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Dacoits: Their Dreaded Decades in Dehradun

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Bygone Doon:

By Pradeep Singh

Dehradun, as cities and towns go, is a relatively young one. In India, the antiquity of many towns defies accurate dating and, in cases of cities like Banaras and Haridwar, these revered precincts of the Hindus are often called “eternal cities” with unfathomable age, where temple bells and oil lamps have been heard and seen without a break in recorded history. The Doon Valley that keeps Doon in its bosom was for much of known history considered ‘terra incognita’.

But no place can be an island to itself for all times; thus sometime in the medieval period of our history (1500 AD or so onwards) the Valley began to see contests amongst princely houses for its possession. The main contenders in this tussle for territory were the royals of Garhwal and Sirmaur. The fate of the Valley thus fluctuated periodically with gains to the one who flexed military might to its advantage. In the balance, the Rajas of Garhwal retained the Doon Valley more often, whereas the western portion bordering the Yamuna River was never a fully settled border between the contestants.

It was during the declining years of the Mughal Empire that one of its energetic Rohilla nobles, Najibudaula, became interested in the Doon Valley. Appointed the Faujdar of Saharanpur in 1753, he extended his jurisdiction beyond the Siwaliks into the Doon in an ethos where extension of agriculture at the expense of felling trees and clearing forests was a state policy, as land revenue was still the chief income of the exchequer.

Najibudaula’s two decade long administration of the district was a period of orderly growth as evidenced by later colonial records. Laying out of mango orchards on a vast scale was a feature of Najib’s legacy. These halcyon days, however, ended with this capable noble’s death in 1770.

The downside of Najib’s opening up of the Valley was that, on his exiting the stage of history, the Doon became a playground of bandits and free-booters, who by now knew the several passes into the Valley that had till now been unknown, and beyond lay villages which were easy prey.

The measure of relative prosperity that had started to emerge in the Doon became a cause for regular incursions into it from across the Siwaliks through the passes at Kansrao, Kheri and Haridwar in the east. In the central portion, the Siwaliks were breached by the Mohand Pass and further west was the more accessible Timli Pass. These defiles into the Doon Valley allowed movement of large bodies of dacoits to and from the Valley with impunity. The residents of the Doon for decades were at the mercy of these dacoits and life and limb, nor cattle or money, were safe from these depredations. The control over passes became means to enrich one’s self if one could collect a large band of desperados. In the times we talk of, a Gujjar or a Rajput chief of Saharanpur could muster up to several hundred men at the blink of an eye. The run of poor harvests over a period in Saharanpur region had put its peasantry in dire straits, whose members readily joined the ranks of the dacoits. Under such circumstances, one enterprising chieftain appropriated two passes (Haridwar and Kansrao) to his exclusive use. He could be neutralised with great difficulty by the Raja of Garhwal through bestowing of a title and a daughter’s hand in marriage to the upstart.

It goes to the credit of the Raja that he was willing to go to such an extent to ensure some protection for his subjects in the Valley. His crown did not sit comfortably on his royal head but he was steadfast in his dharma towards his people.

It was not many decades later that the Gorkhas, on a mission to annex territories beyond their natural borders, occupied the Doon Valley and for a period it put paid to the exploits of the dacoits from across the Siwaliks. This happened as the no nonsense Gorkha commanders meted out exemplary retribution with their khukris to the transgressors. Relieved of the dacoits from Saharanpur and Sikh raids from across the Yamuna, the Doon population now felt the iron rod of the new oppressors, who ruled the valley for a decade from 1804 till 1814 and then were pushed out by the juggernaut of the East India Company.

The new dispensation in the form of the administrative set up of the East India Company (say the British) was not immediately a well oiled machine and it was many years before some semblance of order became discernible in Doon. Not much later, the dacoits resurfaced in the Valley and frustrated the already burdened administrators like FJ Shore (Assistant Collector) and Fredrick Young (Commandant of Sirmaur Battalion). A new menace in the shape of Kallua, dacoit chief of Saharanpur, with able but notorious aides like Kuwar and Bhura, started his forays into the Valley. Nawada on the southern outskirts of Doon was pillaged in May 1824 and the dacoits melted away into the wooded defiles that led back to Saharanpur. Again the dacoits raided Raipur, a village of prosperous Gaur Brahmin landowners. It is to the credit of FJ Shore and Fredrick Young that they persevered in their mission to put an end to what was locally called: Kalluagirdi (terror of Kallua). Going in search and pursuit of the gang of these dacoits, both Shore and Young with a strong detachment of Gorkhas cornered Kallua and his members in their hideout in the Kunja Fort. Here, cut off from escape and fighting to the last, Kallua and over 150 of his comrades met their end in much hand to hand fighting with the khukri wielding Gorkhas.

Some hundred years later, in 1922-23, the legendary Sultana Daku passed through eastern Doon villages of Nawada and Badripur when escaping the police dragnet, but by then he was a pale shadow of his dreaded persona. Caught soon after, he was hanged after a trial in June 1924 in the Haldwani Jail, a full century after the shadow of Kallua had ceased to darken the home and hearth of simple rustics of Doon.

[Pradeep Singh is an historian and the author of ” Suswa Saga: A Family Narrative of Eastern Dehradun” (2011) and “Sals of the Valley: A Memorial to Dehradun” (2017)]