This is a valuable account of the history of dacoity in Bengal that gives much data that is unknown about the practices in the early days of the East India Company. Ghoshal himself rose from the ranks to become an officer in the Bengal Police force.
Robbery has been defined thus in Section 390 of the Indian Penal Code:
In all robbery, there is either theft or extortion. Theft is 'robbery' if, in order to the committing of the theft, or in committing the theft, or in carrying away or attempting to carry away property obtained by theft, the offender, for that end, voluntarily causes or attempts to cause to any person death or hurt or wrongful restraint, or fear of instant death or of instant hurt or of instant wrongful restraint.
So much for what the crime of robbery connotes. Let us now turn to Dacoity. In section 391 of the Indian Penal Code the ingredients of this crime have been set forth in this fashion:
When five or more persons conjointly commit or attempt to commit a robbery, or where the whole number of persons conjointly committing or attempting to commit a robbery, and persons present and aiding such commission or attempt, amount to five or more, every person so committing, attempting or aiding, is said to commit 'dacoity'.
Robbery and Dacoity are major crimes among this country's ancient list of crimes. Robbery and Dacoity occur on both land & sea. In West Bengal people usually travel over land for various works, hence here these crimes congregate on land. But in a riverine area like East Bengal, people usually travel more by waterways. Hence, in that area these crimes accumulate on the waterways.
Let us first speak of riverine misdeeds. In olden times, these pirates would use swift boats of 20 to 30 paddles for dacoity. Having many oars, those lightweight craft can bear many people swiftly. By the efforts of the Hon'ble Government, these organized bands of pirates have been totally eradicated. At present, no trace of them can be found. The present day pirates usually commit dacoity using passenger boats on large rivers. On seeing any passenger craft nearby, these dacoits request those passengers, 'Please spare us a little fire.' Thereafter, on the excuse of borrowing fire they bring their craft alongside and proceed to attack. In this region, a class of cruel and wicked pirates named ' Bijanaa' commit dacoity on the Padma in this typical fashion even today. For these reasons boatmen of traders, jewelers and passenger craft ought never stop their boats out of compassion for lending fire or tobacco. Rather, the moment they hear such a request, 'a little fire please, a little tobacco please,' they should remove their craft far away. Among these criminal-natured pirates, the Sandaar and Goaynaa bands were notorious. These pirates roam about in boats and live on fish they catch. How terrible the nature of these pirate bands is will be understood from the following account.
'Immediately on receiving news of pirates, we turned our boat to the mouth of the river. After proceeding a little, we saw the pirates' boat. On that boat four or five persons were standing, spear in hand. On perceiving the actual intention of our arrival, one of these roared out, 'Come; let me see who you are. Fish that live fathoms deep under water have I hooked up; you who are so clearly visible I'll surely spear.' The logic was undoubtedly infallible. Naturally, this roared out challenge startled me, but that was only momentary,'
In the past many kings, Nawabs and Zamindars used to take the help of these pirates quite often in war or to take possession of land. After the fall of those landlords and princely houses, for some time these riverine bands were forced to eke out a livelihood only by means of dacoity. Like these pirates, the land dacoits were also extremely powerful in this region in the past. At places, their leaders have received honors even like kings. In the past landlords were even forced to pay them annual taxes. In the first part of British rule in India, their power was not slight. It even said that the ancestors of some famous Zamindar families of today were dacoits. Even though these dacoits committed dacoity, they would rob the poor less. Their target was always the houses of big landlords or merchants' establishments. Their only motto was'hunt but the rhino, loot but the treasury.' From such prevalent folk sayings, much can be found out about the hopes and aspirations of the dacoits of those days. Such stories have also been heard of the dacoits of this region that some of them would loot the wealth of the rich and to the beat of drum distribute it among the poor. Because of the sympathy of the poor public of the region for them, it was extremely difficult to arrest them in the old days. In the course of time, with the establishment of British Rule in this country, these dacoit bands have been wiped out.
From an 80-year-old grandmother this is the story I heard about dacoity in the olden times:
'75 years ago when I came as a bride to this house of yours I was just 5. That day too I saw the wall beside your outhouse lying broken as now. I heard from my mother-in-law the story how such a high wall broke down. Then I was but a child. That is why, along with her grand children, she used to keep me amused with so many true stories. The story I heard from her I am passing on to you. Listen!
