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Who was this man?
Paan Singh Tomar stares back at you. Gaze unwavering, eyes blazing. You try giving it back for a moment, but have to look away. If you can look again, there's the slightest hint of a knowing smile in those eyes, and the faint smirk appearing on his lips. He knows we've been looking for him.
Kids at the Primary School in Bhidosa - a two-room building within a large empty courtyard on the outskirts of the village - rise in silent greeting as you follow their teacher into their classroom. Naresh Sharma introduces us to his class. "The class is half full because many of the children are helping in the fields. The rabi harvest is ready, " he explains. The children look on unblinkingly. It makes it that bit tougher to break the ice, so you turn to their teacher for help. Hesitatingly, Naresh Sharma fumbles with his question: "Kya aap mein se koi Paan Singh Tomar ke baare mein jaanta hai?"
A minute passes, till one girl standing in the row by the wall, shyly raises her hand.
"Kya suna hai aapne unke baare mein?
"Ki vay daaku they. . . "
The apologetic teacher turns and begins to explain that they are kids, having arrived on the scene a generation or few later and know little of the man. But he needn't have bothered. Paan Singh Tomar was a 'daaku, ' 'farar, ' 'baaghi, ' an outlaw. That is known. The police records and court documents say it all - and there are many of them.
What is little known are his sporting records - most are lost, and there isn't even a picture from his running days to be found. The remaining few, crumbling yellowed pages, are stacked away in battered old trunks across northern and central India.
Paan Singh Tomar was a champion sportsman, a national-ranking athlete, back in the 1950s and '60s when we had enough in Indian track and field to boast about. Having trained as a distance runner during his days in the army - a subedar with Bengal Engineers at Roorkee - he represented India at the 1958 Asian Games at Tokyo, and his record in the 3, 000-mt steeplechase stood for almost a decade. Coaches still swear by his rhythmic manner of running, the effortless hauling of his 6-foot-one frame over the hurdle and across the water obstacle in one single fluid movement. His 2, 000 strides for the challenging 3, 000 mt run - as compared to the average 2, 500 - is still the benchmark in Indian steeplechase running. But for him, they say, it was not much of a sweat. If you see the landscape where he learnt his running - the Chambal area of Morena and Bhind - you'll understand. Here everybody runs - not so much with a sense of competition - but in the knowledge that this minor exertion is essential to get them a job in the army or police.
Paan Singh Tomar ran, got a job in the army, made most of his talent as a unique runner, but somehow never reached the finish line as he would have liked.
This is his story.
On the northern extremes of Madhya Pradesh, flanked by Dholpur, Rajasthan on its left and Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh above, the Morena and Bhind regions sit deep with labyrinthine sandy ravines cutting into their insides. Bhidosa is in the heart of Morena district, over 50 km from the district headquarters and almost a hundred from Gawlior. Once you get off the state highway that runs towards Bhind, at Badagaon Sihoniya, the road narrows ribbon-like and it rises and falls, twists and turns like in a maze of its own, dotted with sandy ravines on either side and occasionally breaking out into lush mustard fields. It is this jarring setting - of barren sand and fertile crop land side by side - that immediately tells you of a possible history of conflict and its constant potential for more. Thirty-three years ago, the occasion of Holi only adding to the sense of theatre, Bhidosa was to prove just another act in this long-running history.
You could say it was Mahabharat being played out in a latter-day Chambal setting. A Tomar patriarch has two wives - the older one gives birth to Eashwari Singh, later Paan Singh's father, and the younger one to Dayaram, whose five sons and nearly a dozen grandchildren own most of the fertile argicultural land in and around Bhidosa.
In 1977, a generation down, Eashwari's older son Maatadeen - a black sheep of sorts - sells off a part of the land under their name to Dayaram's scions because he is in urgent need of money. It was usually maintained back then that land was automatically in the name of the older heir and he could whatever he pleased with it. What Maatadeen disposes off is a mere two-and-a-quarter bighas, but brothers Havaldar, Babbu and Jandel who acquire it are happy to latch on to it. To them the tract of land obtained for a sum of Rs 3, 000 is a steal. Also, in these parts, attrition and feuding is the norm, more land spells more power.
