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THE WORLD

Bandits Give Up a Life of Crime for a Clean Slate and Fishing Pole

In India's Assam state, a group of ex-thugs forms a nongovernmental organization, applies for aid and joins a work and housing cooperative.

July 22, 2003|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

Two years ago, Talukdar's oldest daughter, then 7, begged him to stay home. "She understood what I was up to. She said: 'Dad, don't go away, leaving us like this. Why don't you stay?' "

At that point, he said, he realized that the violence was out of control.

He described how, while robbing a tea plantation two years ago, the manager's wife had little cash, so he decided to kidnap her young son for ransom. Her shrieks of sorrow seemed to tear open the air, he said. Stirrings of mercy tugged at his heart.

"She was screaming at the top of her voice and pleading over and over again," recalled the man who said he usually felt nothing during robberies.

He thought of his own children. He left the boy behind. After that, he began to lose his stomach for the job.

Also wearing was the rising death toll in shootouts -- for both the dacoits and the police.

"We tried to cut their menace using raids and arrests. But we saw the number of dacoitys [cases of banditry] going up, not down," said Pranab Goswami, the deputy superintendent of police in Karimganj district. He tried approaching Muslim leaders in villages, asking them to persuade the bandits to surrender, but that failed.

Finally, police offered the informal amnesty: If the bandits gave up crime, outstanding charges would be dropped.

Mia's gang surrendered en masse last year.

Talukdar was more cautious. One afternoon last summer he announced that he was going to buy supplies, left, and never returned to his bandits. The gang -- which includes his brother -- remains active.

But one question remained: Now that they were no longer engaged in banditry, how would these men earn a living?

It was the local police chief superintendent, Anurag Agrwal, who takes credit for coming up with the NGO idea. Mia, the former gang leader, seized on it and brought his gang of 20 along.

The Indian government sees NGOs as a safe way to extend small amounts of credit: Because each participant offers something to the loan pool, peer pressure almost eliminates defaults.

In the bandits' NGO, Mia contributed his land for cultivation, and four members have been given houses by the state. The group also set up a fishing business on a nearby river.

Talukdar now makes about $86 a month fishing. It's less than a fifth of what he took home as a bandit, but he's more careful how he spends money these days.

"I've left that old life behind," he said. "I never think about it now."

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