The March 1 release Sonchiriya, directed by Abhishek Chaubey and co-written by Sudip Sharma, explores the lost world of the Chambal bandits. Set in 1975, the film stars Sushant Singh Rajput, Manoj Bajpayee and Ranvir Shorey as members of a dacoit gang who are torn apart due to an ethical conflict over Bhumi Pednekar’s character. At the same time, they are being chased by a ruthless police officer played by Ashutosh Rana.
One of the resources that Chaubey and Sharma relied on was a now-out-of-print book, Malkhan: The Story of a Bandit King. The book featured photographs of Chambal’s bandits taken between 1981 and 1984 by photojournalist Prashant Panjiar. Written by Kalyan Mukherjee and Brijraj Singh, the book took a holistic view of social banditry in Chambal and its surrounding areas, and focused on the life of ex-bandit Malkhan Singh, who campaigned for the Bharatiya Janata Party during two elections.
In a conversation with Scroll.in, Panjiar spoke about his experiences while working on the self-funded project and, and how it was to interact with bandits.
In 1981, Phoolan Devi was all over the news for the Behmai massacre. Her gang [had] slaughtered 22 Rajput men, following which Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister VP Singh resigned. Kalyan [Kalyan Mukherjee] [came up with] the idea of working on an academic book on social banditry. We set out for Chambal in April, relying on our own finances. Brij [Brijraj Singh] joined [us] a few months later.
After conducting multiple field trips to Chambal and meeting several families there, we realised [we needed] to meet an actual bandits’ gang to complete our book. Malkhan Singh’s gang was the most popular one – Singh had [been crowned] Dasyu Samrat [by the other gangs].
Contacting him wasn’t easy. We were operating from Bah in Agra district, which is sandwiched between the Yamuna and Chambal [rivers]. [This was where] Singh [and his gang] would take sanctuary, hiding among the locals, when they weren’t in the Chambal ravines. We tried sending messages to him through [the locals], but he kept stonewalling us.
Singh agreed to meet us once he began contemplating surrender, and decided that it was best to do it with media around. We had been fly-by-night operators in the area for almost a year and had developed a reputation for being serious guys who [weren’t there for fun]. Singh knew three journalists were looking for him. He thought we would be unbiased. So, we negotiated his surrender with the Madhya Pradesh government. In return, we got our facts and pictures.
Singh surrendered on June 17, 1982. We first [met him] almost nine months after we reached Chambal, and [remained] with his gang till the time of their surrender. We got more in-depth interviews after they were jailed.
One of the interesting things about meeting bandits for the first time was witnessing how different they were from what popular cinema had told us. Unlike the dakoo of Hindi films who wore a kurta with a bandolier on top and rode horses, these bandits did not have any horses or vehicles. They walked on foot, and wore police uniforms. Secondly, the money they made off banditry was peanuts compared to what a thief would make in the city. It was funny how this [resembled] the rural economy in general – farmers also work hard but don’t earn what they deserve.
Singh was very popular with the locals. He was the last of the traditional Chambal dacoits who would call themselves baaghi or rebels, [much like] Lakhan Singh and Sultana Daaku. His gang wasn’t a group of ordinary criminals, but was born out of the need to avenge injustice for hurt pride, like Paan Singh Tomar. Singh was loved in Chambal because of his ways – he wouldn’t drink or let his men drink, he was a champion of the poor and made temples, and his gang wouldn’t misbehave with women. If his gang encountered a woman in the ravines, they would touch her feet immediately.
Days before the surrender was scheduled, scores of people from nearby villages gathered to see Singh. The surrender [was scheduled to happen] at a neutral area, mutually agreed upon by the police and the gang. On the way, the villagers followed him, and Singh showed off his weaponry to them. Before surrendering, Singh stopped at his ancestral village in Bilao. He and his gang worshipped there, followed it up with celebratory firing, and posed for photographs. The police hung around.
On the day of the surrender, there were the three of us, Singh and his gang, and government officials [who would] talk to him and tape the conversation, [which would] be later played back to the chief minister. Singh’s father broke into tears when his son formally announced that he was handing himself over to the law. Singh was so popular that almost [everyone in] Bilao had come to see him, before he was taken to jail. When Singh got temporary parole in 1983, we accompanied him to Chambal. He met his son and daughter then.
We didn’t witness any violence [when we were] with Singh’s gang, but we did come across gunfire and dead bodies while working on the book. Alleged dacoits would be killed by police in fake encounters, like [it] happened [once] near Kanpur – I was there when Paan Singh Tomar was killed, and the dead bodies of his gang members were laid out by the police for show. That aside, the police circling a gang, cross-firing – those sorts of thing were regular.
I was 24 at the time and had developed an interest in agrarian issues after Mukherjee and I cut our teeth covering the Naxal movement in Bihar’s Bhojpur area in 1977-’78. While there was a sense of adventure in the whole endeavour, working on the book wasn’t exactly fun. It was a serious intention to understand why and how social banditry happens.
Though both Naxals and the bandits [were born] out of a common sense of feeling injustice and then hit out at the establishment, they were different. The Naxals wanted to overthrow the existing feudal order while the bandits had no intention of revolution, and looked for justice within the feudal set-up. The bandits were loyal to the idea of serving a king or a landowner or fighting for caste and [other issues]. Unlike how the Zapatista movement unfolded in Mexico, social banditry in India never evolved into a class revolution.
Singh’s gang was the last of its kind. The bandit culture in India was at its peak in the Chambal region between the 1940s and ’60s. As we saw in films, they made their money by looting rich people’s homes. But by the end of the 1960s, the bandits realised that this was [becoming] needlessly risky. So Singh’s gang made do by kidnapping and demanding ransom.
After Singh’s gang surrendered in the 1980s, a bunch of smaller gangs emerged. They were violent and cruel and oppressed the people, which was foolish. The old gangs survived because they did not harm those who gave them sanctuary. It was a mix of tradition, honour and common sense. The new bandits did not last long and that spelled the end of their kind by the 1990s.
As told to Devarsi Ghosh.