'Suddenly one day a short squat sort of chap with unkempt matted hair, vermilion smeared on his forehead handed over a chit scribbled on bark to Kartta Moshai, the head of the family, and prostrated himself to touch his feet. This is what was written in that chit. 'From now on, every year on the night of Kali Puja my people will wait on you. I trust you will oblige by sending the annual provisions and five times twenty rupees. Otherwise I shall myself come. Remember the miserable state to which the senior branch of the Ratanpur family was reduced and do not do otherwise'and so on.' Not troubled a whit by such terror tactics, Kartta Moshai summoned picked lathials, expert in wielding the staff, loyal to him from the countryside and gathered them at the outer entrance. A few days later that new moon night of Kali Puja arrived. The midnight worship got over and each of us was about to go to sleep in our rooms when suddenly a terrifying sound startled us. From afar a horrifying shout of Re re re re' was heard. Opening the window fearfully, I saw that a line of torches had been lit beyond the outer wall. About eighty dacoits carrying torches, swords and spears were approaching, yelling re re re. Realizing that matters were not propitious, we locked the narrow staircase to the upper floor and hid all the jeweler and valuables in secret places. That attic's roof you see on top, above it was another room that collapsed in the Ashvin storm that year. I have heard that it was shaped like a tall minar and if one stood atop it the Ganga could be seen. Our archers got on top of that minar and resisted the dacoits with arrows and slingshots. At the same time, our trusted lathials had readied for battle in the courtyard below. Suddenly, battering down that high wall next to the outer gate with a paddy-husker, the dacoits burst into the house. Those rusted heavy curved swords you see in the attic, taking them up the men of the household too were ready to fight. Standing on the ledge of the roof, my father-in-law was blowing the horn signaling to his subjects in Bagdi habitation nearby about this dacoity. One of the riders of the cutchery rushed off to inform the headquarters Tehsildar and his sepoys. But despite all these efforts, none could hold back the dacoits. Killing a few, they began to climb up the curved staircase of the inner apartments. About ten sacks of mustard seed had been stored in the upper terrace. My aunt-in-law rushed up and began to pour sack after sack of mustard seed on the stairs. The seed poured down in a stream. Slipping on the mustard seeds all the dacoits rolled down and got hurt. In the mean time raising a hue & cry, shouting Kali Mai ki jai (victory to Mother Kali) two hundred families of the Bagdi subjects turned up with sickles, spears and axes. It is said that this was the first defeat Gourey Bede the dacoit faced. It is the courage and bravery of all our men and women together that saved our honor and our lives that day. My aunt-in-law's courage astonishes you, does it not? In those days women often had to display such courage to save themselves. Even the other day an old maidservant of my father-in-law seeing a thief enter the room quickly snapped the strings tying the mosquito net to the posts and flinging it like a net over the thief's body, sat down upon him. Hearing the screams we went to her room and found the thief lying half-dead, suffocated, unable to stir.'
It is said that the dacoits of the old days despite being from lower classes were extremely devoted to Goddess Kali. Before leaving for committing dacoity, they would worship Kali. It seems that some of these gangs offered even human sacrifice. According to some, this human sacrifice originated from the practice of sacrificing prisoners of war. I have heard a story about this from an ancient gentleman who had heard it in his childhood from another ancient gentleman. The story is based on an incident in the life of that gentleman's maternal grandfather. Here is the story.
'In those days we used to visit the pilgrimage spots of Bharat by boat on the Ganga. On the way back from Kashi, we were resting at a place on the riverbank. My neighbors requested me to collect firewood. I had gone a little way into the jungle when some muscular men caught hold of me. Tying my hands and gagging me with a gamchcha, (a napkin) they carried me through the jungle. Reaching a huge pond, they dropped me on its bank. Looking back, I saw below a banyan tree a massive image of Kali with lolling tongue and a real chopper in hand. I understood that they had undoubtedly brought me to be sacrificed to the mother. Here and there about 60 people were seated on mats and smoking. Looking at the wooden block nearby and the polished chopper next to it, I horripilated. After this at two at night, after the worship, two of the men untied me and took me to the tank for bathing. One of them dragged me into the water. Luckily, I was expert in underwater swimming and could hold my breath very long. On the excuse of dunking my head, I dove underwater to the opposite bank where I merged into the darkness and sat silently on the topmost branch of a big tree. The dacoits searched long for me with torches in the jungle and finally left frustrated. Then I quietly came down and after tiptoeing for some distance ran for my life to the bank of the Ganga and clambered up on the boat. It is Mother Kali's grace that saved my life somehow on that trip and that is why I could tell you this story. Otherwise all my friends would have presumed that I had been dragged away by a tiger.'
