surrendered before Chief Minister Arjun Singh. After their release, he and many of his gang members were given bhoodan lands to help them live peaceful lives. After ‘retiring’ from dacoity Singh started running successful panchayat polls, as nobody would stand up against him. In 2014, he campaigned for Narendra Modi saying that he had become a dacoit during the Congress’ reign.
7. Rambabu and Dayaram Gadariya
Rambabu and Dayaram Gadariya were brothers who became infamous dacoits; their gang was called Gang T1 – Target One – by the Madhya Pradesh police. This gang was known to operate in such secrecy that police could never get a certain estimate of their numbers. The gang was founded in either 1997 or 1998 by Raghubir Gadariya after his wife left him for a man from Dabra, near Gwalior. Raghubir killed his wife and her lover and started the gang with his nephews Rambabu, Dayaram, Vijay, Pratap and Gopal. In December 1999, Raghubir was killed along with three others. In April 2000, members of the gang were captured by the police; in March 2001, during a jail transfer, gang members boarded the bus, threw chilli powder in the eyes of the cops and left with the captured members. Dayaram was killed in an encounter in August 2006, while Rambabu was killed in April 2007.
8. Sultana Daku
Sultana Daku’s story is hidden in layers of lore. The man who terrorized the United Provinces (Uttar Pradesh) in the 1920s was born in the Muslim bhantu clan of criminals. He was a dashing dacoit who named his horse Chetak (after Maharana Pratap’s horse) and operated on a code of honor. There are many tales of his sexual prowess, one of which even claims that an English girl fell madly in love with the notorious dacoit. He was the one who abducted a dancing girl named Phulkanwarn, who then went on to become Putli Bai. A pain in the side of the British, he was loved by the locals. There are stories of him looting the trains of the Raj and distributing the loot among the poor. He was captured by the British and sentenced to hanging. A young officer, Freddie Young, tried his hardest to have Sultana pardoned but to no avail. Sultana then asked Young to raise his son as a ‘sahib’; Young kept his word and sent the boy to England for his education. On 7 July, 1924, Sultana was sent to the gallows.
9. Nirbhay Gujjar
With a weakness for women and not much else, Nirbhay Singh Gujjar, also known as ‘Baagi’, raised himself into an alternative form of government for nearly 40 villages in the Chambal area. He had a price of Rs 2.5 lakh on this head when he was gunned down by police officers on 8 November, 2005. He was well-known not only for his criminal cases but also for having many female dacoits on his team, such as Seema Parihar (of Bigg Boss fame), Munni Pandey, Parvati AKA Chamko, Sarala Jatav (who became leader of the gang after Nirbhay’s death for a short while) and Neelam. Most of the women became bandits after being kidnapped by the gang. He had four wives, three of which he had kidnapped and who ran away at the first chance. Interestingly, he helped historian KK Mohammed preserve the ancient Bateshwar temples in Morena from the mining mafia.
10. Seema Parihar
Born in a poor thakur family in Uttar Pradesh, Parihar was kidnapped at the age of 13 in 1983 by dacoits Lala Ram and Kusuma Nian. She went on to become a dacoit herself and in 1986 she married Nirbhay Singh Gujjar. She later returned to Lala Ram. Becming leader of her own gang, Parihar killed 70 people, kidnapped 200 and robbed 30 houses. In 2000, she surrendered to the UP police. Showing an interest in politics she supported Shiv Sena in the UP Legislative Assembly elections in 2002; in 2006 she joined the Indian Justice Party; in January 2008 she was with the Lok Janshakti Party and by October 2008 she had joined the Samajwadi Party. She starred in a movie on her life called ‘Wounded – The Bandit Queen’ and appeared on popular TV show ‘Bigg Boss’.
Born Shiv Kumar Patel, Dadua became a dacoit when at the age of 22 he walked up to a man in his own house and shot him twice in the forehead, as revenge for killing his father. An hour later, on 16 May 1978, Dadua was arrested for the first and last time. After being released, Dudua joined Raja Ragoli’s gang and learned a lot from the second-in-command Gaya Kurmi. When others were either arrested or killed, Dadua formed his own gang at the advice of Kurmi. It was Gaya Kurmi who taught Dadua the importance of fighting along caste lines and Dadua retained the good will of the kurmi community. In 1986, suspecting a man, Shambhu Singh, of being a police informer, Dadua executed 9 people by torturing them – their eyes were gouged, fingers cut off and body parts burned till they died. Dadua later tried to bring his family members into politics. On 22 July, 2007, he was shot along with other gang members in an encounter by the police.
12. Anisa Begum
Anisa Begum gained notoriety due to the skill with which she handled almost any weapon. She was known to be proficient in wielding lathis, shooting guns and handling knives and daggers. She was born in Rampura village in Jalaun district. However, apart from that not much is known about her background or how she got involved in dacoity. What is known is that she was a part of Saleem Gujjar’s gang but then left him and formed a gang of her own. She commanded respect from her gang members as she was known to never miss a target. She is known for having committed many robberies in the length and breadth of both Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. With her motto being ‘Have weapon, will strike’, so great was the fear she inspired in people that the mere mention of her name was enough to get crowds to scatter.
13. Sarla Jatav
Sarla Jatav was to Nirbhay Gujjar’s gang what Yoko Ono was to The Beatles; she is blamed for tearing the gang apart. Ever since Nirbhay had laid his eyes on (then underage) Sarla, he had been besotted by her. The dreaded bandit had broken into her house to kill her father when Sarla was 11 years old. Taking one look at the child he had offered to spare the father’s life if he handed Sarla over. The father obliged. Nirbhay was first married to Munni Pandey (who eloped with another gang member and was shot dead for her troubles) and later to Neelam Gupta. But as Sarla grew, Nirbhay started an affair with her. To hide it, he married her off to 16-year-old Shyam Jatav, whom he had kidnapped and then raised. But jealousies grew and the fame of Sarla’s beauty spread. Nirbhay tried to broker a surrender but the deal fell through. He then helped Sarla escape and informed the rest that she had died of a snakebite. Clad in jeans and over-sized Raybans, Sarla was recognized by police informers and was arrested.