How Peace Activists Resolved the Most Serious Dacoit Problem of Chambal


Chambal Valley is a vast region around Chambal river in Central India, spread over  parts  of three states—Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. This region became notorious during the last century  for its numerous dacoit gangs. Although they carried out robberies and kidnappings, the members of these gangs preferred to be called baghis or rebels, as many of them had taken to this path only after suffering from extreme injustice and violence themselves.

As  the terror of dacoits increased in the region the police force was increased from time to time but this at best could only get some short-term results. People said that the big landlords were in collusion with the gang-up of local powerful officials—police, patwari, pradhan—and often the police in-charge or thanedar was bribed by them to implicate several innocent people in false cases. Inequalities, oppressive system, corruption, police atrocities together with the strong spirit of protecting honor and seeking revenge that prevails in this area contributed to many people opting to become baghis. The ready availability of the option of joining one of the numerous gangs further increased this possibility. The vast ravines created by water erosion in this region provided a convenient hideout as well.

Hence a number of persons , several of them determined revenge-seekers, regularly joining the ranks of baghis created a systemic situation of continuing dacoit gangs across generations, an unending cycle of violence and revenge which created terror and obstructed progress.

In the post independence period there were conditions of hope and optimism and there was widespread respect for peaceful approach in resolving such issues, a legacy of Mahatma Gandhi. Hence several prominent social and political persons of the area kept exploring the possibility of a peaceful solution and although nothing very significant happened for some time, nevertheless this helped certain possibilities to emerge.

Meanwhile some of the baghis who had taken to this life in a fit of anger later realized that they could not accept several violent and unjust acts which were an inevitable part of this life. They came here to avenge injustice, and now in order to continue in this life, they themselves had to commit injustice. Such thoughts troubled them, and they also missed settled family life. The fact that their near and dear ones were stigmatized for their association with them also troubled them. Hence some of them had also started thinking in terms of a surrender if a good possibility emerged. A jailed baghi Tehsildar Singh  had infact written to Vinoba Bhave  , the famous disciple of Gandhi, regarding this and Vinoba sent retired army officer Yadunath Singh as his emissary to take this further. Yadunath was widely respected and  started working hard for this.

So when Vinoba came to Chambal in 1960 in the course of his unending travels, the background for surrenders had been prepared and about 20 dacoits surrendered in front of him. The government accepted this but the work was not very well coordinated between the peace activists and the government and so its impact remained limited.

The peace activists also realized that much more work was needed. They set up Chambal valley Peace Committee to which important contributions were made by highly  committed Gandhian activists like Hem Sharma, Mahavir Bhai and Subba Rao. These peace activists started settling many disputes at village level peacefully so that potential baghis could be motivated to continue normal life.

This work continued for a decade and further improved conditions for surrender. Those serving prison sentences after the initial surrender were being released for good conduct and some of them like Lokman had started helping peace activists. Again a baghi , Madho singh, took the inititive of prevailing upon another leading disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, JP or Jayapraksh Narayan, to take the lead for surrender. JP used his influence to obtain the cooperation of not just the chief ministers of three states but even the Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi . Thanks to this, this time there was much better coordination with the government.

The arrival of JP in Chambal boosted the morale of peace activists and also had a tremendous impact on the thinking of dacoits. Soon more and more dacoits were enlisting themselves for surrender in front of JP. Finally over 200 dacoits surrendered in April 1972. Most of the surrenders took place in Mahatma Gandhi Seva Ashram Jaura ,set up earlier by Subba Rao, in the presence of JP.  JP’s wife Prabhavati and the Chief Minister of MadhyaPradesh, P.C.Sethi  were also present.

This turned out to be the decisive event which led to the decline of dacoity in Chambal region. Although clashes of police with later day dacoits like Phoolan Devi  continued till just a decade back, a clear decline in the culture of baaghis and rifles can be discerned after 1972 in this region. Now the dacoity problem has become almost negligible in the Chambal region, although it continues in a different, more politicized form in some nearby areas like Bundelkhand.

The surrender of 1972 is a landmark event in the history of Chambal in which peace activists could not only manage the surrender of over 200 dacoits but also set in motion processes which led to the inevitable steady and significant decline of dacoity in the highly troubled region.

Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. His recent books include Man Over Machine ( Gandhian Ideas For Our Times) and Protecting Earth For Children.


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