Such tales of Kapalik dacoits are heard in every other Bengal home. I do not know how true they are, but it is not proper to disbelieve and reject folk tales as a class altogether. Many such stories are heard in this region that in olden days taking advantage of these dacoits' devotion to Kali, some dark-complexioned wives would stride forth naked, hair flying, chopper or sword in hand to repel dacoits, and seeing this scene dacoits overwhelmed by fear, would shout 'Maa! Maa' and, making obeisance, leave the place. Is there not a shred of truth in all these stories? I do not know if there is, but it cannot be denied that in some dacoit gangs great devotion to Kali has been noticed.
Just as the pirates of old used slim longboats for speed, similarly the land dacoit used a type of Ron-paa for traveling. Ron here signifies 'battle'. Ron-paa is made of two pieces of slim bamboo. In the centre of these bamboo staffs there is a knot. Placing their feet on these knots and rising far up dacoits could speed at twelve miles an hour on these 'battle-legs.' With the help of these battle-legs they were able in a body to cross through canals, tanks, fields, plains and undergrowth very swiftly. When these dacoits traveled with battle-legs, they would appear like massive giants striding on huge legs. The use of the battle legs demands great practice. Just as besides the Finns none are able to master skiing on snow, similarly none but the Bengali has been able to use this Ron-paa. The dacoits expert in using it can be compared with modern mechanized troops. In the days of Bengali kings soldiers used this ron-paa for speedy travel and because of this these artificial legs were called battle-legs. In ancient India too the ritual of battle was somewhat thus: In the first line, like huge tanks of today, armored elephants would crash through all obstacles and dangers with their huge bodies and behind this living tank-column would rush chariots and cavalry, like motorized columns of today. But though this battle technique was effective on the hard ground and hilly terrain of North and South India, it was absolutely useless in Bengal bereft of land routes and full of marshy land. Because of this reason in this region, kings and chieftains had to resort to fishing boats for traveling swiftly over water and to this Ron-paa for land. In a word, this Ron-paa is an indigenous invention of the Bengali warrior. Needless to say, after the fall of large royal families it is their scattered soldiers who built up these dacoit bands in the past. The word Ron-paa and its monopoly use by dacoit gangs is sure proof of this.
On enquiry, I have learnt that many in the dacoit gangs that came into being at the beginning of British rule were sepoys and lathials dismissed by Zamindars. During the Pathan rule, these Zamindars were fully autonomous with respect to internal government. For this reason they had to establish these sepoys and lathials in their areas for generations by gifting them land. By family tradition, their very profession became fighting for the Zamindar. Even though under the Mughals the autonomy of the Zamindars was slightly abridged, they went on sustaining these fighters for a long time for their personal requirement. Under the English too for some time law and order responsibility was vested in these Zamindars. Thereafter on establishment of the police and the judiciary, the Zamindars had no longer any need for them. Many of these dismissed lathials began to serve with the dacoit leaders of those times for their livelihood. For these reasons at that time in every district of Bengal, several dacoit gangs had gathered. It can be declared with surety that some dacoits of today belonging to criminal tribes are the unworthy descendants of those very warriors.
By way of example, the Bagelis can be cited. Some branches of this Bagdi Class have been declared as criminal tribes in present times because of their violent nature. This Bagdi class was at one time one of the important professional warrior clans. Disturbed by the depredations of the Marathas the Nawab of Bengal Alivardi Khan had dispatched his family members for their safety to the Natore royal family. At that time, the army of the semi-independent Natore kingdom was constituted of the Bagdis of West Bengal and the Bhojpuris of Bihar. It is because of the great trust he placed in these Bagdi soldiers that Nawab Alivardi Khan made such arrangements. Every historian is well aware of the bravery of the Bagdi soldiers of Bishnupur. With their help, Bishnupur was able to safeguard its independence for long. The famous cannons of Bishnupur used to be handled by these Bagdi soldiers. But it is a matter of regret that some bands of these very Bagdis became dacoits in later times. Perhaps even today they have been unable to renounce the war-lust cultivated over time. That is why despite such long effort the nature of these criminal tribes could not be changed. Another instance of this are the Bekaar Hindu criminal-tribe of the Deccan who were previously among Tipoo Sultan's commanders and soldiers. But after the fall of his kingdom, they roam about even now committing dacoity.
