India: bandits swap guns for spades

 Christian Aid partner Ekta Parishad is leading a rally of former bandits who are aiming to coax down practising robbers from the hills where they hide out in northern India. They have sent this report: The bandits, known as dacoits, acquired a reputation for Robin Hood-style swoops in the seventies and eighties. The 'stealing from the rich, giving to the poor' tactics of female dacoit Phoolan Devi were immortalised in the film Bandit Queen. At that time PV Rajgopal, national convenor of Ekta Parishad, persuaded dacoits that Gandhi would be a better role model than the hero of Sherwood Forest. He managed to convince the criminals that non-violent action is a better way to make a fairer society. Many of the bandits gave themselves up and were arrested. The government promised to introduce a range of measures to help lift the area out of poverty, including drought relief and agricultural development programmes. But these promises have not been met and now a new generation of bandits is making its violent presence felt in villages in the Chambal Valley, in Madhya Pradesh, around five hours outside Delhi. 'Dacoitry, which once reigned in Chambal, has come back in a big way. This is largely due to the government's failing to keep their promises of rehabilitation and development inputs,' says Khairo Bai, a women living in the valley. There have been several recent incidents of landless tribal people (adivasis) being abused by landowners. In one village, three women were kidnapped for a month, and one was raped. Poor people are also being victimised by the creation of new national parks and sanctuaries, displacing people from hundreds of villages. Four such parks have been established recently, leaving adivasis without access to land. And villagers are losing out in a third way: they are frequently accused by the police of committing the crimes perpetrated by the dacoits. Now PV Rajgopal hopes that the ex-convicts can convince the dacoits of today to put down their arms and work towards addressing the problems of the adivasis without using weapons. 'What we want to say to them is 'not guns but spades'. Peace needs to be made attractive to a new generation of people,' he says. 'I believe we can really make change happen.' The marchers will also be demanding cultivable fields to be turned over to the landless and for the introduction of agricultural policies which favour the tenant farmers. The march will last for two weeks and visit 80 villages in the Chambal region.

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