Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Marauding Horsemen of Bihar

The Marauding Horsemen of Bihar
Syed Ali Mujtaba

On the banks of the meandering river Ganges, some 120 km east of Indian state of Bihar’s capital Patna is a sleepy town called Mungaer. Here a motor launch or a local boat ferries people to the other side of the river called Mungaer ghat. Some taxi-jeeps wait there to take passengers to Maansi railway station from where trains go to north Bihar.

During some part of the year especially summers and monsoon, this stretch of distance from the Mungaer Ghat to the Maansi railway station is any traveler’s nightmare. For, armed criminals on horsebacks suddenly appear on the scene to harass and rob the passengers of cash and other valuables on board the overcrowded jeeps or those who prefer to trek the distance to the station.

The law enforcing agencies have little grip over these marauding horsemen who roam as freebooters only to be chased when their menace becomes a constant threat.

At times it’s almost like a movie scene with the jeeps transporting the commuters and the criminals chasing them; the hurrying commuters disembarking from the jeeps and boarding the motor launch that immediately sails off to escape from the approaching horsemen.

Those who are unlucky are waylaid. Women and children are the worst victims of these criminals. So are those, who can’t afford the jeep fare and trek the distance with belongings on their heads.

Police sources, however, say waylaying of passengers on Mungaer ghat is not a common phenomenon. Seldom such activities take place and only occur when regular source of income of these gangs dries up. Once such incidents come to light, police immediately swing into action and these criminals are chased away. Most of these gangs don’t thrive for long and whenever the law enforcing agencies become strict these gangs are eliminated. In fact many police officers in Bihar have gained popularity eliminating top criminals of these gangs.

The bridge over the river Ganges that’s being constructed currently at Mungaer is touted to solve the long-standing problems of the passengers going to north Bihar from the terror of these marauding horsemen but that’s no solution to the real problem. The emergence of these horsemen is not a new phenomenon on a vast track of land that opens up due to the shrinking of the river Ganges during the dry season. Locally know as “Diara,” area, these land are dotted with maize and corn fields, providing an ideal sanctuary for these criminals to hide and operate from there as gangs, the tick vegetation and an unmotorable terrain, being in their favour.

These gangsters belong to different castes. Yadav, Bhumihar, Dhanuk, Dhari castes are notable among them. The name of Kamdev Singh, a Bhumihar, who struck terror in the early seventies, still sends chill down one’s spine. The recent names to reckon with are Kailo Yadav, Kapil Yadav and Ramji Dahari.

Each gang has its own jurisdiction to carry on its criminal activities of docaity, kidnapping, extortion, contract killing and even settling local property disputes.

These gangs operate in typical filmy style raiding the village on their horses. First they surround the hamlet from all sides, and then some of them enter the houses in search of valuables. They prey on healthy horses owned by cart operators and also abduct villagers. The entire village remains a mute spectator to such crimes. The lack of communication delays reporting of these crimes and law enforcing agencies take long to reach the spot.

There is a dispute over the date on which these criminal gangs started operating in these areas. Some trace it to the days of the British Raj, others say it was since post independence particularly after the criminalisation of politics in Bihar when criminals were being groomed under political patronage for winning the elections.

Irrespective of the dates, come elections and these gangs have a field day. Every political party approaches them for capturing poll booths. The deal is these criminals would fetch them votes and in return the politicians may shield them in the post election period. Some gangsters in recent times have themselves been contesting elections on political parties ticket and those doing so independently bargain hard for supporting the political parties.

The fact of history is such gangs never get eliminated permanently. They keep on cropping up from time to time. Little attention is being paid by the state government to tackle this problem on a long-term basis. And given the criminal- politician nexus in Bihar, this may never happen for some time to come.

Facts sheet: Munger Finds Mention in Historical Records

Mungaer, a district headquarter town of Bihar is full of reference in the Indian historical record books. It was sandwiched between the Kingdoms of Patliputra (Patna) and Champanager (Bhagalpur), a silk weaving center during the rise of Mahajanpadas (kingdoms) in 6000 BC in India. Mungaer had the unique distinction of having in proximity two premier universities of ancient India Vikramsila (Bhagalpur) in east and Nalanda near Patna in west.

