This article originally appeared on VICE India
Vikram Singh Rana, 65, has a flat stomach, a broad chest and wrinkles that sit lightly on his almost-handsome face. He wakes up everyday at 6 am, goes for a run around his farm before having a breakfast comprising half a litre of milk and 20 almonds, and zealously follows up with four small meals through the day. “I hail from a family of army men. My father and brother have served in the armed forces,” he tells me, parking his fancy cruiser bike outside his home in Neemri village in north India’s Kasganj district in Uttar Pradesh. Here, everyone knows him because of his dark past.
Till 1990, Rana was the kidnapping kingpin of his area—abducting rich, upper caste men and boys at gunpoint from their homes, cars, sometimes even stopping public buses to abduct men en masse. He was on the run in the dense forests around the Ganga river for 14 years, before surrendering to the police in 1990 and, subsequently, joining politics.
VICE met Rana at his home to find out how and why he became an outlaw, and what made him leave those dacoit days behind.
VICE: What made you a kidnapper?
Vikram Singh Rana: When I was in my twenties, my village was dominated by a strongman named Brijal Singh, who, along with other upper caste thakurs (a historically feudal title often used to describe landowners or noblemen at one time) dominated everyone else. Even the cops and panchayat (village council) leaders could do nothing without their consent. Jatav Dalits—the community I hail from—were constantly exploited by the thakurs, considered untouchables and beaten up on the slightest pretext. Even then, it was not rare for them to abduct and molest our women.
We tried resisting their exploitation as much as we could. When my sister was getting married, we wanted her groom to arrive on a horse, something which Dalits aren’t allowed by upper castes (people from the community have been even killed for it). Even after several thakurs warned us against it, on the wedding day, my sister’s groom arrived on a horse. As revenge for this, cops on Singh’s payroll registered a false criminal case against me and started looking for me. My family was scared that I might be killed in lock-up. To hide from the cops, I ran away into the forests, where I started recruiting other such men from backward castes who wanted to teach the upper castes a lesson and, at the same time, earn money to survive.
On what criteria did you decide whom to kidnap?
We only used to kidnap rich, upper caste men whose family could afford the ransom, and as our way of seeking revenge against those exploiting lower castes. Hum baaghi the kanoon ke liye, par ye karke aatma ko shanti milti thi (We were criminals in front of the law, but doing it appeased my conscience).
In this line of trade, terror and fear are your friends. They’re better for business. We used the ransom money to build our influence in villages around the dense forests on the banks of Ganga where we lived, mostly amongst people from backward castes. Instead of paying the cops like the thakurs would do, we helped the poor villagers, helped get their daughters married, and their sons educated. They loved us like their own.
How did you get information about the whereabouts and financial status of your victims?
Everything worked through informants, mostly from our community. Through them, we found out the plans of our enemies and police beforehand. There were no mobile phones then, so we depended on India’s postal system. Our informants gave us tips through letters, which were picked up from a designated letter box. It was through post that we also delivered ransom letters.
In these letters, we ordered the families to send their representatives with suitcases full of money and to identify themselves, wear a red angocha (traditional scarf) or at other times, a red handkerchief in their pocket. The conduit had to wait along the river bank, where he’d meet our man. This way, we could watch from the tall grass and know if the other person was really alone.
After getting the money, we would tell them the location of the kidnapped person.
How did you manage to survive in the forest?
If you have money in your pockets, everything becomes easy. We bought our ration from the villagers. All of us were meat-eaters, so it was mostly chicken, egg and fish. The fish were abundant in this stretch of Ganga, so they were on the menu almost everyday. At other times, it was sabzi (cooked vegetables) of potatoes or beans. Some people in my gang were good cooks, so we had delicious food. Sometimes, the abducted ones cooked as well.
We got our guns through our contacts and bullets from corrupt cops. When you pay 20 times the original cost, everyone cooperates.
We never kept our victims hungry, neither did we beat or torture them or use abusive language. They were fed whatever we were eating. We kept them in an area surrounded on three sides by the river and amid the tall grass, so they had nowhere to run. We never felt the need to chain them.
We treated their culture with respect and cared for their faith and culture. If the kidnapped ones were Muslims, they were allowed to slaughter the chicken in halal ways. Several people we kidnapped are still on good terms with us, and we keep bumping into them at occasions like wedding parties.
Were you just baghees (outlaws) or were you driven by an ideology?
I am a die-hard Ambedkarite (someone who practices Ambedkarism, a body of ideas inspired by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar whose philosophy involved using socio-politics as a tool to achieve the end result that is social justice and social equality). It was Ambedkar who drafted the Constitution of India, which gives everyone equal status, regardless of caste. I believe that the colour of blood is red for everyone, so there shouldn’t be inequality.
I think police and administration are complicit in keeping these inequalities alive. If the person who has been exploited by society for centuries, is now again exploited by the administration that should have protected him, where will he go? In that case, it is not wrong for him to rebel. What should we do instead? Die at their hands?
Where did your gang members come from?
The gang was made up of men who had had either been harassed by the police or their fellow villagers. Most of them came from men villages and towns like Budain, Aligarh, Etah, Farrukhabad, and were mostly Dalits, OBCs (Other Backward Classes) and a couple of Muslim men.
In the forest, all of us were family to each other, spending our days joking and giving each other weird nicknames. Everyone fulfilled their responsibilities, like washing their own plates after meals and putting their garbage in a bag we carried to erase our marks. There were shifts to keep a watch when others slept.
Everyone had different responsibilities. I was the central command, who made all the plans; another one was a shooter; and someone else was in charge of navigation. We never stayed at one place for too long, but never strayed too far from the Ganga. Even we didn’t know where we were headed, so the police had no clue about our movement.
Did you guys ever have violent encounters with your enemies or the police?
Thakurs were our enemies, and they used to change their names when entering our territory. They used the cops, who hatched many plans to kill us. We depended on the locals.
The most intense fight occurred early one morning a year or two before we disbanded. There were hundreds of rounds fired between us and the police. Two of my men lost lives, while 11 cops were seriously injured. After their deaths, we couldn’t even inform their families as police would catch us. They got to know the fate of their loved ones through newspapers.
When my men left homes, they told their families that they might not be coming back alive. And most of them did not. Some died at the hands of police, others by diseases in the forest and the remaining ones by just old age. I am one of the few ones alive.
Why did you decide to surrender?
Someone I look up to convinced me to give up arms and instead, further our cause by joining politics. I surrendered in 1990, after a high ranking police officer convinced us that we will not be harmed. We would give them some information about other criminals. These discussions were very confidential. I spent the next four years in prison for my crimes, after making the deals.
How did your subsequent political career play up?
I contested my first elections in 1991, when I was still in jail, for the post of MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly) from the Amanpur constituency, representing the Bahujan Samaj Party. I lost by 1,200 votes in an election where a lot of rigging took place. Later, I contested for the seat three times again, coming third and fourth on the ticket of Janata Dal. It was my community and other backward castes who stood by me.
I then won the elections for the district panchayat and became the headman of my village. I am currently the block head, and associated with Samajwadi Party.
Do you think the situation that turned you into a criminal has changed?
The discrimination against Dalits is still there; just the form has changed. Ambedkar had envisioned that Dalits would come on the same social and economic level as upper castes within a decade, but it hasn’t happened in 70 years. To enable this, the oppressed need to be aware of their oppression and their political rights against it. That’s half the battle won.
Picking up guns and kidnapping people was also a kind of politics suited to the times, but now it’s for representation and rights.
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This article originally appeared on VICE IN.