Around the time India’s first general elections were unfolding in the early 1950s, a dramatic saga was playing out in a corner of the country. The rich, anxious about their future, had mounted a conspiracy to skew the results. Democracy was seen as a threat by some. And violence was used to spread fear under the glare of the international media.

At the centre of the saga was a fearsome dacoit in the state of Saurashtra called Bhupat. No-one was left out of his crosshairs – not wealthy farmers, police officers or local government officials. He was accused of murdering more than 70 people, though numbers varied. What was more galling for the authorities – particularly the Indian National Congress, which was widely expected to win the elections – was his ability to brazenly evade the law.

Saurashtra, at the time, comprised present-day Kathiawar and Saurashtra, along with erstwhile princely states such as Junagadh. To its west was the Arabian Sea, and to its east and north was Bombay Presidency. A gulf to the north separated it from Kutch, which was administered by the central government. Beyond Kutch, which was largely an area of marshy salt flats and wetlands, was the newly-created country of Pakistan. Besides the politics of a new era in post-independent India, it was the region’s geography that enabled Bhupat to survive and thrive.

A map of Saurashtra in the late 1940s to early '50s, showing the areas where Bhupat was active. Photo credit: Dr Andreas Birken/Wikimedia Commons [CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license].

Bhupat’s reign of terror stretched for two years from 1950 to 1952. Such was his notoriety that he had even caught the attention of the Western media, which had converged in India in large numbers to cover the elections. It was believed that the dacoit had assumed the name Bhupat, meaning landowner, and he was variously referred to as Bhupat Singh or Bhupat Makwana. The Makwanas were a class of Rajputs who originally belonged to the Sindh but had later moved to Jhalawad in Rajasthan. They claimed their descent from Alexander’s armies, owing to a perceived similarity between the names Makwana and Macedonia.

Reviled by the authorities for his bravado, admired by some sections of society for his Robin Hood-esque nature, Bhupat’s story was one filled with many thrills, but it ultimately ended shrouded in mystery.

Princely support

One of the main reasons for the rise of Bhupat was the alleged support he received from some of Saurashtra’s princely states. “For several weeks before the elections, stories about the exploits of a dacoit (an armed bandit) named Bhupat were growing in scope and intensity,” wrote author and journalist Santha Rama Rau in The New Yorker in May 1952. “He and his gang had been raiding and looting villages North of Bombay (Presidency) and murdering villagers. Not long ago, the government arrested several of the princes, some in Bombay, some on their estates, and accused them of ‘plotting to bring the government into disrepute by murdering innocent villagers, through the medium of the notorious Bhupat gang.’ The purpose of this terrorism, according to the government, was to convince the villagers that lawlessness was the result of democratic rule and would certainly continue if the Congress were voted back to power.”

Indeed, around May 1951, some months before the elections started on October 25, Bhupat’s actions had become grave enough for the government to offer a reward of Rs 50,000 for his capture – dead or alive. The Preventive Detention Act, a legislation from the colonial era, had been enforced, and the princes arrested under its provisions.

According to the authorities, the princes supplied Bhupat with arms and ammunition in a conspiracy to frustrate the Congress and its plans to introduce land reforms and reduce princely privileges. They also directed the local police to turn a blind eye to his activities. Despite this, the results in Saurashtra were overwhelmingly in the Congress’ favour: the party won all six parliamentary seats, and 55 of the 60 assembly seats.

A voter casts his ballot during India's first general elections. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

After the first Lok Sabha was convened in May 1952, an early debate sought to extend the Preventive Detention Act in Saurashtra to ensure that efforts to check and hunt down bandits like Bhupat continued. Some months before, Pabudan Singh, a dreaded dacoit in Western Rajasthan, had been killed. This area – comprising the desert region of Rajasthan and Kutch – was relatively unsecured, making up a “no man’s land”, where state symbols like border enforcement agencies had little say. Bandits could hide away here, and even cross over into alien territory. Just like Bhupat did, when the police finally closed in on him.

Aide-de-camp to outlaw

His life had largely been chequered. As the Western press, for whom Bhupat represented the mysterious and exotic Orient, reported, he was in the service of a girasidar, or minor prince, in Vesania, Baroda state, around the time of independence. Girasidars were usually younger brothers of kings who had become petty rulers. As land fragmented gradually, these girasidars constantly jostled among themselves for power. Accounts have it that Bhupat, then in his early thirties, first doubled up as an ace shot and chauffeur in Vesania, and then rose to the rank of aide-de-camp. He was, reports said, also fond of pinning tawdry medallions onto his uniform.

