They once ruled the Chambal ravines in all their bandit glory, but now they fear the land they dearly love is slowly dying. They are concerned over the reduced jungle cover, amid reports of the government wanting to flatten the ravines to turn them into farmlands.
On the eve of International Day of Forests on Sunday, erstwhile bandits who ruled Chambal — Seema Parihar, Balwant Singh Tomar, Renu Yadav, Pancham Singh, Munna Singh Mirdha, even a Gabbar Singh, and over a dozen lesser known dacoits — gathered in Jaipur to reminisce, and to tell the government that they wish to protect their land, as, they all said, people back home still respect their word.
“When we were farar (wanted), not a single leaf used to move without our permission,” said former dacoit Balwant Singh Tomar, nephew of the more famous Paan Singh Tomar. “Nobody tried to encroach on the land or cut trees. But today, there is no forest. Chambal is our mother. If government wants, it can allot regions to each of us to protect. We promise, not a leaf will be removed, like it used to be before,” Tomar said, before limping back to his chair with the help of a stick.
Dacoit-turned-sanyasi Pancham Singh recounted how he had burnt one of his men alive for “misbehaving” with a woman, to imply a sense of morality among dacoits, something he said lacks today which is affecting Chambal. “I have witnessed daku-satta, raj-satta and now dharm-satta (dacoit-rule, government-rule and now religion-based rule). Dacoits were united, and being united means you can move mountains and end corruption. Dacoits weren’t corrupt like people today are,” he said. Singh, meanwhile, is said to be responsible for over a 100 killings, but that was long ago.”
“I had surrendered in 1972 with 550 men and even today, around 200 are alive. If government wants, we can stop the cutting down of trees. I cannot take responsibility of the entire nation. The government should just demarcate the boundary and permit us,” he said, before cutting into a reflection: “We used to rule 25 districts, we decided MLAs in three days, and sarpanch in two days.”
Former dacoit Renu Yadav, who was freed in 2012 after spending “7 years, 3 months and 15 days in prison”, urged all to plant trees and extended her support to the campaign. State general secretary of Gau Raksha Dal, Yadav had last been in news around 2014 Lok Sabha for her proximity to Samajwadi Party leaders. At 28, she was the youngest former dacoit present Sunday, while most others are of ripe old age.”
“It is possible that even farmers do not know about forests, as much as we, the former dacoits, know about them. Because, in our lives as dacoits, we only had the shade of a tree. We didn’t have a proper roof over us then. Be it summers or winters, it was our house,” said former bandit Seema Parihar. “Forests used to be so green and dense, our heart never wanted to leave, and we were surrounded by animals and plants. But Chambal forests are not even two per cent of what they were a few decades ago,” she said. “The government makes huge promises. But has their huge apparatus prevented cutting down trees in Chambal? I would request them to give us responsibilities and we promise to show results in six months,” she said.
“Please forgive my sins,” declared a real former dacoit, Gabbar Singh – who shares name with the fictional character from Sholay – with folded hands. “It was said I cut arms of people or made women dance, I have never done such a thing,” he said sincerely. “Under the watch of certain politicians, trees are being cut rampantly and illegal (sand) mining is being carried out. This has to stop.”
The former dacoits were brought together by RSS swayamsewak Vishnu Lamba, who runs an organisation Shree Kalptaru Sansthan. Lamba said that the Sunday event had been nearly a year in the making.
Jaipur MP Ramcharan Bohra, also present on the occasion, said that he will communicate their wishes to the Chief Minister as well as the Prime Minister. “The emotions of the former dacoits should be respected and I believe each of them should be allotted some responsibility towards conservation of forests,” he said.
Rajasthan’s Principal Chief Conservator of Forests S S Chaudhary said that the state will formally hold discussions with the former dacoits but said any real result requires the involvement of Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, as Chambal region falls in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.”
“The governments initiated several steps, such as ravine reclamation project in 1988, aerial seeding in 1985, but the results were poor. Now maybe something can surely be worked out by the three states, along the lines of tri-state National Chambal Sanctuary for conservation of gharials,” he said, pointing out fears of dacoits about Chambal ravines being flattened by the government. Last year, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan had reportedly placed a proposal before the Union government to turn them into farmlands.