All this while, Paan Singh, a subedar with the Bengal Engineers in Roorkee, is oblivious to the goings on in his village. Returning home, he admonishes his older brother and demands his share of his land back. It is here that the story gets fuzzy. A chastened Maatadeen goes back and pleads that the deal be anulled and the land returned. The Panchayat is called. There are indications that Babbu and siblings are in a mood to relent, but ask for a refund - which by all accounts has been squandered by Maatadeen. So eager he is to get his land back, that Paan Singh digs into his army savings to fork out the Rs 3, 000 demanded by his nephews. But then, suddenly, they backtrack, and the Panchayat refuses to help a befuddled Paan Singh. "Bahumat unka tha. Chalti inki thi, " says Sahab Singh of the more powerful family. Paan Singh's childhood friend, Sahab Singh is the resident priest of the Shiv temple at Sangoli, a village neighbouring Bhidosa. An angry Paan Singh swore revenge, but still bided his time, till his son was beaten up by Babbu's sons. It all erupted there.
Sahab Singh says it was bound to happen. "Aadmi heera tha. Gussa aa gaya and baaghi ban gaya. Nishana toh aisa bandhta tha, goli khali nahin jaati thi. . . "
Son Souram Singh wishes he had practised restraint. "Woh darte nahin they, " he says. "Unki wohi ek kamzori thi. Jo thoda darta hai, uss se theekh ho jaata hai. "
"He refused to surrender. He would often say, 'Thane mein haazir nahin hoonga. Gaon mein nahin reh sakte, Ab to maarna aur marna hai, '" he remembers.
Legend has it that Paan Singh's initiation into serious running too came off a dispute. When he had just enrolled in the army in the Bengal Engineers at Roorkee, he got into an argument with an instructor. As punishment, he was asked to run numerous laps of the parade ground. As he ran, he caught the eye of the officers. What they saw impressed them. Soon Paan Singh, exempt from regular duties, was put on the special diet for army sportsmen, even enjoying other perks and benefits. He was a stickler for training - always running even when he came home to Bhidosa and was not tending to his fields.
As his legend took flight, everyone took to the genial and affable Paan Singh. There was fondness for the tall man with the hard, angular face at the Roorkee regiment. New inductees would be woken up for morning exercise with the message: "Jaag jaao, Paan Singh saab toh Sahranpur se daud kar aa bhi gaye. "
On September 20, 1980, Paan Singh, only 49, well and truly buried Paan Singh, the ex-Army man and former National-level runner and gave birth to an new kind of legend altogether. The 'Dasyuraj Paan Singh Chambal Ka Sher' was born.
"My father Jandel Singh was tending to his fields on his tractor. Paan Singh pumped four bullets into him, " remembers Birender Singh Tomar, the Bhidosa village sarpanch. Dates reel off with minimum effort, other details follow as swiftly. "He was using by a. 303, probably stolen from the police. Within an hour, his older brother Havaldar Singh in the nearby field was shot when he was with his bullocks. This time it was with a. 315. Paan Singh gave us no time, " says Birender.
Paan Singh had already been faraar for over a year when on the way to filing an FIR at the Sihoniya Thana he received news that his older son Hanumant - a whirlwind in his own right - in renewed hostilities a day after Holi, had shot at Jagannath with a 12-bore, injuring his arm.
The reason for this flashpoint was the beating a lone Hanumant had received on March 16 at the hands of Jandel's brothers and cousins when was out in the fields to relieve himself. "Kaho, kaisi rahi dhulai?" someone mocked him when he was on his way home. On reaching home, Hanumant grabbed the family 12-bore and set out to settle scores. Poor Jagannath, a man of god, and with no great part in the feud, committed the grave folly of appearing in the midst of the commotion at the main well in the village centre, brandishing a trishul. Hanumant, sensing a new threat, simply took aim and fired.
Paan Singh and older brother Maatadin - a ganja-loving no-gooder - had reason to believe that the village was turning against them after the panchayat had overturned their plea of having their 2. 5-bhiga plot of land returned by Jandel and Babbu for a fee of Rs 3, 000. An argument ensued. It is said Paan Singh then never reached the police station, choosing to take to the ravines instead. Jagannath's fragile state gave way to more panic and anger as the rivals took him away for treatment and on March 17, 1979, the menfolk of Paan Singh's family decided to flee - leaving all the harvested sarson, arhar and bajra, the cattle and, in typical feudal fashion, even the womenfolk, behind.