In August 1947, Junagadh found itself in a piquant position on the question of accession. The Nawab, Mahabat Khan III, who was eccentric and far-sighted in equal measure, opted for Pakistan, but popular protests – mainly involving the majority community – broke out. As the story goes, the state’s diwan, Shah Nawaz Bhutto (father of Zulfikar Bhutto), sent out feelers to Samaldas Gandhi, who was leading the provisional government of the people, or Arzi Hukumat, at Rajkot. Samaldas Gandhi was Mahatma Gandhi’s nephew, son of his older brother Laxmidas. Bhupat had thrown himself into Samaldas Gandhi’s movement in Junagadh. But his role in a communal riot, when he was accused of killing a Muslim, proved his undoing.

Samaldas Gandhi (second from the right). Photo credit: my family archives/Wikimedia Commons [CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication].

Cut off from the new dispensation, as girasidars gradually lost their land and power, Bhupat struck out on his own as an outlaw. In this sense, he was following in the long line of outlaws of Kathiawar. Many of these lawbreakers were creations of their conditions: land was scarce, increasingly more people were dependent on it, and there was an agrarian distress.

People’s bandit

Bhupat began by looting feudal lords and richer villagers. He kidnapped high-profile citizens, and particularly targeted shopkeepers, robbing them and then redistributing the wealth among the poor, leading to his Robin Hood image. Sometimes, as was rumoured, he travelled by car (for he remained an ace driver) or on horseback. He had a reputation for striking swiftly and then moving out of sight just as quickly.

Robert Trumbull of The New York Times compared Bhupat to the Sicilian bandit Salvatore Giuliano, the dreaded “people’s bandit” of Sicily, who had been killed in 1950. Giuliano stole from the “black market”, and in post-World War II Italy, he wanted Sicily to be independent. Bhupat was rumoured to be chivalrous towards women. What earned him added notoriety was the mocking note he left in places, penned by an associate. These were, as Trumbull wrote, penned on “blue note paper”, and decorated with forget-me-not flowers.

At a time when bonds of community and caste ran deep, Bhupat had people – even the local police – willing to shelter him. Other stories stated that he was a devotee of Hanuman, who came to his aid in dire moments. It was also believed that he had made a promise to visit Calcutta’s celebrated Kali temple after killing a thousand people. This repute and his ability to evade the law soon made him reckless. As The Guardian reported, Bhupat was known to saunter into Rajkot, Saurashtra’s capital, in broad daylight, have a haircut, watch a movie, and then enjoy a cup of tea, all in the vicinity of the city’s main police station.

A still from 'Sonchiriya'. Dacoits and their lives have been the subject of many Hindi films. Photo credit: RSVP Movies.

It finally took the efforts of a highly decorated police officer, VG Kanitkar, to effectively nail down Bhupat. Kanitkar later detailed his chase of Bhupat in a Marathi book titled Bhupat, details of which are summarised in a blog. He employed the services of Pangis, or footprint trackers, and was successful in finding Dewayat, a trusted Bhupat aide. Following a gun battle in which Dewayat was killed, Bhupat was forced to flee.

Some weeks later, in June 1952, reports emerged that Bhupat had been apprehended in Karachi, a city he had sneaked into while in the disguise of a religious mendicant. An unlicensed revolver and ammunition were found on him.

Bhupat’s story ends there. He was never extradited to India, despite diplomatic gestures at the highest level. In Kanitkar’s book, there was speculation that he took on a new identity and joined the milk business.

The girasidar system of feudal landholdings was finally abolished in 1956. The state of Saurashtra was first made a part of Bombay Presidency on November 1, 1956. Four years later, following the linguistic reorganisation of states, it became a part of Gujarat. In 1960, Daku Bhupat, a Hindi remake of a Telugu movie, was released, starring NT Rama Rao and Anjali Devi. The film’s script had little resemblance to Bhupat’s life. But his idiosyncrasies and his popularity have since featured in countless other films, especially those made on the dacoits of the Chambal, such as Mera Gaon Mera Desh and Mujhe Jeene Do. In this way alone, Bhupat’s infamous yet mesmerising story lives on.