While traversing the country from north to south you would have passed through a land criss-crossed by deep ravines and dense jungles, set in the very heart of India, in Madhya Pradesh. This is the Chambal Valley-a place you must have heard or read about, even if you have never seen it. The name is enough to strike terror in one's heart-for this area has, through the ages, been an ideal sanctuary for people who, for various reasons, have turned outlaws. The martial background of the people, their fight against alien invaders and rulers, and the immense socio-economic disparities, have combined to produce rebels or "baghis"-a name also given to the dacoits.
Our story goes back to the 1960's when Tehsildar Singh, son of legendary dacoit Man Singh wrote a letter to Vinoba Bhave from his cell in Naini Jail. He was serving a death sentence and wanted to see Vinoba once to discuss the problem of dacoity in Chambal and how to rid it of the curse. Although Vinoba was on a padyatra in Kashmir at that time, Tehsildar Singh's letter drew him to the Chambal. In May 1960, he went round the valley, spreading his message of truth, love and compassion with the active co-operation of one Major General Yadunath Singh. Twenty dacoits surrendered their arms before him: it was a triumph of non-violence and human good sense. The dacoits were prepared to face the law courts and jail sentences courageously. The specially constituted Chambal Valley Peace Committee helped them in their efforts. After their release, they were given Bhoodan lands to lead a simple and peaceful life---they had no ambition of becoming film stars or politicians or gaining cheap publicity.
Legal and administrative wrangles proved to be obstacles to further surrenders, until eleven years later, in 1971, when Jagroop Singh, an emissary of Madho Singh, another notorious dacoit, met Vinoba to request him to come to the Chambal once again. But Vinoba had taken Kshetra Sanyas and expressed his inability to help. He directed them to Shri Jayaprakash Narayan--or JP.Madho Singh himself undertook this task and in the guise and name of one Ram Singh, a contractor, traced JP to Patna. In spite of his preoccupations and ill health, JP sensing a genuine change of heart and desire to solve the problem of dacoity, agreed to take up the challenge. He wrote to the Chief Ministers and government officials of Madhya Pradesh, Utter Pradesh and Rajasthan and requested two of his colleagues, Shri Mahavir Bhai and Shri Hem Deo Sharma, to help. After getting encouraging replies, he issued an appeal on 13 December 1971, advising them to surrender, requesting the community to open its doors for their peaceful return to normal life and the government-to consider their cases sympathetically. For six months, JP conducted his "Operation Persuasion" not as a spiritual leader but as a social worker. Except for the dare-devil Madho Singh, his contacts with the dacoits were through the Chambal Ghati Shanti Mission. Assisted by Pandit Lokman Dikshit, and Tehsildar Singh (ex-dacoits) and Madho Singh they worked day and night, not caring about their personal safety. The dacoits had to be traced in their hideouts, deep in the jungles and ravines. The Madhya Pradesh police had created an undeclared peace zone to make mobilization easier. JP came into personal contact with the dacoits when he camped at the Pagara Dak Bungalow 70 kms. away from Gwalior and situated atop a hill. The dacoits with their families had been camping in the village of Dhorera down the hill. Dhorera, an otherwise sleepy village, won world-wide fame almost overnight. The first to come to meet JP was Mohar Singh who carried the highest reward of Rs. 2 lakh on his head. The government was sceptical about his desire to surrender because, unlike Madho Singh's, his gang was intact and he was equipped with most modern arms. He told JP that his only condition for surrender was that he should be the first!
The dacoits formally surrendered in batches at the Mahatma Gandhi Seva Ashram in Joura, on 14 and 16 April 1972. Thousands watched them lay down their arms in front of a portrait of Gandhiji, and cheered them as they shouted "Mahatma Gandhi ki Jai", "Vinobaji ki Jai", "Jaiprakashji ki Jai." A wave of relief seemed to sweep the Valley of Terror.
(Adopted from 'Chambal Ka Bandooke, Gandhi Ke Charanon me' by prabhash Joshi, Anupam Mishra and shravan Kumar Garg)