Rural Dacoits

Gautam Kumar Das

People generally exaggerate incidents of brigandage and plundering happened in the localities of the Sunderbans, but in reality dacoity is distressful for the act of distraining goods as the areas of Sunderbans is difficult to pass for numerous tidal rivers. So dacoity is simply risky in the Sunderbans area which is intersected with tidal inlets, creeks, rivers and water courses. Further, patches of mangroves and its associated species at the river flood plain looking like bushes and copses are obstacles for easy escaping of the dacoits. All these are the tales of the era of the seventies of the last century when most of the villages are lacking even a brick-built road or electricity. The passages in the rural village are very narrow inclusive large holes here and there along their entire course. For dacoity, which passage do dacoits like most, only they opt for. They often used to take river route and come with their hired machine boats (vatvati). They plundered money, ornaments and other valuable households from the thriving family. If there were any protest from the villagers’ end, they fired bullets towards the sky from their pipe guns. I neither heard even a villager received a bullet into the body from the pipe guns of the dacoits, nor any member of their community played on a pipe made of a bamboo-rod (dakatiya banshi). After a successful dacoity, the passage of the dacoits left the country-side barren. Dacoits, in general, simply flee away when the villagers put an obstacle against their action. Apart from those dacoits, there are petty thieves, who flee away immediately after hearing even with the sound of sneezing either of the head of the family, householders or housewives. Anyway, all dacoits or petty thieves of the Sunderbans are befitted in plying oars or rowing country boats; therefore, along with other evidences in such inaccessible and impassable geomorphic situations, they should be denominated as the rural dacoits.

It is quite natural, like other parts of Bengal, rural dacoits of the Sunderbans never go for dacoity in the houses of low-economy. On contrary, they help those common people of below poverty level with the financial assistance or allowance for food, if necessary, particularly on the months of Bhadra and Aswin, when they are simply starving due to lack of food grains. Rural dacoits are neither terrible nor beautiful to look at, but are simple and ordinary with clear mentality, not like those of village-chief. Once I saw in my childhood when dacoits were caught red-handed after the day of dacoity. I saw them very poor, wearing dhuti (cotton-cloth) bare bodied, covered head with the cotton towel (gamchha). They went for dacoity not to become a rich, but to collect simply the price of the food grains for their family. A few dacoits of the Sunderbans, the brave ones, used to come in the relatively void area dearth of huge crowd like Bidhannagar or Rajarhat areas, and snatch away golden chains of the morning walkers or smart phones and vanish all on a sudden riding on motor bikes. Sometimes they enter into the houses of such areas and show their machines (read as revolver) taking out of their garments to the householders or housewives of the nuclear families of recent times. Easily they performed dacoity robbing costly materials and left the family members tied their legs and hands with the post of the cots or grills.  Modern housewives generally avoid those dacoits for unpleasant smell of cloths and sweat of their body. These dacoits, in general, hail from Basirhat, Hasnabad, Minakhan, Haroa, Canning, Koikhali, Jamtala or Basanti area.

The metropolis housewives discourage their imitation of mannerisms, attractive dress, or their smartness, as those are all artificial, simply lacking traditional aristocracy at their roots; they are emerged from the soil of the Sunderbans. But these young guys are turned as the urban dacoits, though they hail from the rural rustic saline environment who sometimes forget their roots, or most of them never return to their native land. Otherwise, rest of the rural dacoits of the Sunderbans is timid and shy. They perform their dacoity under darkness in the midnight. They are neither communal, nor they enforce rape or murder. Even the rural dacoits of their own village become the stumbling block for any act of dacoity by other gang of dacoits. Their kids not only learn lesson along with the other kids of their neighbours in the same co-educational school, but play with them in the afternoon.

It’s a tale of my childhood about an obligation’s incident to the life of rural dacoits of the Sunderbans. About five decades back, hearing a huge hue and cry, we all kids of purbapara of our village ran away to the source of uproar leaving slate, chalk, ink and quill. The unmetalled road was full of huge crowd followed by a procession of rural dacoits who were grid up their loins tightly with the rope made of coir. They were dark complexions having red eyes like china roses. They had to carry huge bags full of rice, pulse, dried peppers etc on their head, which were theft from the house of Hari Maity. During that last night’s dacoity, dacoits confined Prabodh, son of Hari Maity inside a room. Basanti, wife of Prabodh, was very clever. She managed to collect proportionate quantity of rice, pulse and peppers for tomorrow’s meal followed by her appeal to the dacoits and during her collection of food grains, she managed to leak all the jute bags full of rice, pepper and pulses. As a result of leakage of bag, rice, pulse and peppers are fallen along the entire road between the Prabodh’s house and huts of the dacoits. Following that evidence of theft marked with the food grains, the young people identified easily the store of the theft materials and the thieves were caught red-handed. Then the dacoits, seven in numbers, were confined in a class room of our school. Hundreds of villagers rushed towards school to see dacoits at a glance. Looking at the huge visitors, the dacoits were very much disgusted and one of them said, ‘Take any decision swiftly for us; we are awaking night-long.’ Then the senior-most persons of the village took the unanimous decision not to hand over the dacoits to the police as they belonged to the village and known to all and they did such bad acts as they were starving. So, the dacoits were fed well with rice, pulse and alu-makha (potato) at noon prepared with the theft material at the school hostel. The dacoits slept snoring on the floor in the school-room for about two hours. At afternoon, the room was unlocked again and dacoits were beaten up tremendously with the sliced garan (mangroves) branches by the members of the arjee party (a group of young people who guard the village by night). Hearing such heart-rending cry of the dacoits, the enthusiastic visitors left the place.  By evening, there was nobody, neither villager, nor the dacoits in the class room of our school.

