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Robin-Hood Tradition Lapses in India

Legendary figures get no respect as self-serving hoodlums take over. Rape and kidnapping replace traditional shakedowns of the rich.

September 26, 2004|Tim Sullivan | Associated Press Writer

RAJHOUNI, India — The old outlaw, his face worn from years of hard living, smiles when he remembers the years spent on the run, when home was a hide-out in a deep ravine and nights were spent raiding the estates of wealthy landlords.

It was a time, Bahadur Singh says, when outlaws had principles, and a man could wear the title "bandit" with pride.

"I was the law," he said, sitting on a handmade bed in his mud and thatch hut, a tiny island of comfort in a yard turning to swampland in monsoon rains. His gentle manner belies a life spent in violence, when Singh, who thinks he's about 60, was known for killing a hated local moneylender. "I became a hero, especially for the poor people."

For bandits of today, though, he has nothing but scorn. "These men, they don't care about doing good," he said. "They're just filling their stomachs."

Banditry has long been part of life in this area of north India. In stories tangled in myth and reality, Robin Hood-like men led bands of outlaws who spent decades eluding authorities in the maze of deep ravines in the area.They robbed wealthy travelers, gave money to the poor and protected the powerless from feudal landlords who still control much of the countryside.

If many stories were exaggerated, and plenty of bandits were more interested in profit than good works, they were still seen by villagers as a last resort.

But their mystique has faded, and in towns and villages along the ravines, they'll tell you that even outlaws change with time.

"These bandits, they used to have principles. They didn't touch women, they didn't bother the poor people. Today, it's just crime," said Rajesh Gupta, the top police official for the ravine-scarred region a couple hundred miles south of New Delhi.

As the old gangs have fallen apart, a new breed has taken their place, led by men who target both poor and rich, women as well as men. These days, it's as likely to be debt-burdened farmers who are kidnapped and held for ransom as rich businessmen. Rape, nearly unheard of in years past, is increasingly common.

Gupta said 10 to 15 gangs, most with just a handful of members, are left. Most live off kidnappings and extortion; many are tied to corrupt politicians who use them as enforcers and to ensure voter support. Recently, they expanded their business by "buying" people kidnapped by small-time thugs, then holding them for ransom.

The police official misses the bandits gone by, even if he knows he would have fought them as he does the new generation.

"Robin Hood was a good man, but ultimately he was committing crimes," he said, a smile on his face. "The men today, they are not Robin Hoods."

The shift has been coming for more than 30 years. In the late 1960s, the old gangs, inheritors of a tradition going back centuries, began to crumble. Police pressure increased, and the bandits' isolated world was slowly giving way to a modernizing India. In a series of surrenders organized by a pacifist group, more than 600 bandits traded their guns for lenient sentences and, sometimes, gifts of farmland.

Over the last decade, the new generation has sprouted up. Villagers, who once saw the bandits as protectors, now fear them.

Singh, given a small plot of poor quality farmland when he surrendered, lives in an isolated village so small that half a dozen bicycles count as a traffic jam. It has been a difficult life. Few crops will grow, and his sons, unable to find jobs because of their father's past, must travel far for work. He can't even afford to offer tea to visitors, an embarrassment in this part of the world.

Occasionally, Indian bandits manage to avoid such a fate.

Phoolan Devi, a poor farmer's daughter, became known as the "Bandit Queen," leading a bloody 10-year rebellion in central India after she was raped by upper-caste villagers.

Portrayed heroically in books and movies, she surrendered in the mid-1980s and was freed from prison in 1994. In 1996, she was elected to Parliament.

Returning home for lunch in 2001, she was killed, perhaps in revenge for a slaughter she had allegedly ordered two decades earlier.

Around here, though, no one has achieved such power. Sometimes the old bandits try to make their might felt anew, complaining to local officials about promises left unfilled and threatening to take up their guns again.

But few take them seriously.

That, for some, may be the most difficult thing of all.

Roop Singh (unrelated to Bahadur Singh) once belonged to a gang notorious for its shakedowns of the rich. He lived for months at a time in the ravines, sneaking into town at night to see his wife. He had many men under his command, and people were regularly killed on his word.

He's 86 now, and often walks with a cane. His thick glasses magnify his eyes to the size of tennis balls.

"Now, nobody pays attention to me," Roop Singh said.

Behind the self-pity, though, he remains a looming, imperious figure who shouts "Silence!" when a visitor tries to ask a question during his midday meal, and twirls up the ends of his mustache before allowing himself to be photographed.

Clearly, though, he mourns the fact that his day is past.

Grasping the hands of a visitor and staring into his eyes, he ends an interview by showing off a little of his English, limited to a set of stock phrases he memorized long ago.

The line is rather unexpected: "Forget me not, my dear."

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