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Dacoity is a term used for "banditry" in the Indian subcontinent. The spelling is the anglicised version of the Hindi word डाकू (daaku); "dacoit" // is a colloquial Indian English word with this meaning and it appears in the Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases (1903). Banditry is criminal activity involving robbery by groups of armed bandits. The East India Company established the Thuggee and Dacoity Department in 1830, and the Thuggee and Dacoity Suppression Acts, 1836–1848 were enacted in British India under East India Company rule. Areas with ravines or forests, such as Chambal and Chilapata Forests, were once known for dacoits.
Bandits of Bhind-Morena and Chambal
The dacoity have had a large impact in the Bhind and Morena of Chambal regions in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh in north-central India. The exact reasons for the emergence of dacoity in the Chambal valley have been disputed. Most explanations have simply suggested feudal exploitation as the cause that provoked many people of this region to take to arms. The area was also underdeveloped and poor, so that banditry posed great economic incentives. However, the fact that many gangs operating in this valley were composed of higher castes and wealthy people appears to suggest that feudalism may only be a partial explanation of dacoity in Chambal valley (Bhaduri, 1972; Khan, 1981; Jatar, 1980; Katare, 1972). Furthermore, traditional honour codes and blood feuds would drive some into criminality.
In Chambal, India, organized crime controlled much of the countryside from the time of the British Raj up to the early 2000s, with the police offering high rewards for the most notorious bandit chiefs. The criminals regularly targeted local businesses, though they preferred to kidnap wealthy people, and demand ransom from their relatives - cutting off fingers, noses, and ears to pressure them into paying high sums. Many dacoity also posed as social bandits toward the local poor, paying medical bills and funding weddings. One ex-dacoit described his own criminal past by claiming that "I was a rebel. I fought injustice." Following intense anti-banditry campaigns by the Indian Police, highway robbery was almost completely eradicated in the early 2000s. Nevertheless, Chambal is still popularly believed to be unsafe and bandit-infested by many Indians. One police officer noted that the fading of the dacoity was also due to social changes, as few young people were any longer willing to endure the harsh life as a highway robber in the countryside. Instead, they prefer to join crime groups in the city, where life is easier.
Dacoits in Bengal
While thugs and dacoits operating in northern and central India are more popularly known and referenced in books, films and academic journal, a significant number of accounts also come from Bengal. Writing about the dacoits of Bengal, the colonial official CH Keighly mentions the “great difference between gangs of hereditary dacoits or thugs in other parts of India and the dacoits of Bengal”. It is notable that unlike the rest of India, dacoits in Bengal did not come from a particular social class, caste, or creed.
The Gangs of Nadia and Hooghly
Dacoit gangs in Nadia and Hooghly were particularly known for their ritualistic practices before the night of dacoity. Before setting off for their mission, the members would assemble to perform “kalipuja” led by the Sirdar (leader). The dacoits would form a straight line and a pot of liquor, torches, and weapons to be used in the dacoity were laid down in a clear space. The Sirdar would then dip his finger in oil and touch the forehead of all the dacoits, making them promise never to confess. Even during the raid, when dacoits opened chests and discovered a good fortune, they would shout “Kali, Jai Kali”.
Dacoits of Birbhum
Dacoity was highly prevalent in 19th century west Bengal. One of the gangs, led by a charismatic leader named Bhabani Pathak, was known for its loyalty to their leader. After the British captured Bhabani, the inner workings and social factors that led to the construction of this gang were revealed. Leaders such as Bhabani were known as Sirdars and had a symbiotic relationship with their followers. Among other benefits, a Sirdar would lend loans to members and provided them protection. This allowed for the formation of a special bond between the Sirdar and followers which meant that cases of desertion and exiting the gang were virtually unheard of.
Tales of Burdwan
In Burdwan, dacoities were heavily planned and considerable thought went into their seamless execution. Sirdars in Burdwan operated by employing several informants who kept them updated about prospective targets. When a target was finalized, the Sirdar and relevant gang members were constantly made aware about his whereabouts. The informants were always on the lookout for wealthy businessmen and kept a close watch on those that exchanged bank notes of considerable value or received a shipment of merchandise that they would store in their houses.
Dacoits existed in Burma as well – Rudyard Kipling's fictional Private Mulvaney hunted Burmese dacoits in "The Taking of Lungtungpen". Sax Rohmer's criminal mastermind Dr. Fu Manchu also employed Burmese dacoits as his henchmen.
Indian police forces use "Known Dacoit" (K.D.) as a label to classify criminals.
