February 13, 2021 4:37:03 am
In most things in life, context is king. The fictional Sheriff of Nottingham, for example, would be unlikely to see Robin Hood as the charming anarchist-socialist archetype that he has become but, rather, as a disruptor of peace and order who waged war against the county. Closer home, decades of Hindi cinema, both mainstream and more serious, has told tales of the dacoits of the Chambal Valley. And even when they are at their villainous worst — a la Gabbar Singh in Sholay — the police had little to do with bringing them in. They arrived, in the films of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, as an epilogue, long after the climax was over. Now, the real-life police are keen to correct that perception.
The Bhind police in Madhya Pradesh has decided to set up a museum focussed on the dacoits of the Chambal Valley. In addition to artefacts like the gun used by Phoolan Devi and a tape recorder used by Nirbhay Gujjar, the museum will house “at least 2,000 digitised police records and material compiled over the past five decades chronicling the crimes of murder, loot and kidnapping carried out by these bandits. The Chambal region became infamous in the country due to these deeds”, according to Bhind SP Manoj Kumar Singh.
Among the reasons why the character of Robin Hood is such an abiding figure and why some of the dacoits of Chambal Valley enjoyed popular support — Phoolan Devi was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1999 — is that their criminality occurred in a context which made it possible for many to read it as an assertion against injustice. Poverty, caste, and the violence against women contributed to making them, in fact and in fiction, appealing figures. Of course, their violence had victims. And the narrative of exaggerated heroism must be challenged. But the police version, perhaps, does not tell the full story.
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