Paan Singh was declared a baaghi when he chased and shot down Babbu Singh - the second of the three brothers and his own distant nephew - barely a week after the 1979 Holi incident. On March 26, 1979, news reached Paan Singh and his band of men that Babbu Singh had been sighted at Sonari Ka Pura village, returning home after buying a new pair of buffaloes and a 15-foot wide canal separated the two men. What followed is a piece of daredevilry and supreme atheleticsm or cowardly cold-blooded murder, depending on who is telling the story. "Babbu ko daudakar goli maari Paan Singh ney. Peeche se, " remembers Birender. "Babbu nihattha tha, " he adds.
"Arrey Chachaji (as Paan Singh was called by his men) woh dekho Babbu Singh!" Souram Singh narrates the story as he was told it. "Bahut door hai, bhaag lega, " said a worried Balwant Singh, son of Maatadin. "Kahin nahin bhagega, " was Chachaji's calm reply. And saying so, Paan Singh cleared the yawning 15-feet canal with one effortless leap - rifle and bullets belt in tow. "Balwant tried to do the same, but landed face-first into the water, " remembers Souram, sitting in his Babina (British Army Base In Near Asia) home near Jhansi, and barely supressing a laugh at his older cousin's comical misfortune. "Pitaji caught Babbu in Lohri Ka Pura, a neighbouring village after chasing him for nearly a couple of kilometres. He easily outpaced him. "
Souram Singh tells stories with a relaxed air. Often in the midst of a narration, he pauses and allows himself a chuckle or two as he goes back in time. Like the story of how someone picked the dreaded dacoit's pocket while he was travelling incognito on the passenger train between Hetampur and Jhansi. Finding himself set back by Rs 10, 000 - the same inaam that the state government had announced on his head - Paan Singh got off, found a police station and promptly lodged a FIR. "Police ke pass chale gaye? Kya naam likha?" a shocked Souram remembers asking. "Apne aap ko Gujjar likhwa diya, " came the calm reply.
Maybe he gets his knack for easy laughter from his father. Souram Singh has his father's height and even his rabbit's ears. His only surviving son, there is a sombre side to him too. Barely 19 when they had to flee Bhidosa, Souram grew up early - learning the responsibility and crushing burden of being the son of an outlaw. "Till three years ago we were fighting court cases. All my savings from the army have gone in trying to clear our name, " says the 50-something. It is a reflection of what Birender, the politically-astute village sarpanch too went through when his father and uncles were shot down by Paan Singh. "I was about 19 or 20 and I had to file all the reports and file the cases, " he remembers.
For his part, Hanumant was his father's true son - Sonny to a weary Vito Don Corleone. He carried on the feud in his own way. A year after Babbu's killing, Rameshwar, a nephew of his and employed with Signals, was lured to a common relative's place in Gwalior, fed with sumptuous meal and then shot by a waiting Hanumant in the middle of the city's Thatipur Chouraha near Chauhan Piao.
After having grown up watching his older brother waste his life away, Paan Singh was now tiring of his older son's spendthrift ways. "Stay clear of him. He'll blow up all your savings, " was his constant advice to the younger Souram, whenever he descended home or set up a meeting in secret (Their last meeting was in May 1980 near Bhind, Mehgaon). To which, the cavalier Hanumant shot back: "Pitaji kya denge mujhe? Agar main Madhav Rao Scindia key khaandaan mein paida hota, unka bhi diwala nikal deta. " Hanumant lived by the bullet and he died by it - killed in a road mishap near Jhansi while riding a motorbike some years later.
He liked his rum, " says Souram gently. "So it was my duty to get whatever brand I could get my hands on from the canteen - Hercules or Sea Pirate. He would keep a small bottle carefully hidden in the satchel he always carried. He always had one drink a day, never more. But that day, people in Rathiapura said he was sluggish, not sharp as he was and many felt it was to do with too much drink. But that day someone poisoned his drink. "
According to Souram, on October 1, 1981 Paan Singh had gone to Rathiapura to preside over a petty feud, and the mukhbir (informer) who knew he would be visiting, tipped off the police. But there are other versions too. Sahab Singh the childhood friend, says Paan Singh used to often secretly visit a woman in her husband's absence at Rathiapura. The police learnt of it. You cannot ask Souram about this, but both say that the first bullet was fired on his leg, halting a powerful athlete from making off on his famous runs.
"When I was small, after his evening practice, Pitaji and I would sit on the banks of the canal in Roorkie and talk. I would ask him, 'How do you run? Saans nahin phoolti?' And he would reply, 'Saans kahan phoolti hai? Bhaagne sey saans pucci ho jaati hai'. "
Paan Singh Tomar would know. He was a man forever on the run.
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