In the early 1980s, Indian photographer Prashant Panjiar walked through the arid badlands of central India, recounting the lives of legendary Indian bandits.
Most of the bandits lived and operated in the Chambal region of Madhya Pradesh state, which Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Paul Salopek described as a “no-go zone of lumpy hills and silty rivers infested with thugs, thieves, murderers, gangsters – with notorious bandits called brigands “.
After months of trying, Panjiar and two fellow journalists managed to meet Malkhan Singh, popularly known as the “banished king” of India, in Chambal in May 1982.
The bandits also operated with impunity in the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh: a year ago, Phoolan Devi, a female bandit, rose to notoriety when she had 22 upper caste Hindu men massacred on Valentine’s Day to avenge her gang rape. .
But in Chambal, Malkhan Singh and his gang were the most feared. They traveled on foot and lived in makeshift camps in ravines – deep, narrow gorges with steep sides.
At its peak during a 13-year reign, Singh’s gang boasted up to 100 men: he had been crowned “banished king” by rivals. In 1982, the police had registered 94 cases against the gang, including for fraud (banditry), kidnapping and murder.
Singh himself, according to reports, received a reward of 70,000 rupees for his capture. Translated at today’s rate, the reward was just over $ 900, but at the time it was worth nearly $ 8,000 and quite a large sum. The government has also started sending him antennas to deliver weapons.
In the scorching summer of 1982, Panjiar and his colleagues Kalyan Mukherjee and Brijraj Singh found themselves at the center of negotiations between the Congress-led government of Madhya Pradesh and Singh’s gang for the latter’s surrender. They developed a contact to meet Singh.
“I spent a few days with the gang. I was happy to be a ‘hostage’ – their guarantee against treason – as long as I got my photos,” says Panjiar.
He first met the gang on a moonless night in Chambal.
Panjiar remembers him as a tall, muscular man with a handlebar mustache, rather reserved and with an American-made self-loading rifle.
“He was a man of few words, but selfish and he commanded respect.”
The gang, which at the time numbered about two dozen people, moved from one place to another at night, carrying their scarce belongings with them: blankets, weapons, a tarp to protect themselves from the rain and simple rations. They slept in the open. One member, Panjiar recalls, carried an AK-47; others carried carbines and rifles.
Panjiar says Singh was a “classic Chambal story – a young lower caste man who said he held up his gun for honor and self-defense and to seek revenge against his captor, a man of an upper caste.”
For nearly a week, Panjiar used his Pentax and a borrowed Nikon camera to shoot the film of the band. Some of these rare images appear in his new work, What is Invisible.
The surrender finally took place in front of tens of thousands of people in June. Among other conditions, Singh had negotiated that none of his gang members could be sentenced to death.
“He arrived as a conquering hero. Tall and thin, dressed in the uniform of the police he had fought hard against for years, the farewell to arms of the king of brigands Malkhan Singh in the city of Bhind in northern Madhya Pradesh in front of a frightened crowd of 30,000 people all the trappings of a Roman triumph, “he reported India today magazine.
Singh had a dry sense of humor, Panjiar recalls. After his surrender, reporters pestered him with a scholarship application in Hindi: “Aap ko kaisa lag raha hai? (How do you feel now?) “Singh repeated the same phrase when meeting Panjiar and his colleagues.
Eventually, Malkhan and his gang members were convicted of some of the crimes they had been accused of and sent to an “open prison” in the state. Singh spent a few years in prison.
Now 78, he has pursued a career in politics, campaigning in recent years for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“I was not a brigand. I was’baagi‘(rebel), who took the gun for honor and self-defense. I know who the real thieves are and I also know how to deal with them, “he said in 2019.
Prashant Panjiar is a prominent Indian photographer and author, more recently, of What is Invisible (Navajivan Trust)
The singer who preached nonviolence to bandits
- June 27
Read More about World News here.
This Article is Sourced from BBC News. You can check the original article here: Source