A world away from Delhi weddings lives Madhya Pradesh’s Sansi tribe. Accused by police of robbing marriages in the Capital, using children, the tribe that has long borne ‘criminal’ tag has receded into silence
THE Delhi Police recently attributed 18 cases of wedding thefts committed in the Capital and around to a 12-year-old, from a village in Madhya Pradesh, ‘signed over’ by his mother to a gang for a Rs 2-lakh contract. At the village, just 140 km from Bhopal, all signs of that boy, the mother and the contract are now shrouded in silence.
‘House No. 559, Sukhi Sevania, Vidisha Road’, the address mentioned in the ‘iqrarnama’ or contract letter that the police seized, does not exist. Villagers accept the four men arrested along with the juvenile belong to Gulkhedi and neighbouring Karondi village, but claim they have never heard of the boy. A schoolteacher admits she knows about all the five, but is afraid to speak. A government employee says the brother of one of the gang members is a doctor, but refuses to reveal more. Gulkhedi deputy sarpanch Premkishore Bhaleriya talks about the four men being brought to Gulkhedi by the Delhi Police before clamming up, “I won’t talk much.”
“If I tell you anything about the mother or the gang, the community will punish me,” says the schoolteacher, in her 30s. This isn’t the first case of theft where police have come looking for suspects from this area. “There have been so many visits, we have lost track,” says Rajgarh SP Himani Khanna.
“Nearly 70 per cent of bag-lifting cases in the country are traced to Gulkhedi and Kadia,” says Pachor Police Station in-charge Yuvraj Singh Chouhan. “Police teams from Punjab, Maharashtra, Delhi, Haryana, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat have come here, as well as from Indore and Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh.”
Other officials say that most such cases of theft involve men from here but, increasingly, children are being hired from other places. Earlier, they used their own children for the crimes but now they have started getting them from Rajasthan, says a government officer who doesn’t want to be named.
Children are used for thefts, officials say, as they can move about without drawing suspicion, and even if caught, are sent to juvenile centres from where it is easier to come out. Almost all the accused from the Gulkhedi gram panchayat, including Gulkhedi, Karondi and Karadi villages, belong to the Sansi tribe. Some of the accused also belong to Hulkhedi village. Many members of the tribe have now become doctors or teachers, and joined the police, but the stigma of being part of a community that was a notified criminal tribe in British times remains.
Police officers talk about how once, a stolen diamond belonging to a leading business family from Chhattisgarh was traced here. “While police succeeded in getting the diamond, they drew a blank on who stole it,” says Rajiv Chaturvedi, the Sub-Divisional Police Officer, Narsinghgarh. “If two members of a four-member gang spill the beans about the crime, the remaining two or their family members approach the tribe panchayat, which slaps a monetary fine on the others for speaking out,” he adds. Sarpanch Jugnu Sisodiya, however, denies there is any such fine.
A senior member of the Neev Social Welfare Association, an NGO that works closely with Sansis, also talks about their deep suspicion of outsiders. “Even though I belong to the same tribe, it takes me a long time to glean information from them,” he says, refusing to be identified. A resident of Kadia says even if the men are caught, getting out isn’t difficult. The gangs have lawyers in different cities, he claims.
While there has been no special drive by the government to wean the tribe away from crime, since last year, they have started felicitating meritorious students. Two such felicitation ceremonies have been held so far. Says a 43-year-old government employee working in Gulkhedi and Kadia, who too doesn’t want to be named, “We have managed to bring positive changes and enrolled more than 90 per cent children in schools.”
There is one government school each in Gulkhedi, Kadia and Hulkhedi villages. Pachor has 27 private and government schools in all, primary, secondary and higher secondary. However, the official admits that the government has failed in providing the educated youth jobs. There are no factories in the area, forcing most to depend on farms that are shrinking in size.
District Collector Tarun Pithode, who attended the recent function to honour meritorious students in Gulkhedi, says things are changing but “not at the rate they should”. The Congress MLA from Narsinghgarh, Girish Bhandari, in whose constituency the villages are located, talks of Sansi “unity” ensuring that few crimes can be traced back to the villages. Only when stolen goods belong to “high-profile people” do police put pressure and there is a trade-off, he adds. “If the goods are returned, no one is arrested and no case is filed. If there is an arrest, nothing is returned.” He also accuses the police of accepting bribes to look the other way.
The social worker accuses police of “exaggerating” the fears around the Sansi tribe. “They paint a scary picture and dissuade police from other states from going there.”SDPO Chaturvedi, however, points out that police are also treading on thin ground. They go in with no information at all, he says. The villagers struggling to throw off the taint, however, say the only reason crime is an attractive option is lack of jobs.
Sarpanch Jugnu Sisodiya, who belongs to the Sansi tribe, also points out, “Not more than 10 per cent of the population is engaged in crimes.” Incidentally, police admit that while many accusations are levelled at the tribe, there is no official figure on how many of its members are behind bars or in juvenile detention. Dr R C Sisodiya is perhaps the most famous Sansi. Having studied medicine in the mid-1970s, he now lives in Bhopal. At the time he was doing his MBBS, 90 per cent of his fellow tribe members lived in jungles “to avoid being caught”, he recalls. “The community elders were involved in prostitution, dacoity and robberies. I spent nearly 40 years trying to wean them away from crime. Now they have ‘modified’ their modus operandi and started pushing children into thefts. What future can such a community have?”
Not far from Pachor Police Station, illegal liquor shops do thriving business on both sides of the road at Gulkhedi. The houses here are big, with vehicles parked outside most of them. One such shop is owned by deputy sarpanch Bhaleriya, who admits what he does openly. “What’s wrong with selling illegal liquor at cheap rates? It’s much better than committing crimes,” he argues. Bhaleriya asks what youths are supposed to do, given that “there are no jobs”.
Ramesh Chhayal, who runs a liquor shop, says he was involved in bag-lifting earlier. “I gave it up two decades ago at 18. I had no other skill. I sell liquor and I am proud of it,” he says.
Chhayal even wonders aloud whether complainants in the wedding theft cases traced to Sansis are not “exaggerating the value of jewellery and money”. “Why do you flaunt it? Do you really need to show it off?” he asks.