| The vigilantes search passengers on a bus. Picture by Amit Datta
Behrampore, Oct. 22: Moti Sheikh works the fields during the day. After sundown, while others go home for rest and a good night’s sleep, he dons a khaki uniform and heads for the highway. For 12 hours from 6 in the evening, he helps police patrol a 10-km stretch of National Highway 34, against the threat posed by his former mates.
Not long ago, Sheikh was one of the dacoits who terrorised the passengers of the buses passing through Murshidabad.
Today, there has been a drop in robberies, vindicating the four-year experiment of the Samshergunge administration. Sheikh and 73 others like him constitute the Samshergunge Thana Paribahan Suraksha Committee, which works to detect if highway robbers are travelling on board buses passing through the area posing as passengers.
“All of us keep our eyes open so that no criminals can escape us. Generally, we intercept buses at the crossings of Dhulian and Pakur and conduct a thorough search of the luggage and other merchandise on board the bus. Apart from that we have been instructed to carry out surprise checks so that no one can rob the passengers. I am enjoying my stint here,” said Sheikh.
One of Sheikh’s colleagues is 25-year-old Turikal Islam, once a notorious criminal with expertise in handling firearms and explosives.
“I had committed more than 20 robberies before I realised that the path of violence I had taken up would not help me in the long run. I was always on the run and did not have a permanent address. Finally I decided to surrender to the police and they in turn have provided me with an opportunity to lead a more decent life,” Islam said.
Murshidabad superintendent of police Gyanwant Singh, who had taken the initiative to help the criminals rejoin the mainstream, said all of them are doing a wonderful job. “These former criminals helped us round up four dacoits from the highway and several arms were recovered from them. The response we have got from them is amazing. I am confident that they can lead a life of dignity provided they are given a chance,” he said.
According to Singh, the administration has also fixed a salary of Rs 500 to Rs 1,500 per month for the guards. “They are all happy with the extra income. Most of them have told us that they are satisfied with the job as they can serve the people,” he added.
Most of the reformed robbers do some work in the mornings — some are farmers, like Sheikh, while others run small shops.
The district administration seems happy with this experience after an attempt to rehabilitate 22 criminals at Beldanga flopped last year. Efforts to turn the law-breakers into law-keepers failed as the authorities could not pay them regular salaries.
But the Samshergunge committee has kept the faith. “They handed over one of their members, Adam Sheikh, to the police because he went back to his old habits. Adam was a notorious criminal, but after his arrest he promised to join the STPSC. We made arrangements but within a few days he was back in business. The STPSC members went to his village and caught him,” said Singh.