On November 21, 1923, a young British police officer filed a report to his superiors that was likely to have been met with great relief.
“I might not have been able to report at length before today but I have been exceedingly busy since we seized Sultana on the morning of the 14th,” wrote Frederick “Freddy” Young, the deputy superintendent of the Special Dacoity Police Force. For months before that, Young’s special police force had made several futile attempts to capture the notorious dacoit Sultana – “Daku Sultana”.
Operating from hideouts in the forested, marshy Kumaon region at the foothills of the Himalayas in present-day Uttarakhand, Sultana and his band of dacoits had managed to strike fear as far as Banda in Bundelkhand (in present-day Uttar Pradesh) and Punjab in the north west.
The gang was responsible for over 200 heinous crimes such as dacoity, homicide, and the loot of thousands of rupees, according to a preface to Young’s report.
But Young’s report is only one part of the story. Beyond the British administration and even after Sultana’s arrest is the story of an unlikely relationship – perhaps, even a friendship – between a dacoit and a British police officer.
A Scotsman in India
Young, a Scotsman born and raised in Edinburgh, was one of the many Europeans who travelled to the “Jewel in the Crown” in the hope of making their fortunes. He arrived on Indian shores on December 16, 1909, after having cleared the Indian Police Examination in England, says researcher NC Shah.
By 1923, Young had risen up the ladder following his exploits in the suppression of “thuggee” in Gorakhpur and the adjoining areas of Nepal between 1913 and 1919.
“Thugee”, derived from the word “thug”, refers to a ritualised form of banditry and robbery. In contemporary times, though, “thuggee” has been criticised as a colonial construct, rooted in racism and othering.
Young’s distinctive career fighting dacoity finds mention in British bureaucrat Sir Percivel Griffiths’ book To Guard My People: The History of the Indian Police. He describes an incident from 1919 – “the most spectacular in his [Young’s] service” – when the police officer had set off for a village where an armed gang was planning a dacoity the following night.
“Young and his party arrived just in time,” wrote Griffiths. “He rushed into the courtyard of the house, where the dacoits had already arrived, and was charged by a dacoit armed with a spear. Young promptly shot him down and for this and other similar episodes he was awarded a Bar to the King’s Police Medal.”
Young’s hunt for Sultana in Kumaon coincided with the time a hunter of man-eating leopards and tigers was walking through the forests of the region. Hunter-conservationist Jim Corbett, in My India, writes of his encounter with Young and the hunt for Sultana.
The dacoit from a ‘criminal’ tribe
Sultana belonged to the Bhantu tribe. According to Bhantu lore, the tribe had arrived in Katehar – as Uttar Pradesh’s northwestern Rohilkhand region was called – after the downfall of Rajput king Maharana Pratap following his defeat at Haldighati in 1576.
But the British criminalised the Bhantus under the racist and draconian Criminal Tribes Act III of 1911 that ascribed criminal behaviour as hereditary – essentially, this meant that all those born into the tribes were considered criminals. This was based on the British administration’s observation of “criminal” tendencies among members of the tribe.
Corbett’s account mentioned that though the tribe had been allotted land for agriculture along the Jumna River in Meerut district, there had been little change in their behaviour. According to Corbett’s account, a government official blamed this on the norms of the community which dictated that women could only marry “successful criminals”.
A group of the Bhantu, unfortunate enough to have run into the British in the region, had been locked up in the then-vacant Rohilla Fortress of Patthargarh at Najibabad in Uttar Pradesh. Many of the so-called criminal tribes, like the Bhantus, were thus confined and contained in these settlements in an effort to wean them away from their traditional ways. British missionaries also played a crucial role in confining and restricting the movements of the Bhantus. These settlements later became known as Salvation Army settlements.
Sultana, at some point, managed to scale the mud walls of the crumbling fort and escape to the nearby jungles stretching between the Shivaliks and Terai: a vast tract of forested area known as the Bhabar that ran along the foothills of the Himalayas. The Bhabar was also Jim Corbett’s backyard. He had traversed these areas on foot extensively during the course of his hunting.
