Chambal valley

India's Chambal Valley south of New Delhi has for nearly 1,000 years been a homeland to the feared dacoits —professional bandits for whom murder and robbery are a tradition as well as a way of life. Conventional police methods have persistently failed to control the dacoits, but twelve years ago, a saintly follower of Mahatma Gandhi —Acharya Vinoba Bhave—gently persuaded some of the bandits to give themselves up. Last week another Gandhi disciple named Jayaprakash Narayan arranged for a much larger group of dacoits to surrender voluntarily. TIME Correspondent William Stewart was the only American newsman to witness the scene and talk with the bandits. His report:
Travelers venture along the winding dirt roads of the Chambal Valley at their peril. The sharp ravines provide good hiding places for fugitives from the law. In 1971 alone, India's notorious dacoits committed 285 murders, 352 kidnapings and 213 robberies, all within an area smaller than the state of Maryland. Arable land in the valley is obviously precious, and it is not difficult to see how disputes over ownership became blood feuds when the valley's temperamental Rajputs resorted to sudden murder over real or imagined wrongs.
Police operations have sometimes been massive—at one point more than 2,000 policemen were searching for a bandit named Man Singh—but never very successful. The campaigns were frustrated as much by the local people, who regard the bandits as baghis (rebels) rather than thieves, as by the cunning of the dacoit gangs. The bandits, many of whom like to take from the rich and give to the poor in Robin Hood tradition, carefully cultivate local good will, rewarding villagers with presents at weddings. But they are also ruthless in eliminating suspected informers.
At a government guesthouse in the village of Jaura, deep in dacoit country, I talked with Jayaprakash Narayan, 69, director of the Gandhi Institute of Studies and once a prominent Socialist politician. He is a man of simple and transparent goodness. Last October, Narayan told me, he had been visited by a man claiming to be a lesser dacoit. The visitor pleaded with him to come to the Chambal Valley and negotiate the bandits' surrender.
Police pressure was increasing and could only mean more bloodshed. Narayan remained unmoved until the bandit admitted that he was really Madho Singh, 35, one of India's most wanted men, with a price of $21,000 on his head. Singh said that the dacoits were ready to surrender if the government would promise not to hang any of the men, to prosecute within six months, and to rehabilitate their families. Impressed, Narayan agreed to undertake the task.
Along a dirt road outside Jaura is the Gandhian ashrama known as the Change of Heart Mission. Under a makeshift but colorful tent, we lunched on vegetables and rice served on plates of dried banyan leaves. There I met a former bandit whom Vinoba Bhave had persuaded to surrender. "Did you ever kill anyone?" I asked. "Naturally. I killed policemen," he answered. "How many?" "If I asked you how many pieces of bread you've eaten in the past two months, could you tell me?"
After lunch, a guide took us to the bandits' staging camp at Gherora. Despite the 105° heat, the village was thronged with people who had come to see the dacoits and the surrender ceremonies. In a tiny room atop one of the houses we found Madho Singh. A tall, lithe figure, he was dressed in a police uniform and carried an automatic rifle. Asked if he had qualms about surrendering, Madho Singh said: "Whatever we say we'll do, we go ahead with it, even if it means death for us. Sometimes we are scared of jail, but we remember that our great national leaders underwent the same incarceration. I tell the rebels who are scared of jail to think of it as a house you have rented. You don't even have to pay the rent." Almost shyly, Madho Singh admitted that he liked to write poetry and planned to write a book on the Chambal Valley in prison.
The next morning, before a crowd of 10,000, Madho Singh mounted the raised public platform, placed his weapon at the feet of Narayan and asked the crowd for forgiveness. His mustache was gone and so was the police uniform. Then he touched the feet of the police chief, and surrendered. At the end of the day, 167 dacoits were in jail. Said Narayan: "They are all like children."
The Indian government is reluctant to reveal what kind of deal it made with the bandits, but it is believed to have promised commutation of all death sentences the courts might hand down. It will also assume care of dacoit families and provide scholarships for their children. At week's end, New Delhi indicated that it would undertake a $170 million redevelopment program for the Chambal Valley, aimed at countering the desperate poverty that led many of the dacoits to lives of violence.