Partliputra serving as a seat of power in India for about a millennium used the land and river route through Mungaer to reach Bengal. Greek traveler Magesthenese in his records mentions that the King of Patliputra Chandragupta made a fort in Mungaer with the river Ganges on the rear.

Mungaer formed the boundary between the rulers of Bengal and those of the north India. It finds mention as a camp of victory under the Pala kings, particularly Devapala. It’s also find mention in the record of the Partihara rulers of the east who advanced north to capture Patliputra. A Pratihara record of 837 AD tells that a chieftain named Kaka gained recognition fighting the Gudas at Mungaer.

During the medieval times Mungaer became the permanent highway for the marching armies from the north to the east of India. Numerous caravans plied the land route through Mungaer to the Bengal. There was brisk navigation on the river Ganges saw boats piling through Mungaer, Bhagalpur to up to Bengal.

Mungaer finds mention in records of the Khalji rulers of Delhi who expanded to the east of India. King Bhaktiyar Khalji (1206 AD) deputed his son Hussain Mubarak to look after the east of India and historical records say he reconstructed a fort at Mungaer.

Shershah Suri, who hailed from Sasaram in Bihar shot into prominence as the naib of the nohani tribe defeating the Sarwani tribe of Bengal at the battle of Surajgarh (1533) a few miles away from Mungaer. The wily Afghan went on to become the ruler of India defeating the second Mughal King Humayun.

During Mughals, Mungaer continued to remain an important place due to its proximity to Bengal and also due to silver mines near its hills. Mughal records mention that during Akbar’s time silver mining was going on near Mungaer at the Kharagpur hills. Shah Suja, son of Shah Jahn who was incharge of the east of India developed Mungaer as a military garrison town after shifting his capital from Dhaka to Rajmahal. Mungaer’s importance as a gun-making center owes its origin to Shah Suja’s time. He was also responsible for the fortification of the existing structure of the Mungaer fort.

During the war of succession that was bitterly fought among the sons of Shah Jhan in 1658, Shah Suja marched to Delhi from Bengal and history records say that Sulaiman Sikoh and Mirza Raja Jai Singh chased him out of Delhi and pursued till Mungaer.

After the decline of the Mughals, Mungaer came under their domination of the Nawabs of Bengal who controlled the whole of Bihar. Mir Qasim one of the rulers of Bengal repaired and garrisoned the Mungaer fort to put up a resistance against the British expansion to the north. It was at Mungaer that Mir Qasim fought the loosing battle with the British and the remnants of which still stands a testimony. The British finally defeated Mir Qasim at the battle of Buxar in 1764 and made Mungaer a retreat for the British East India army.

Mungaer became a special attraction for the British officials serving in Calcutta presidency and use to frequent the place for vacations. British took special interest to develop Mungaer along lines of a small English town. The fort area was exclusive zone where British residents owned huge villas and clubs, polo ground, gardens and churches were developed inside it. The ‘Company Garden’ here had all the hallmarks of London’s Hide Park.

Munger flourished during the British rule and Indian Tobacco Company (ITC) factory and a Railway locomotive workshop was established during its time. The development of Mungaer attracted the landed aristocracy who built palatial houses that still dots its space.

As long as Calcutta remained the headquarters of the South- East Asian trade, Mungaer thrived being part of the land and navigational trade route of Indian hinterland to Bengal. However, Mungaer’s importance declined after the introduction of the Railways that left it out from the main line that was laid from north India to connect Bengal. Mungaer’s importance further declined India’s capital was shifted to Delhi from Calcutta in 1912. Calcutta’s decline as a flourishing trade centers on the East coast of India further piped Mungaer to oblivion.

In the post independent India there is nothing that Mungaer could boast off. With practically little economic activity going on in this historical town, Mungaer represents a ghost city where life has come to a stand still. People have pinned hopes on the construction of the bridge over river Ganges to revive the sagging fortunes of Mungaer but the light at the end of the tunnel seems still far away.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist currently based in Chennai. He hails from Munger and often frequents his hometown. He can be contacted at syedalimujtaba@yahoo.com


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