The Terai, or Terayini, soaks water running down the Himalayas to form a swampy region. Sultana found a perfect hideout in the region. He was practically invincible between 1919 and 1923 as he established his hideout in the area, gathered a formidable band of dacoits and pulled off several robberies.
The introduction of the railways played a pivotal role in increasing the range of such dacoits. The victims were usually wealthy people who ruled the rural and suburban plains, and Sultana a Robin Hood archetype of social bandit. As Corbett, writes of Sultana, “It was said of him that, throughout his career as a dacoit, he never robbed a pice from a poor man, never refused an appeal for charity, and paid twice the price asked for all he purchased from small shopkeepers.”
Manhunt by night
But by 1923, the British administration had decided that it was time to quash this unruly brigandry. A Special Dacoity Police Force of 300 personnel was put together. Young was a part of it, along with Commissioner of Kumaon Percy Wyndham and Corbett too.
The Special Dacoity Police Force was trained in the ways of the jungle of operating in secrecy and the dark, but as a Kumaoni proverb in those parts says, “Sooraj sarkari deota ujalli” – the government rules by day, but the night belongs to the gods.
It was virtually impossible to catch Sultana in daylight. “Sultana had organised his followers on paramilitary lines and had developed a highly efficient intelligence service which made it extremely difficult for Young’s men to carry out surprise raids or to approach Sultana’s camp without being seen by the sentinels posted round it,” wrote Griffiths.
In one such case at Ramnagar, Sultana’s spies managed to inform him about the movements of Young and the police force, foiling a perfectly laid trap. The police force’s best bet, thus, was under the starlit skies in the company of man-eating tigers and leopards.
A few days after the Ramnagar escape, in March 1923, during yet another hot pursuit, Young managed to locate Sultana’s hiding place deep in the jungles of Najibabad. Young, with Corbett and 50 members of his armed police force, set out in the dark of the night to end Sultana’s reign of terror.
Braving shoulder-high elephant grass and a marshy terrain, they crawled up to the vicinity of the Bhantu encampment. But a misfired musket by one of the policemen put an end to that plan. However, one dacoit had been shot dead.
Sultana and his band fled. They had camped merely 200 yards from the spot, fled. They left behind a cache of loot and most of their weapons. However, the dacoity force did not make much headway in the following months. GS Lambert, the chief secretary to the government of the United Provinces, reported that the monsoon conditions in the jungle had circumscribed the activities of the force.
A meeting and a peace offering
By then, the band and its leader had grown anxious. Their numbers were down to a mere 40. Young sensed that it was a good time to get Sultana to surrender. A meeting was called in an open field.
Young was the lone representative from his entourage at the meeting table, seated opposite the dacoit. Sultana offered Young a watermelon, while warning him against endangering his life.
Sultana told Young that on the day of the raid in Najibabad, he and a few of his gang members had sat on the canopy of a banyan tree watching Young’s party make their way through the forest. The group had been within fatal range of Sultana’s rifle, a shot that he did not take in a display of respect and admiration.
“Had the sahib who was trying to climb the bank succeeded in doing so, it would have been necessary to shoot the three of you,” Sultana said, according to Corbett’s account. However, Sultana was not sympathetic to Young’s demand for an unconditional surrender. A stalemate ensued.
As the monsoon gave way to a cold winter, the Terai-Bhabar experienced shorter days and longer nights. The swelling rivers calmed, engulfing the area in fog. As birds migrated to the Himalayas and rogue elephants fed on the sugarcane crop, tigers emerged from the jungles in search of prey.
It was at this point in mid-November when another source informed Young about the location of Sultana’s encampment at a cattle station down the Ganga. The very next day, Young, together with 25 members of his special duty force, flanked by Wyndham, Corbett, and his cousin JS Bingley, embarked on another trek on a moonlit night. Since their sole objective was to catch Sultana alive, most of the policemen were armed with batons.
