The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Veerappan clone in priest robes

Etawah, Aug. 31: Abi mat awo, awoge to goli khaoge (Don’t come now. If you do, you will face bullets),” a voice barked.

Then, as suddenly as it had come to life after seven hours of trying, the phone line died. Connection with the Veerappan of Chambal — who has given police the slip for 22 years — was lost.

That was at 5.15 pm yesterday.

But the buzz was that Nirbhay Gujjar would come to meet sister Bharti on Raksha Bandhan. Gangadaspur village, home to the dacoit who killed two persons as a warning after his surrender offer was rebuffed recently and has threatened to kill more, was crawling with jawans from the Provincial Armed Constabulary.

The Chambal ravines, where the 58-year-old dacoit rules, are a 15-minute trek from Gangadaspur. The village is 11 km by a potholed road — the last 4 km a kutcha path — from Moradganj, 42 km from here on Etawah-Kanpur Road.

Gujjar has many friends in the region, who double as his agents. One of them agreed to act as an escort. At 8 pm, he was waiting at a tea stall at Aiyana, on the way from Moradganj to Gangadaspur. From there, it was a 4-km walk to the village. Another 45 minutes — 30 spent trudging through the ravines, where dwarfish babul trees offer a thick cover — and a white Shiva temple sprang into view. With two stops on the way, the journey ended at 2.30 am today.

At 4 am, a man arrived to announce that it was time for puja. It was still dark and howls of dogs occasionally broke the silence. Four armed men guarded the temple, located on a high ground by the Yamuna. About a quarter of a km away, four more guards formed another ring.

Muffled chants of mantra rose from the temple. A mustard oil lamp flickered inside, lighting up the priest’s face. His long, flowing hair was hanging loose at the back. He wore a string of grey beads around his neck and several metal rings.

Soon after, the priest stepped out. He was wearing dark blue trousers and a loose white shirt. He tied his hair at the back with a rubberband and combed his beard. Taking some fruit and starting to munch, he roared: “You call me the Veerappan of Chambal. I will prove to be more powerful.”

By Gujjar’s side was Sarala Jatav, the wife of adopted son Shyam who ran away with the dacoit’s fourth wife Neelam. Sarala, a fair girl in blue jeans, short shirt and scarf and wielding an indigenous rifle, hid from the camera.

“Who will challenge me here'” he thundered, playing to the gallery. Gujjar laughed at the police, who have launched a crackdown. “They are chasing anyone who resembles me remotely.”

“We have deployed over 400 PAC personnel in the jungles to track him down. He will be killed soon,” said Mukul Goel, DIG of Kanpur who had camped in Etawah for some time.

One of the conditions for surrender is that Sarala be allowed to go free. Like Shyam, she was kidnapped and raised in the gang after her parents failed to pay ransom. Her husband alleges that she has an illicit relationship with Gujjar.

Early this month, the dacoit had said he would surrender. But, he said, “one of the chief ministers (of MP or UP) will have to be present.”

Is he upset that Mulayam Singh Yadav did not organise a surrender ceremony' Gujjar is believed to be close to the Samajwadi Party. “I am not bothered. I had offered to surrender not because I am scared of the police .I want to do social work. But now I feel it was taken as my weakness.”

So has he given up the plan to surrender' “What I once say I will do, I do,” he shot back.

Gujjar stopped at the temple for 25 minutes before disappearing, giving police — lying in wait for their man only 45 minutes away — the slip once again.

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