The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Last bandit queen standing

Kanpur, Sept. 12: The ravines are losing their feminine touch.

Even not many days ago, women dacoits used to roam the inhospitable terrain, their pretty faces masking the terror that their male counterparts embodied. And when the air got cool and crisp after sundown, they would light up the night for their lawless band.

Today, only one woman ' if an 18-year-old can be called that ' is left of the lot that once had the likes of Phoolan Devi and Kushma Nain. Manorama, the queen of the Satpal gang, is the only pretty face the ravines can boast now after Sarala Jatav’s arrest last week.

A series of encounter deaths and surrenders have taken their toll while some gangs say they have stopped recruiting women as they have often broken up groups.

Aurat to dal ka atank ban chuke hai (women have become a nightmare for us),” Nirbhay Gujjar, whose gang once had three women members ' Munni, Neelum and Sarala ' told reporters in Etawah over phone after Sarala’s arrest on September 8.

Nehi, nehi, aur aurat ko dal me ghusne nehi denge (No, no. There is no question of recruiting any more women).”

The relatively new Dharma Gujjar gang, which operates along the border of Bhind and Etawah districts, had recently abducted a minor girl but let her off fearing she could soon become a liability.

“For many gangs, women members had become a status symbol. But inter-gang rivalry and police crackdowns made them realise it was not safe for them to carry along women members,” says Etawah SSP Chaudhary Daljit Singh.

A survey on the ravines’ queens, by a women’s group hired by the anti-dacoity squad in Kanpur, says only one woman is still active in the rugged terrain: Manorama.

The group, which spoke to women dacoits and police informers, says the women were abducted from poor families but stayed on with the gang because of the way they used to be pampered. “One of the surrendered dacoits, Sunita Pandey, used to flaunt eight gold earrings,” the report of the NGO says. Sunita, it adds, said she “never dreamt of having this at her own house” and would have never got such a gift had she married a boy from her village.

Among those who have either surrendered or were arrested, a few still want to go back. In some cases, women dacoits got attached to their male gang members and even died together.

When on March 5, the police laid siege in the jungles of Aurraiya, Rajjan Gujjar could have left Lovely Pandey, his companion, and saved his own life. After an hour-long battle, the police found Lovely lying dead on the body of Rajjan Gujjar, their hands clasped.

Salara told the police she would like to begin her life afresh but said she was grateful to Nirbhay Gujjar for taking good care of her. She was wearing expensive clothes when the police arrested her at Etawah station as she waited for a train to Mumbai.

Kushma, a contemporary of Phoolan Devi, has turned spiritual and lives in a village temple.

So will the ravines draw no more women'

Could be, says A. Palnivel, the additional director-general of police, law and order. “Women have become more conscious and are exposed to more economic opportunities even in the villages.”

But Narmada Joshi, a woman activist in Kanpur, says it could be a temporary phase as the ravines “never remain empty of women for long”.

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