24/02/2017 6:42 PM IST | Updated 11/03/2017 7:40 AM IST

In This Samajwadi Party Stronghold, Bundelkhand's Deadliest Dacoit Still Rules Hearts And Minds

"Cleaning up UP politics is no child's play."

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CHITRAKOOT and FATEHPUR, Uttar Pradesh -- It was a strange scene at the office of Veer Singh Patel, the sitting legislator from Chitrakoot constituency fielded by the Samajwadi Party. While he was standing for re-election, earlier this week, the conversation revolved around his father, Shiv Kumar Patel, better known as Dadua, the most notorious and beloved dacoit of Bundelkhand.

For almost two hours, party workers extolled the virtues of Dadua, who they called a "God" and "saviour of the poor". This was despite the hundreds of cases of kidnappings and murders that were registered against Dadua in the three decades when he strode the region, larger than life, in a terrain spanning both sides of the Uttar Pradesh - Madhya Pradesh border.

While Dadua was killed in a police encounter way back in 2007, the motley crew of SP workers, who this reporter met, were made up of his old friends, relatives and even former gang members. One man present in the group recalling past times suddenly declared that he himself was once on a "Most Wanted" list. "We challenged the DM (district magistrate) and got him thrown out of here. We are not workers who can be intimidated," he said.

Another party worker talked animatedly about his own role in a forthcoming film on Dadua. He then recalled how the dacoit "would always sit with the poor people, listen to their ten questions and respond with a single reply." "He had no time for nonsense. People think of him as Bajrang Bali," he said. At this point, a relative of Dadua jumped in, vowing that he would never allow the movie to be released because it was about how dacoits survived for so long in Bundelkhand and that it painted Dadua in a bad light. "He only put down people who put down the most downtrodden," he said.

Gesturing in the direction of the Vindhyachal hills, the relative continued that Dadua's gang members still roamed its thick forests. A meeting could be arranged but one would have to be blindfolded en route to the spot, he said.

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Not content with words, the party workers said that the best way to tell stories about Dadua was through songs. Under a red-green poster of Veer with Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav pasted on the cement walls of the party office, Moolchand Yadav stood up to sing a paean in memory of the dacoit.

"Gareebon ka masiha, gaon gaon mein jaa kar rahte the wo, junglo mein bhi jeevan bitaate rahe, behen betiyon ko boori nazar se dekha nahin.

Koi bhi gareeb sunte unhe, ghar mein ja ja kar rupiyan diyen, behen Beti ka kanyadaan bhi kiye, koi bhi jaat ki kanya rahin."

(Messiah of the poor, he would live in the villages and the jungles, He would donate money to the poor, and help in getting the village girls married irrespective of their caste).

At this point, one could not help but wonder what the chief minister would have made of these eulogies to Dadua, considering his recent efforts to cast his party in a "clean" light, and to distance himself from outlaws.

One reason for Akhilesh's feud with his uncle Shivpal Yadav was on account of a partnership proposed with the Quami Ekta Dal of Mukhtar Ansari, another Robin Hood like figure with a criminal record and a mix of muscle-power and some goodwill. Many believe that the chief minister erred by rejecting Ansari, who was immediately welcomed by rival Mayawati into her fold. "All this is in the past now. We have simply decided to take the party on another path. A road to development," the chief minister had told HuffPost India in a recent interview.

In Chitrakoot, however, the residents that HuffPost India spoke with could rattle off the "many blessings" which Dadua conferred upon them. But they struggled to come up with anything convincing when asked about specific developmental works in the past five years. The two items mentioned over and over again was the monthly pension of ₹500 instituted by the Akhilesh Yadav government and the installation of solar lights in villages.

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In addition to his father's violent past, Veer himself has ten cases registered against him including abduction with intent to murder, extortion and bribery. The party workers scoffed at the idea of clean politics. As one SP party worker said, "Cleaning up UP politics is no child's play." It wasn't clear whether he meant Akhilesh Yadav, and he refused to elaborate. Another party worker said that buying and selling of party tickets for money was the worst-kept secret of UP politics. This remark was followed by jeers.

Among the 12 districts that voted on Thursday, including Chitrakoot, SP fielded the second highest number of candidates with criminals records after the Bharatiya Janata Party.

