Daku Raja becomes
MOTHER TERESA may need three miracles and a five-year-long observation period before the Pope can proclaim her a saint, but in the Chambal Valley in Uttar Pradesh, notorious for its breed of dreaded dacoits, sainthood comes easy. Man Singh, the archetypal dacoit of the Chambal ravines and a thorn in the flesh of the police in the 1940s and 50s, has been deified and has a temple to his name.
His side-kick, Roopa, a
Brahmin-turned-dacoit, also has a temple to his name not far away. Both
the temples are similar in design and architecture to any other North
Indian temple, complete with a rising shikhara, the portico and
the inner sanctum sanctorum. The deity at the altar is not
any of the 33 crore Hindu gods and goddesses but a handle-bar mustached
man with a gory criminal record. People in and around the Chambal Valley
walk long distances just to bow before these marble busts in the temple
and seek their blessings. Man Singh, the legendary dacoit of yesteryear,
ran amok in the Chambal region long before Phoolan Devi landed on the
scene and stole his thunder. The police had registered over 100 cases
against him, ranging from kidnapping to murder, until he was shot dead
in 1955 in an encounter in Bhind, (MP). However, for the people of this
region he is up there among the pantheon of Hindu gods, fit to be
revered. The temple not only has regular arti but has a full-time
pundit to conduct the rituals.
Dacoits were described as bagis (a romanticised label for a dacoit) literally meaning a rebel. But they were more than just rebels. They plundered at will and kidnapped for ransom. Villagers, however, credit them with virtues like morality, valour and courage.
"They were not dacoits. They were bagis. They helped us in the times of need", says Ravinder, a villager. This is just as well. Man Singh and other big dacoits of the 1950s carry a Robinhood image for the people of the Chambal area. Local legend puts them down as heroes and men of valour. Villagers maintain Man Singh and his men did not plunder and rob indiscriminately. Like the legendary Prince of Thieves,Man Singh was said to loot the rich and distribute the goodies to the needy. If any poor farmer faced any problem, especially in raising funds for the marriage of his daughter, Man Singh was said to step in and make the necessary arrangements. The villagers have not forgotten this philanthropy even if it was their grandparents who benefited from it.
"They were men who fought for the family honour. They are bagis. There is no difference between a bagi and a sadhu", says Dipankar, a Chambal resident who says he regularly comes to worship at the Man Singh temple.
Family honour and prestige were (and still are) two very sensitive issues in the Chambal belt. Even a minor misunderstanding leads to a feud between families that can pass from one generation to the next. Upholding the family honour is top priority and there are people who do not flinch from shedding blood for it.
Man Singh was one of them. He had turned bagi — after eliminating five Brahmins in order to avenge his brother’s insult. Most dacoits of Chambal had turned bagis after they had killed someone in a property dispute or family feud. These bagis were outlawed but respected by their communities because they stood up for their family prestige. This is another reason why the dacoits of yore are deified in their villages today.
While glorifying Man Singh and his ilk, the residents here hold the contemporary dacoits in utter contempt. They say the present-day dacoits in Chambal are mere mercenaries whose only aim is to make money. "Man Singh was not after money but honour. He only demanded money from the rich and shared it with the poor", says another villager.
Man Singh’s descendants take great pride in counting the members of their family who became bagis and the number of people they killed in the name of family honour. The more the number of people, the more superior they feel. Man Singh’s grandson, Jandail Singh, 78, not only worships his grandfather in the temple but he started his life stepping into his shoes. From 1953 to 1963, Jandail Singh was behind bars for hobnobbing with the outlaws. Twirling his thick white moustache (that he grows like Man Singh), he says that many of his cousins and all his four uncles were bagis. Naresh Singh, Man Singh’s 61-year-old great-grandson, says he never saw his father because he was a bagi and he presumes the police have killed him.
Despite being on the run,
Man Singh had the mandate of the people. He virtually decided important panchayat
matters from the deep recesses of the Chambal ravines and forests.
Along with his lieutenant, Roopa Singh, he governs their hearts and