Rural dacoits of the Matla basin are quite different who used to open hole using house breaking instruments. In one night, those dacoits start digging a hole through the earthen wall of Jiban Das, a rich householder of the village. It is then twelve o’clock in the mid night. The night is perfectly still and silent. The foxes are howling in the bamboo groves. Rakhal Das, a middle-aged man of the village goes to his own home returning back on foot from her daughter’s house which is about six miles away from his native village. He carries a torch having two batteries. Rakhal Das and his bravery are known to all of his neighbours. He does not care about the gossip of fearsome appearances of ghost or fearful haunted places. Jiban Das, a close relative to Rakhal Das, is not only a wealthy man, but has huge landed property. Naturally, house of Jiban Das is always target to any gang of dacoits. Jiban Babu has one-storied building having earthen wall and earthen roof. Thirty inches earthen wall is made of mud pieces of quadrangular shape having parallel layer of mud-piece texture. The rural dacoits are very expert on digging such mud wall for opening up an entrance with the skillful use of house-breaking instrument (sindh kathi). Rakhal Das asks watching two dacoits engaged in digging wall with the house-breaking instruments, ‘Who is there?’ And there are angry passages between Rakhal Das and the dacoits. They look at each other with lascivious smirk. Then one of the dacoits threw a house-breaking instrument to Rakhal Das that pierces his thigh and the gang of dacoits flees away. Rakhal Das has to take several stitches in his thigh and recovered after seven days from the rural hospital. The house of Jiban Das is saved from the dacoity for that time.

House-breaking instruments are made of iron rods after sharpening one end of the rod at the blacksmith’s shop. Blacksmiths who manufacture the house-breaking instrument never know its owner. Dacoits come to collect their newly manufactured house-breaking instrument in the midnight and keep the labour charge at a particular place of the blacksmith’s shop. Their names are not enlisted in the account book of the blacksmith. After opening hole has been dug out with the house-breaking instrument, the leader of the gang is allowed to enter in the house at first with footsteps, not entering his head because sometimes it happens that the alarmed member of the family or the householder himself might be waiting with a sharp weapon at the other side of the wall.

 Sadhan tells the story of Kalam, a well-known dacoit. According to Sadhan, dacoity–style of Kalam of Gadamathura area under Patharpratima police station is beyond willy-nilly. He never set forth for dacoity on other’s will. No leader of any gang has the power to enforce him for dacoity. Sadhan, his bosom friend, once is very willing to see his dacoity partners and other associates. One day in a bus (Ramganga – Polerhat route) Kalam tells Sadhan to follow him when he calls different names and asks their whereabouts. In this calling process, when one responds to his call, he must be one of his partners of their gang, though on that night Kalam would not accompany them. Accordingly, Kalam calls Basir, Fazlu, Ellias, Aatiyar, one after another and those who bear those names respond to the call of Kalam sitting haphazardly from the front to the back seats in the bus. Sadhan bids thanks to Kalam for the identification of his associates that he eagerly wants to see them physically. Sadhan, now in mid forty, does not think Kalam as a marked dacoit as he is his childhood friend, and his family is very much grateful to Sadhan’s family for their help and cooperation when they are in distress. Kalam confesses to Sadhan that they never think of robbing of the poor and honest people, but of the rich people who collect huge money from the poor either in the form of bribe or fees taken as the mark of respect (salami). Naturally friendship of Sadhan and Kalam is very much social to them and of course exists beyond the prejudice of communalism.

Bachhu Sardar is very much specialist dacoit in the territory of the jungle and aquatic environment of the Sunderbans. He is very much prompt in hiding within the meandering creek and tidal inlets, which is covered with the mangrove’s bushes and copses on both sides. Bachhu Sardar’s style of dacoity is certainly uncommon. Generally, he attacks a moving solitary trawler or vatvati (mechanized boat) keeping up his eyes as a target of plundering. First, he and his gang, armed with weapon like pipe gun, after capturing that target boat, ties all the boatmen with the fishing ropes. Then they transfer diesel container, oil, spices and food materials, fishing net, drinking water, money, if there be any, and ultimately the engine of the trawler and leave the trawler inclusive tied boatmen and labours lying on its deck. The trawler without an engine is drifted towards confluence of the river driven with the tidal current. Bachhu Sardar, in his career, never orders a single murder of a boatman. Once a mischievous and notorious dacoit of the Sunderbans, Bachhu enters into the politics governed by the left ruled party leaving his past and earlier profession and ultimately, he becomes a social worker. Of late, there are no dacoits in this area who are the son of the soil of Sunderbans as they understand that one misfortune follows in the wake of another in such a profession (dacoity) of unsteady past and imperfect future.

Nov 4, 2018

Gautam Kumar Das [email protected]

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