Thuggee and Dacoity Suppression Act
Introduced in 1836, the suppression acts brought about several legislative measures including the establishment of special courts, authorization for the use of rewards for informants, and the power to arrest suspects. The suppression acts marked the beginning of active British intervention in policing and law enforcement in Indian society. These acts were known to be authoritarian and further deepened the uneven power dynamic between the British and the Indians.
British Portrayal of Crime in India
The British often saw Indians as primitive, violent, and unruly, and this often acted as a justification for colonization and further consolidated their “civilization mission” pretext. The practice of thuggee and dacoity was seen in a similar Eurocentric light, without understanding the local context. An orientalist view of such activities was portrayed in the rest of the world to account for several repressive legislative measures that the British took. Under this punitive approach, several innocent individuals fell prey to false suspicion and were incriminated.
Notable dacoits include:
- Chavviram Singh Yadav
- Gabbar Singh Gujjar - inspired the famous 1975 film Sholay, based on his life
- Man Singh was a notorious Dacoit of the Rathore clan of Rajputs. He was also known as the Lion of Chambal.
- Malkhan Singh Rajpoot, a notorious bandit known as the Bandit King or King of Dacoits. He also had political aspirations in MP.
- Kallu Yadav (Kalua), also known as Katri King
- Mohar Singh
- Nirbhay Singh Gujjar
- Nizam Lohar, a dacoit born into a Punjabi Muslim family during the Sikh Empire. He is known for his rebellion and freedom struggle against the British colonial government.
- Paan Singh Tomar, a former soldier in the Indian Army, an athlete that represented India in the Asian Games, who later resorted to becoming a Baaghi due to the injustices he faced. Also inspired the famous Bollywood film Paan Singh Tomar played by Irrfan Khan.
- Phoolan Devi
- Rambabu Gadariya - Regarded as the last notorious dacoit of Chambal
- Shiv Kumar Patel (Dadua)
- Ramashish Koeri was active in Rohtas Plateau of Bihar in 1980s. He was the leader of a group of bandits, who were supported by the people from lower strata of society. This dacoit group was known for challenging the hagemony of upper caste landlords in the region, who were exploitative.
- Jagga Jatt
- Veerappan, a notorious dacoit, poacher, and smuggler in South India.
In Madhya Pradesh, women belonging to a village defence group have been issued firearm permits to fend off dacoity. The Chief minister of the state, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, recognised the role the women had played in defending their villages without guns. He stated that he wanted to enable these women to better defend both themselves and their villages, and issued the gun permits to advance this goal.
In popular culture
As the dacoits flourished through the 1940s–1970s, they were the subject of various Hindi films made during this era, leading to the emergence of the dacoit film genre in Hindi Film Industry. The genre began with Mehboob Khan's Aurat (1940), which he remade as Mother India (1957). Mother India received an Academy Award nomination, and defined the dacoit film genre, along with Dilip Kumar's Gunga Jumna (1961). Other popular films in this genre included Raj Kapoor’s Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1961) and Moni Bhattacharjee's Mujhe Jeene Do (1963).
Pakistani actor Akmal Khan had two dacoit films, Malangi (1965) and Imam Din Gohavia (1967). Other films in this genre included Khote Sikkay (1973), Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971), and Kuchhe Dhaage (1973) both by Raj Khosla.
The most famous dacoit film is Sholay (1975), written by Salim–Javed, and starring Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan, and Amjad Khan as the dacoit character Gabbar Singh. It was a masala film that combined the dacoit film conventions of Mother India and Gunga Jumna with that of Spaghetti Westerns, spawning the "Dacoit Western" genre, also known as the "Curry Western" genre. The film also borrowed elements from Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. Sholay became a classic in the genre, and its success led to a surge of films in this genre, including Ganga Ki Saugandh (1978), once again starring Amitabh Bachchan and Amjad Khan.
An internationally acclaimed example of the genre is Bandit Queen (1994).
The Tamil movie starring Karthi, Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru (2017) deals elaborately with bandits. The film reveals the real dacoity incidents which held in Tamil Nadu between 1995 and 2005. Director Vinoth did a two-year research about bandits to develop the script.
A related genre of crime films are Mumbai underworld films.
Bengali novel Devi Chowdhurani by author Bankim Chandra Chatterjee in 1867.
Dacoits armed with pistols and swords appear in Age of Empires III: Asian Dynasties.
They frequently appeared in the French language Bob Morane series of novels by Henri Vernes, principally as the main thugs or assassins of the hero's recurring villain, Mr. Ming and in English as the agents of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu.
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They have grown up on news accounts and Bollywood movies about the remote Chambal, a vast badland at the northern heart of their country: a no-go zone of lumpy hills and silty rivers infested with thugs, robbers, murderers, gangsters—with infamous highwaymen called dacoits.
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