When the bus in which he was travelling with his aunt after meeting a prospective groom for his sister in Budaun was stopped by dacoits, 19-year-old Athar Hameed Khan’s heart skipped a beat. Armed with rifles and swords, the kidnappers chose four boys on the basis of how rich they looked. Khan was one of them.
“I would forever remember the date: October 19, 1986. Though my aunt was hysterical, I followed their orders,” he says. In an event that would affect his life for years to come, Khan remained with the kidnappers for a month. He was kept hidden amidst tall bamboo grass along the Ganga riverbed in Uttar Pradesh’s Qaimganj. He would walk for miles with his kidnappers every night and worry about whether he’d be alive to see his family again.
But as it turned out, Khan tells us his kidnappers were as ‘good’ as they could have been. “They were principled men, mostly Jatav Dalits who hated brahmanwad (Brahminism) and turned into criminals due to incidents beyond their control,” says Khan, now 50, in his home in Sahawar, Kasganj. Khan, born in an influential political family of his region, has a degree in Unani medicine (a traditional system of healing popular in South Asia) and runs a real estate business.
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Stockholm syndrome, the condition that leads hostages to develop a psychological alliance with their captors, was explored in movies like Dog Day Afternoon, V For Vendetta and Highway. The inverse of it is Lima syndrome, in which the captors develop sympathy for their hostages. In Khan’s case, both seemed to have played a part.
Through the one month that Khan spent with his captors, he developed a unique friendship. He was called as ‘Khan sahab’ and he helped them maintain their accounts. “They didn’t beat or torture me, or kept me hungry, as I had heard kidnappers often do. They never used bad words and always treated me with respect.”
Khan says the criminals, in fact, weren’t there to kidnap him, but a rich beedi businessman on whom they had received a tip. “Then they also thought of trying their luck at our bus.” After the kidnapping, the captors found out about the influence of Khan’s family in the region, but still kept him. Two weeks later they released the beedi businessmen and three other boys after receiving a ransom from their families. Khan remained with them, living in temporary huts built from bamboo and grass. The kidnappers never tied his hands. “They chained my legs a few nights, when there were less men to keep guard.”
The food, sourced from friendly villagers nearby, was abundant and delicious. “It was mostly aloo poori, or sabzi of pumpkin or gourd. The dacoits were really fond of fish and had it almost everyday.” On a few lucky days, Khan even had chicken, which they let him slaughter halal, in accordance to his religion. “Pretty soon, I was cooking chicken curry for them.”
To help Khan pass time, one of his captors brought him a few Hindi novels. “When the nearby villagers came to meet them, they greeted me and asked me if I need any milk.” Though his captors got drunk often, they were really sanskari (cultured) regarding women. “Their belief was that if they concentrate on girls, they wouldn’t be able to run the gang and would be killed soon.”
A few days later into the kidnapping, when Khan sahab expressed a desire to offer namaz, he was provided with clean clothes and a prayer mat. “The only namaz I missed was Isha (the night prayer), as they slept in the evening and walked at night,” says Khan. He never tried running away since he knew that the nearby villages knew his captors. “I was mostly kept in an area around the Ganga riverbed, surrounded on three sides by the river and amid the tall grasses of the tarai region. There was nowhere to escape.”
While Khan was living with his captors, his family was trying to find mediators to strike a deal with them. It was finalised when a local MLA found a contact with a few relatives of the captors. One morning after keeping him for a month, they left Khan and shared his location with the mediators. “There is a tradition where the elders give money to the young ones. So, they gave me Rs 100 as a parting gift and embraced me before leaving.”
When Khan was taken home to Sahawar, the whole town was waiting to welcome him. He had an emotional reunion with his family. “I never asked my father how much money was given, but the rumour was that it was close to Rs 25,000.”
Thirty years later, there are still legends and rumours about the incident, and Khan is ‘the boy who got kidnapped’. “Everyone still asks me filmy questions about the dacoits: Did the dacoits use horses? Did they dance around fire with girls?”
After the incident, Khan lost weight and didn’t travel late at night for years. “I get high blood pressure if I travel after evening.” But he doesn’t harbour any ill feelings towards his captors. “Through this incident, I realised even criminals are people like us. They pick up wrong ways out of helplessness, compulsion and sometimes to take revenge for atrocities committed on them.”
Khan is currently a politician with Bahujan Samaj Party—a party that claims to fight for the rights of Dalits in India. “The scheduled castes are financially weak, educationally backward and exploited by the upper castes. Just like Muslims. I think the only option for survival for both oppressed sections is to join hands together.”
Since his release, Khan says he has met the leader of his kidnappers twice. “I once met him at a ceremony in a village, and another time when he was fighting elections for a MLA. We talked about the old times.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE IN.