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Veer is caught in the shadows of his father. Those who have seen them both say that the soft-spoken and babyfaced politician bears a resemblance to his father but he is shorter, and not half as charismatic. The son of Dadua is either easily forgotten or blends into the background.

In a conversation with HuffPost India later in the day, Veer was in a bind. On the one hand, in light of Akhilesh's push for clean politics, he could not acknowledge the sway his father continued to have in his politics. On the other, denying Dadua's influence would hurt and anger his own supporters. "You can't remove the relationship between father and son," he said rather cautiously before talking about how "no one is scared of anyone now."

"Father is father. Father and son is a relationship that comes from the heavens", he continued before someone in his team cautioned him against speaking.

When asked about why he had installed an idol of his father, Veer said, "People can pay their respects if they want to."

But Veer is not the only politician to be in power because of Dadua. In fact, Dadua stands out from the other dacoits in the area because he became a political kingmaker. Local leaders from Mayawati's BSP and the SP became MLAs because they had Dadua's support, locals recall.

One widely reported firman (order) reads as follows: "Mohar lagegi haathi par, nahi toh goli chalegi chhaati par." (Mark your stamp on the elephant or get a bullet in the chest).

The legend around Dadua has only grown in the years since his death. Locals say that it is because of him that his brother won the Lok Sabha seat in the 2009 election for the SP, and his nephew Ram Pal Singh is the sitting MLA from Patti in the Pratapgarh district.

There was a time when the harsh topography of Bundelkhand, much of it scarred with ravines, was home to a host of bandits, but there were none to match the stature of Dadua, a kurmi (a caste primarily engaged in cultivation) and Phoolan Devi a mallah by caste (boatmen).

In a land afflicted with excruciating poverty, beset by casteism and corruption, abandoned by the state, people turned to dacoits for protection. These baghis or rebels ran their territories like warlords, collecting tribute and protection-money.

Though he was a killer and bandit, Dadua became famous for helping poor villagers after taking from the affluent and exploitative upper caste communities especially the Brahmins. The Bandits of today such as Babli Kol and Gauri Yadav have no such stature.

People talk about how he controlled the police and forced them to help the lower caste. There are stories about him helping the Kols collect firewood from the forests. But what people recall the most and speak of with great emotion is that he used to pay for the marriages of girls whose parents were too poor to afford the wedding expenses. What is also etched in the minds of people is that he never harassed any woman.

As one SP worker said, "A girl would be walking with a bundle of firewood on her head, alone, and he would not even look at her." Another one added, "There was mourning across the land when he died. Stoves were not lit. Women refused to cook."

It is with the support of the people and his influence with over 500 village pradhans that Dadua evaded capture for years. As the time of outlaws began to decline, Dadua gravitated towards politics. He supported the BSP since it emerged on the scene, and later the SP. Dadua, however, landed on a sticky wicket when he entered into a confrontation with Mayawati. He was killed in an encounter in the summer of 2007.

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While the era of the great dacoits has ended with the killing of Dadua, a strange mix of combativeness and estrangement continues in Bundelkhand. One can see that in the three-storey temple in Fatehpur district where Dadua's idol has been established by his son. Every year, locals say, lakhs come here in reverence to pay obeisance.

Badri Singh, a young man, credited Dadua with "development" in his village next to the temple. "You see all the development here, the good road and other economic activity is all the result of the temple he left us with. And you know why? Because officers and MLAs from all over come to the temple," Singh said.

"If it wasn't for this temple, do you think anyone would bother about our remote part of the world. Dadua put us on the map. He is like a God to us," he said.

One pilgrim in his twenties, who had come all the way from Allahabad said that the stories of Dadua had travelled to his town. "If I had known him or seen him then I would be the luckiest man in the world," he said. "I'm sure my life would have been very different."

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Dadua's house in his native village of Deokali is now reduced to rubble, but he lives on in the memories of several generations and in the imagination of the younger lot. People who vote for Veer have no qualms about saying they do so because of his father.

Moolchand Gupta, who runs a kirana store, remembers Dadua coming to the village after sunset under the cover of darkness camouflaged by the thick shrubbery and then leaving at dawn. The 45-year-old said Dadua always gifted him Rs.10 or Rs.15 if he saw him hanging around.

For a second time, Moolchand would vote for Veer to make him a legislator. "We elect the son as a gift to his father," he said.

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