In my opinion it is possible to put an end the lust for battle ingrained in these habituated criminals and make them normal by enrolling them in the army. Although many of these tribes converted to Islam later, they did not lose their ingrained battle-lust. Even today, when they riot over possession of land, it is the art of war that they display in the fights. They fight on plain fields far from villages. From one side one may yell, 'Karim Bhai guard yourself! Here, I throw the dart targeting your nose, no-o-o-s-e!' Then Karim, swiftly saving his nose with a bamboo shield shouts, 'Radhu Uncle, guard your eyes, ey-e-e-s! Here, I throw my spear, guard yourself!' Despite fighting in this fashion beside canals or on fields, they never disturbed the peace inside a village. These riots occur because of personal, economic or surrounding circumstances. Those who see any communal taint in them are mistaken.
Besides spears with curved blades, these tribal people use a type of brass or bell-metal plate with serrated edges. These are spun and thrown with such force that they can slice off any person's head very far off. Placing pebbles in loops of string and whirling them about, they throw these in such a way that, speeding like bullets, they succeed in killing people. In the past, dacoits and warriors used such plates with serrated edges in battles and skirmishes. On studying all these matters, it is possible to find out much about the origin of today's tribal dacoit gangs. Those of these mercenaries who, despite engaging in agricultural work, have been unable to change their life-style, it is they who made up the dacoit bands of the past and some of the criminal tribes of today.
Even at the beginning of British rule, many dacoit gangs made up of these martial people roamed the districts of Bengal. Among these dacoits Gaurey Bedey and Raghu Dakat were prominent. Both lived in Halisahar Parganas of the 24 Parganas. On the fringes of Madral village near Naihati the ruins of Raghu Dakat's Kali temple still exist. The local people believe that even now, if the surrounding wasteland is dug up, the treasures buried by dacoits can be found.
In those days if any distant village were to be visited, villagers would usually leave home only after making their wills or having made permanent arrangements for their lands and property, because every moment of travel was beset with the fear of losing their lives at the hands of dacoits or thengaariyaa [staff wielding murderous gangs]. Even today tales of such thengaariyaa fields or dacoits' Kali can be heard in villages. When these dacoits came to eat at any zamindar's place, they never took salt. That is, they used to take salt-less food, for they knew that good relations might not continue forever with these zamindars. Hunting for hidden treasure, they have tied men to posts and scorched them with kolkey (clay pipes for smoking tobacco), but as for women, let alone touch them, they never even tried to take a single ornament off their bodies. But this cannot be said about dacoits of today. Modern dacoits at times perpetrate unspeakable atrocities indiscriminately on women and men.
Among dacoit gangs of today the criminal tribe of Toontia Muslims and the Bagdi and Dom tribes are prominent. Even today they use the paddy-husking pedal (dhenki) for dacoity. This husking pedal is nothing but a simple implement to husk paddy. It can be seen in the houses of all classes of people'rich and poor'in villages. These criminals rob a paddy-husker from a poor person's home and suspend it a little above the ground on three bamboo posts. The instrument thus made is called the dhenki kol. In old days European soldiers also used such an implement for breaking down walls of forts. This was called battering ram. Bringing this paddy-husker on poles to the rich man's door, by means of a rope the suspended pedal was drawn back and then released at high velocity to hit the door. By repeated violent blows of this pedal, any door or brick wall would collapse.
The Toontia Muslims, besides using this paddy-husker, also climb up steep walls. Thus, after one of them enters the house and opens the main gate, the rest rush in with shouts. Before the dacoity they tie up the doors of adjoining householders with rope so that on hearing the shouts none of them can come to help the victims. They carry out dacoity using torches and staves. In some cases, throwing down small children prone on their stomachs and planting their feet on their backs they have ripped off the golden girdles around their waists. This band of dacoits has also snatched ornaments from women's bodies. While fleeing, 'flies swarm thick, draw in the net' is the phrase they use which actually means, 'flies are collecting in bands, now make off.' At the time of their operations or while returning these dacoits signal their positions to one another by imitating the call of jackals.
