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‘Gabbar Singh’ of 19th Century Dehradun

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By Kulbhushan Kain

Gabbar Singh was an iconic dacoit enacted by the late Amjad Khan in the all time great Indian film, ‘Sholay’. These days we don’t much see or hear of dacoits, but there was a time that, in some pockets, their writ ran large. This was especially true of the Chambal ravines which were infested with dacoits. Most Indians know about Paan Singh Tomar, Phoolan Devi, Man Singh, Malkhan Singh and Mohar Singh. Their names sent shudders down the spines of nearly everyone.

However, by the late ‘80s and the ‘90s, their influence declined when the governments went after them. Many surrendered, and some were killed. Their fear subsided, and I remember driving at least 20 times through the Chambal ravines from Bhopal to Delhi and back, (many times after midnight) and though there was apprehension – we never felt threatened or that we were taking a risk.

The lives of many dacoits have been documented and made into popular movies – Paan Singh Tomar, Bandit Queen, Mera Gaon Mera Desh, and many more.

These dacoits however do not appear as dangerous as Kallu Gurjar – a bandit, a part time politician and a dreaded dacoit. To understand him better, one needs to know a bit about the times that gave rise to him.

Dehradun was a part of the Garhwal Kingdom and is believed to have been named after the camp, or “dera”, established by Guru Ram Rai, who came to it in 1675. The Kingdom of Garhwal was founded in 1358 by Ajai Pal and continued, largely uninterrupted till 1803, when the Gurkhas invaded Kumaon and Garhwal. Briefly in between, Najib-ul-Daula, the Governor of Saharanpur, who later founded the city of Najibabad, invaded Dehradun with his army of Rohillas and ruled here, (though not Garhwal) but after his death in 1770, Pradyuman Shah (the ruler of Garhwal) was able to recapture it. However politics, conspiracies, internecine quarrels in his court weakened him and attracted the eyes of the Gurkhas from across its border.
In 1804, the Gurkhas annexed Garhwal after a pitched battle at Khurbura (roughly corresponding to the area between today’s Nashville Road and the Gurudwara built by Ram Rai) in which Pradyuman Shah was killed leaving the region to be ruled with an iron fist by the Gurkha General Bal Bhadra Kunwar.
In the same year, the British had already taken over Saharanpur, which led to continuous skirmishes between the two armies, culminating in the Gurkha War (1814–1816), also known as the Anglo-Nepalese War. The Gurkhas were ousted after the siege of the fort of Nalapani (roughly the area in and around Shastradhara). The British established their rule over the eastern half of the Garhwal Kingdom and, along with Kumaon, Dehradun became part of British India.

The initial years of the British after annexing Dehradun were very testing. Local leaders who had supported the Garhwal Kings, or the Gorkhas, did their best to foster discontent. It must be kept in mind that Dehradun had see-sawed between war and peace. The Mughals were still ruling from Delhi, and British rule was still looked upon as temporary. But cometh the hour, cometh the man – in FJ Shore the British found an able administrator whose mental energy far outstripped his physical energy.

It was in these times that the myth of Kallu Gurjar started to grow. Because of poor economic conditions and the unsettled times, people had taken to dacoity. Kallu Gurjar was from Moradabad but had become active in Nagina and Haridwar as the leader of a large group of disciplined armed dacoits. They lived by pillage. Those who had seen him dared not describe him for fear of reprisal. His name rather than his actions created fear. Remember the Sholay dialogue, “Yahaa se 50-50 kos door, gaon mein jab bachaa raat ko rota haih, toh maa kehti haih ki beta so ja, nahi to Gabbar aa jayega.” From the sketchy information available, it seems that Kallu Gurjar had that kind of negative aura. He was ably assisted by his lieutenants Kuar and Bhura. His headquarters were at Kunja (Kunja Bahadurpur where he had allied with the Raja) a few miles west of Roorkee. Kallu Gurjar was also in league with the powerful chieftains of Moradabad and Meerut. All were hovering around the “sick man” of the Garhwal Kingdom – Dehradun.

Kallu Gurjar and his gang attacked Katarpur and Bhagwanpur, which they looted and plundered in 1824. In another incident, a police force of 200 was attacked when they were returning from Jwalapur (where now stands the BHEL), at Kalaihati. Kallu Gurjar’s successes inflated his self image – he assumed the title ‘Raja’ Kalyan Singh, and started sending messengers in various directions to exact tribute. He had a force estimated to be about 1000 bandits. The city of Saharanpur was attacked and the Zamindar of Raiwala was asked to pay a ransom by the self styled Raja. He was at the height of his chequered and violent life.

It was the beginning of the end. FJ Shore, Rivers Grindall, the Magistrate of Saharanpur, and Captain Young engaged him in a skirmish at the mud fort of Kunja, where he was supposedly captured and then hanged at Saharanpur.

How will he be remembered? At best a footnote in history. He lived by the sword and died by the sword. There was nothing of note that he contributed. That is why, unlike Robin Hood, who robbed the rich to give to the poor, no ballads have been written about him.

(Kulbhushan kain is an award winning educationist with more than 4 decades of working in schools in India and abroad. He is a prolific writer who loves cricket, travelling and cooking. He can be reached at kulbhushan.kain@gmail.com)