The party braved the roaring rapids of the river. They crossed at a point where the stream narrowed and trekked several miles, only to find that the Sultana was not to be found. Then, in a dramatic turn of events, Young’s informers told him on November 12 that the dacoit was actually a mile ahead of his previous camp, in a village known as Gaindi Khatta.
Young and his forces made the journey again, “As the crow flies, we had some 14 miles to cover but, what deviations to avoid villages and following jungle tracks in the impenetrable gloom of sal forest,” Young wrote in his report. They made their way through difficult terrain inhabited by wild elephants, travelling 20 miles, where they met Young’s informer.
On the way, three of the European members of the group contracted hay fever. Plumes and pollen from the tall grass was to blame, wrote Corbett.
The last stand
When the group finally arrived at the location, they were informed that Sultana and his gang were out on another dacoity. The last leg of chase appeared imminent.
“It is a well-established fact that neither the Bhantu community nor the public nor, for the matter, my own men ever expected that Sultana would be captured alive and without an expenditure of some lives on any side,” Young wrote.
Yet again, as Young’s group approached the dacoit’s hideout, they disturbed a cattleshed close by, causing the herd to scatter noisily. But luck was on Young’s side that night. “I decided to try to take Sultana, whoever was with him, as the day was one of good omen being my cousin’s birthday,” he wrote.
In an anti-climactic end to months of a cat-and-mouse chase, Sultana was finally apprehended while his group was resting by the fireside, with not a shot fired.
Rebel, dacoit or hero?
Sultana and the three members his gang detained on November 14, 1923, were lodged in Haldwani Jail. The dacoit was found guilty of murder and dacoity and was executed by hanging on July 7, 1924.
Corbett was critical of Sultana’s arrest as well as of the dacoit being shackled. “I could have wished that justice had not demanded that Sultana be exhibited in manacles and leg-irons, and exposed to ridicule from those who trembled at the mere mention of his name while he was at liberty,” he wrote.
As for Young, he was bequeathed the responsibility of Sultana’s wife and his son. For his heroics, Young was anointed with the title of Companion of the Indian Empire. He retired in 1944 and died four years later in Bhopal, where he served as the inspector general (jail). His grave is in the Bairagarh Cemetery in the company of 139 Italian prisoners from the Second World War.
Sultana’s legacy and lore
Sultana and his exploits inspired a rich lore. He was never given the chance to tell his side of the story, but his life has been the subject of films and books in Indian languages and English, such as Ken Annakin’s The Long Duel (1967) and Sujit Saraf’s fictional retelling of his confessions to an English officer.
But his story has also survived in popular lore and nautanki, or folk theatre, which remember him as an anti-colonial figure who resisted the system.
What also endures are stories of the mutual admiration and respect that Sultana shared with Young. Young went on to file a petition for Sultana’s clemency, which was rejected. Hindustani lore says Young even adopted Sultana’s dog, named Rai Bahadur, which was a title bestowed by the British.
It is difficult to categorise figures such as Sultana as either heroes or villains but the challenges he posed to both the British and Indian ruling classes were an example of a social agitation that were often the only means of survival for people from marginalised communities.
For instance, members of the so-called criminal tribes were subjected to severe supervision and exceptional constraints. Children were frequently taken away from their parents. The men were made to register their fingerprints.When there was a crime, they were often the first to be caught and frequently accused without any real evidence.
These complexities were not lost on Corbett, who poignantly wrote of Sultana’s legacy and execution. “ I could also have wished that he had been given a more lenient sentence, for no other reasons than that when power was in his hands, he had not oppressed the poor; that when I tracked him to the banyan tree, he spared the lives of my friends. And finally, that he went to his meeting with Freddy, not armed with a knife or a revolver, but with a watermelon in his hands.”
The draconian Criminal Tribes Act was scrapped shortly after independence in 1949, and the Bhantu community was categorised as a denotified tribe. But even today, they battle extreme social exclusion and discrimination, as do others who bear the burden of this label.
Roshan Abbas is a student of history at Jamia Millia Islamia.