Through the 1970s and 80s, Ramesh Sikarwar and his gang of dacoits in Chambal would often spend their nights in a forest — known today as the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh.
It is this old connection that prompted Sikarwar, now 72, to come forward as a “cheetah mitra” at the national park. “The Kuno forest gave us shelter, protected us. We had a deep love for the forest. It is time now for me to protect it,” he says.
Sikarwar’s name still carries fear in the region — the dreaded former dacoit was accused of around 70 murders and 300 kidnappings. Now, he is a farmer and one of the 500 cheetah mitras from the 51 villages in the area who have been trained to create awareness among the villagers about the animals. The other volunteers include school teachers, village headmen and patwaris.
“Once we knew the cheetahs were coming, we had started running an awareness campaign about the cheetahs in the surrounding villages. It was the MP government’s proposal to establish cheetah mitras, who would basically operate as informants for the forest department and keep us apprised of the goings in and around the Kuno National Park. They will also be responsible for carrying out their own awareness campaigns regarding the cheetahs among villages and local populations. In July, when we had started these campaigns, we had asked for volunteers to become cheetah mitras. That is when Sirkarwar, who is well known in the area, came forward,” says Chief Wildlife Warden Madhya Pradesh J S Chauhan.
Speaking with The Indian Express, Sirkarwar described his past life and turn to dacoity: “I was just 23 years old when I became a Baghi (dacoit). My father had to leave our village of Lahroni, after my uncle grabbed our property and refused to part with it despite the property being in my father’s name. We were poor, he was rich. We had relocated to another village. When I was older, and my father had passed, my sister was getting married, I went to my uncle for cattle to give in my sister’s wedding. He refused. I shot him and ran away,” he says.
Over the next few years, Sirkarwar was to establish a gang of 32 dacoits that would operate across Gwalior, Morena, Guna, Jhansi, Tikamgarh in Madhya Pradesh and another 12 districts in Rajasthan.
“We were all from poor families pushed to become baghis. Most of the issues we worked on as a gang was that of property disputes where the police and administration would always side with the richer party. There was no one to look out for the poor. They did not receive justice, so we gave them justice. Over the years, we carried out over 300 kidnappings, where we would abduct sons of rich fathers and demand a ransom of Rs 2-4 lakhs. We were protected by the villagers, given food and shelter. We would move around constantly to avoid the police – shifting places two-three times a day. Having breakfast in one place, lunch in another, dinner in a third village. At night we would sleep in the forest —most often we would sleep in what is now called the Kuno National Park,” he says.
Sikarwar’s gang surrendered to the authorities in 1984. Sirkarwar says he was never convicted because authorities couldn’t find any witness to testify against him. He spent 10 years in jail during the trial, and was released in 1994. Members of his gang received twenty year in prison. He returned to his village Lahroni, claimed his land, and, after 20 years of being a dacoit, turned to farming.
The Sheopur region, where the park is located, has a fair amount of poaching from the Sahariyaand Mogiya tribes. The cheetah mitras have already had an impact, say MP forest officials. Last month, a leopard was found dead in the park, and based on information from the cheetah mitras in the area, the forest officials nabbed all four of the accused responsible for the killing.
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Sirkawar still lives in Lahroni, barely five kilometres from Kuno national Park, with his children and grandchildren, growing wheat, mustard and soyabean. He has been given two rifles and ammunition by the government for his “protection”.
He says: “I have already told people that they will not enter Kuno National Park and no one is to attack the Cheetahs. If anybody does, or if we find poachers, then they will face the consequences from me.”