The Magheyaa Doms also behave like these Toontia Muslims. They usually commit dacoities in the districts of Jessore, Midnapur, Nadia, Hugli and Burdwan. Among Hindus, the Pod, Baagdi, Keoraa and Thaaru people also commit dacoity. Of Hindi speaking Hindus, the Kurmis of Champaaran, Paaloyaar, Dusaad and Raibodhli, and the Baaraabaatrik Parsis also roam Bengal committing dacoity. The martial Bhimji tribe of Midnapur, Birbhum, Bankura and Manbhum and the Bhobs of Bihar also go about committing dacoity. For dacoity they use sword, spear, axe, torch and at times even guns and dynamite. Besides this, they also use a type of mask. Some of them apply bitumen in such a way all over their faces that none can recognize them. From the code words they use during arrival, return and travel, it can be easily understood that they are the mercenaries of old. By way of example only two such code words are reproduced here: 'Bro', i.e. 'go' (quick march) and 'Baybro' i.e. 'go fast' (double march). Besides this, among these criminal tribes the system of finger or hand signals was also prevalent.
Among the dacoit gangs of the past Thugis and Pindaris were prominent. They used to rob travelers of their money and belongings. Knotting a coin at an end of a strip of cloth (rumaal), they would fling that knot around the victim's throat in such a manner that it became a noose. Killing people in this way they used to loot all their belongings. Their leaders used to issue commands in Sanskrit words. For suppressing them a special section was added to the IPC. Fortunately, at present this dacoit gang is extinct. Many zamindars of those days are said to have helped them secretly. It has even been heard that mistakenly killing their very employer's son-in-law, they have brought his golden necklace and ring to the zamindar.*
In rural areas there are many such dacoit gangs who are said to announce their location to one another by imitating animal calls. Leaders quite often convey instructions thereby to members of the gang to meet at a particular spot. There are many such criminal tribes as are said even today to commit misdeeds voicing such animal calls. For example the Bauri tribe of Bengal can be cited. Regarding this the following account is worth attention:
'My residence was in a village of Burdwan. It is matter of long ago when I was a child. In the living room father was seated playing dice with our neighbor Mr. Mukherjee. It was about 1230 at night. Suddenly a jackal's howl was heard'huyaa-yaa-yaa, hoo-oo-huyaa! Startled, Mukherjee Moshai told father, 'No, Banerjee, this isn't good, for it is a female jackal's cry. It seems a female jackal's cry is a terrible thing. Usually, never does a solitary jackal howl. If one howls at once many other jackals join in howling together. Actually, some dacoit leader was directing his followers to meet at a particular spot by imitating a jackal's cry. At Mr. Mukherjee's word father quickly got up and shut the narrow staircase. Mr. Mukherjee also did not delay any more and left for his house. In the morning I heard dacoity had occurred in the village. The dacoits had cut the goldsmith Mano into two and looted all he had.'
Ferocious beasts voice a terrifying cry before attacking the victim. Hearing this roar or cry, the weak become fearful and powerless as it is, let alone resist. In such a condition, they are even unable to flee, for their blood congeals, they lose control of their nerves and soon thereafter these ferocious beasts leap upon their prey and kill it. It is for this reason that tigers and lions roar. The dacoits of this region are also fully aware of such tactics. Before attacking any household, they repeatedly cry out imitating the call of these beasts. They call this the 'Jeergaa' cry. In common parlance this cry is termed 'voicing jeergaa,' such as, 'aabaa aabaa aabaa aa', 'iyaa yaa yaa', or 'o, o, o--ay ay ay', or 'ray ray ray' etc. The Namo-sudras, Bagdis and other martial races of this region voice this 'jeergaa' call quite often. On coming across them suddenly should any householder ask, 'Who's it?' then in reply they say: 'Your death,' or 'your father' etc.
In this region one will see such scrawny persons as no one would believe to be dacoits. But after swallowing a jug or two of taadi (fermented palm juice) they turn into terrible dacoits and then their nature is no longer timid.
