A hundred or so miles east of Delhi can be found the dust-filled town of Moradabad. If you stay on the road that travels east, you will later in the day reach Lucknow. But if you turn north, you will pass through dense sal forests, green fields, broad canals and distinct signs of prosperity — large houses, latest automobiles, shops loaded with merchandise et al. This is Jim Corbett, called Carpet Sahib by the people around him, territory. Here is where he tracked animals, and wandered in the jungle armed often with nothing else but a stick and a torch. After Independence, displaced Sikh farmers were settled here. The region has gained immensely from their enterprise.
It was a different world before Independence. In the 1920s, there roamed a bandit called Sultana in the same area. Such was his terror that almost a century after he was hanged in 1924, people pray to God that their children should not become another Sultana. Though his name has been heard by anyone who has lived in the terai and bhabar (foothills), little is known of Sultana. There have films been made on the bandit, in Hindi as well as English, yet the veil of secrecy has never been fully lifted.
Sultana, it is said, dictated a long confession to an Englishman, Lt Col Samuel Pearce, on the night before he was hanged at the Haldwani jail. This was for the benefit of his son. This is the entrepot Sujit Saraf uses to tell the story of Sultana. He was a Bhantu who claim they are the descendants of Maharana Pratap and fell on bad times but will return home one day to claim what is legitimately theirs. But the British thought differently and put them under the sobriquet criminal tribes of India.
Crime, Saraf’s account indicates, was indeed a part of a Bhantu’s life. The biggest thief got the best bride. The art of robbery was taught to children by the elders of the house. A Bhantu, says Saraf, can hide knives, keys and stolen ornaments in the recesses inside his mouth for years together. Gulphi, the biggest thief of all Bhantus, was the most illustrious ancestor — people prayed to God to make their children as successful as Gulphi. There was a caste panchayat which looked after the families of those caught or killed by the police. In return, every Bhantu had to share his loot with it.
Such was the milieu in which Sultana was born. His grandfather was a robber of some repute — Gulphi reincarnate, some would say. Abject poverty took him to the Najibabad fort where the Salvation Army, called Mukti Fauj, ran a sanitisation camp for the Bhantus. Regular work in the fields, confinement to the camp and liberal doses of Christianity would reform them, it was hoped. Those who showed good behaviour for a certain number of years were settled as farmers outside the camp.
The murder of a Mukti Fauj functionary called Adjutant Anand by another Bhantu drove Sultana out of the camp. He then set up an all-Bhantu gang in the forests not far from where Carpet Sahib lived in Kaladhungi. From here, he conducted raids on baniyas who made money any which way and hid their valuables under the kitchen floor, robbed the thakurs who were the landed gentry and played hide and seek with the police.
Then a task force was formed under Freddy Young, the fattest officer in service of the British Crown in India, to arrest Sultana. That his men were not allowed to keep women had caused discontent. One of them spilled the beans to Young. After playing cat and mouse, Sultana was nabbed in the forests close to Nainital. After a brief trial, he was swung from the rope. Sultana was in his mid-20s when he died in July 1924.
This, in short, is the story of the dreaded dacoit. More than that, Saraf’s book brings to life the India of the 1910s and 1920s. Though he was a bandit who did not hesitate to pull the trigger or slash the knife, Sultana was aware of the lowly status of the Bhantus and stuck to the social boundaries. At one candid moment, he admits that though the Bhantus claim they are the offspring of Pratap, they are smaller than Rajputs, their facial hair too is short and they are totally without machismo. He may be contemptuous of the baniyas, the name given to every shopkeeper in the North, but is scared of the thakurs. Against a white man, of course, Sultana will never lift a hand.
Saraf also tells how the Mukti Fauj spread the message of the Gentle Shepherd amongst the unsuspecting natives — nothing subtle out here. Sultana, of course, uses the Cross he has been given to open the locks of the fort to escape. This is how he thinks the new God helped him. The Cross he hides in his throat for the rest of his life. He takes it out the night before his death and hands it over to Pearce.
As a young lad, Sultana and his friends got to Delhi for the coronation durbar of George Pancham in Delhi. While his friends divert the attention of the king’s guards, Sultana sneaks into his train, pinches his crown and escapes though the hole in the latrine. When he is chased by the guards, he jumps into the Yamuna with the crown. But he doesn’t know how to swim and the crown is lost. But the next day when the king appears in full regalia, nobody believes him. Neither do we, but it makes very interesting reading.
THE CONFESSION OF SULTANA DAKU
285 pages; Rs 399
A thick Bengali accent (“shapotaar” for supporter) isn’t usual for scholars such as Guha describes.