Some dacoits of today adopt a novel tactic to persuade householders to open their doors. At night one of them goes ahead and knocking on the door cries out, imitating a postal peon, 'Babu, telegram, there's a telegram!' In this region telegrams usually bear ill news. There is no custom of sending telegrams for auspicious occasions. Immediately on hearing that a telegram has arrived, the worried householders hurriedly rush to open the door. Then, the moment the door is found open, dacoits succeed in entering the house in a band. In some cases a group of them disguised as teams of wandering jatra players or minstrels attract most of the villagers to the edge of the village by staging a play or a dance programme and keep them engaged there. Taking this chance, another group of theirs attacks a rich man's house at the other end of the village and achieves their goal. Sometimes one of them pretends to be a spy and informs the notice that a dacoity is going to be committed in a village. Receiving this information, the police gather all their forces in that village. In the meantime, that dacoit gang attacks another village and loots it all through the night.
City criminals have adopted a novel tactic for robbery and looting these days. Regarding this the following account deserves note:
'I am a cloth merchant. The lack of supplies for over a month has nearly wound up my business. In the meantime, I got information through a middleman that such and such a person will sell cloth in the black market. After this, according to the arrangements, I arrived at the specified place with five thousand rupees. Immediately on arrival, a group of people with knives jumped upon me and snatching all my money, left. I was left with stab wounds on my hands and back.'
In this manner, for buying a house or on the pretext of providing a prohibited item, they delude people to a lonely place and loot their money and belongings. Stories of such crimes are heard quite often in big cities. Regarding this the following account is worth noting:
'I joined their gang as a bid-gambler or Nausera cheat. But on arriving at their den, I found not race of cards or gambling. I found their only work be fooling people and snatching their belongings. Finally, fed up, I left this dacoit gang and left in search of a genuine Nausera gang.'
Sometime back, a dacoity was committed on a Zamindar's house in Rajshahi in a new way. In this crime, the dacoit gang proceeded disguised as a marriage procession, playing the band. It seems even a map showing the route from the station to the village was seen with them.
In recent times railway robbery features as a major type of dacoity. In this crime a member of the gang rides on the train and according to the plan pulls the emergency chain on reaching a lonely deserted place to stop the train. The gang members are present there already as previously arranged and the moment the train arrives, they board it and start looting.
These days some dacoits are found to be unnecessarily cruel, even killing people without reason for very little money. Such a mentality has taken root among them only because of extreme materialism. For this it is lack of faith in religion that is responsible. Usually they are first time criminals. In their view, sin and virtue are merely distortions of the mind. Besides this, some of them become so nervous and excited on the spot that they lose all sense of discrimination at that time. In this condition, they kill whosoever they find before them quite indiscriminately. At this time, they become a sort of patient owing to lack of practice. It is the lack of self-control that is the reason for this. But this cannot be said about genuine or professional dacoits for they have taken to crime as a profession. They know full well that such needless cruelty is harmful to their business. Regarding good and evil they have their own views. For this reason, if there is too much of weeping and wailing, some of them have even left behind part of a householder's looted stuff. They never lose patience having arrived at the spot. Besides this, there are even such dacoits in this region who apparently commit dacoity just to enjoy the thrill or for some romantic reason. Regarding this I quote a gentleman dacoit's account:
'Imagine a house. Leaping across the wall, I have entered the house with my gang. The men and women folk of the household have begun to run helter-skelter fearing for their lives, and I am standing before them like a conquering hero. Can you imagine anything more romantic than this?'
These days some local dacoits are found who tie bamboos across the highway to loot travelers going by motor vehicles. Regarding this an account is given below:
'I was traveling by car with my family to a place. Suddenly I saw a group of people lifting a bamboo pole over the road.** Immediately comprehending the situation, I speedily drove the car in reverse to quite some distance and then sped off turning it around. The dacoit gang came running but could not reach us.'
During the Muslim rule, these dacoit gangs had established a parallel government in many places. Of course, local zamindars had also helped them in this. Although, the Muslims had established supremacy in the towns and the capital of Hindustan, they had no powers in the villages or remote areas of the country. In those places, the Zamindars and dacoit leaders ruled unchallenged. Because of this, at the rise of Marathas, Jats and Rajputs etc., the Mughal Empire easily collapsed.