Three ‘thieves’ brought together by fate became saviors of poor when Dogra’s ruled Kashmir. Junaid Nabi Bazaz, revisits some of the interesting incidents that earned the trio the tag of Robin Hoods of Kashmir.
In the dead of a cold winter night, sometime in the reign of Maharaja Ranbir Singh, burglars sneaked into the warehouse of the then famous house-boat dealer of Valley at Rainawari area of Srinagar. The thieves decamped with jewellery and gold from the warehouse owned by Pandit Narayan Koul. After some days on the urs (yearly festival) of Menyashah sahib, Koul publicly announced that whosoever stole his property would be hanged in broad day light.
Menyashah sahib, a Muslim saint whose grave is located on the banks of Dal in Rainawari area of Srinagar, worked as a servant during his childhood in a pandit family. The saint is revered by both the religious communities of Kashmir and pay obeisance to the saint.
At the shrine there happened to be three thieves hailing from different areas of Kashmir, Usman cacha from old city, Madav lal from Islamabad and Layak Singh from Rainawari. The three were unknown to each other but soon their friendship was going to enter the history books. Koul’s warning provoked all of them and each decided to rob him once again.
On the next night all three left to rob Koul in their own capacities but instead of stealing they met each other and became friends forever. None of them did steal from Koul’s warehouse that night.
“Their meeting each other was purely a coincidence,” noted historian, poet and satirist Zarif Ahmad Zarif says.
All of them have done unbelievable feats in their lives. Legend has it that they stole wealthy merchants to help poor clear their debts from the cruel money lenders. At one point of time, they were the only ones who fought against the ‘tyrant’ autocratic system.
It was the period of Dogra rule that people faced oppression, famine, unemployment and forced labor and there was no one who raised voices against it and if anyone dared he was put to brutal torture and humilation. Sometimes even death penality. There lived a cruel money lender Ram Koul who owned 900 residential houses squeezed from the poor debtors. He was so wicked that even Maharaja feared him. It is believed that at one point of time maharaja banned him from registering of houses as he felt it a threat to his kingdom.
One day Usman sneaked into his room and stole all the Bahi-Khata- record books of money lenders. He bought them on the Nawa Kadal Bridge and burnt down them to ashes.
“Because of that reason Koul died within days,” Zaref quotes from the book Waqat-e-Kashmir by Mufti Shah Saadat.
Madav lal also did some exceptional feats. Due to his extraordinary feats Madhav Lal earned a name Madhav Bshit for himself. In Kashmir Bshit is used to shoo away a cat. When Madhav use to go on a robbery he used to change his voice with cat’s one (mew) in order to avoid the attention of that house owner whom he was robbing. Owner in response uttered Bshit. That is why people called him Madhav Bshit.
On one particular occasion he stole number of tea bags from a tea whole seller’s warehouse in old city and later distributed them among poor people.
“He told them that tea bags were relief from the Maharaja,” says Zarif while quoting from Professor Max Mooler’s dairy.
He did it with dexterity.
Before Madhav robbed the warehouse he followed the wealthy owner for some days to understand his schedule.
Finally one night Madhav using a ladder entered second floor of the merchant’s house through an open window. The tea merchant kept keys of his warehouse in his waistcoat pocket.
Madhav took keys from the waist coat and robbed his warehouse. In order to confuse the merchant, Madhav came back and placed keys silently back in the waistcoat. The next day when the merchant opened his warehouse he was shocked to find it cleared of everything. He lodged a formal complaint with police.
Later police initiated a high level inquiry into the case and nabbed all the thieves of that time. Police unleashed reign of terror on them. In order to save them from the clutches of police, he pasted a poster outside police station claiming responsibility for the act. Once SHO (station house officer) learnt it, he made it public that he will teach Madhav a lesson.
But Madhav was not an easy nut to crack. He was making his own plans to teach SHO a lesson!
One evening Madhav stole SHO’s trousers and tied them at the entrance of his house.
He did his tricks with such fineness that it was impossible to catch him. Using a long L-shaped bamboo stick, which had ants all over it, Madhav reached for the SHO’s bed. After a while people heard SHO crying with pain and itching while shedding his clothes. It was at that moment Madhav got hold of the SHO’s trousers and tied them at the entrance to his house.
“They were that type of thieves,” says Zaref.
The trio robbed not to fill their own coffers but to avenge injustice on innocent people who were subjected to cruelty by elites. Usman was an artisan before he became a full time robber. His mother was once ill and he did not have money for her treatment. He went to his employer for economic help which he refused. Helpless Usman tried many alternatives but failed. In revenge he robbed his employer’s house but was arrested by the police.
For Usman, robbery was a form of revolt against the moneyed class. He was happy to help poor with his loot.
On the other hand, Layak Singh took to robbery because of ultimate penury at home.
Layak’s father, who was working at the Central Jail, lost his job when a criminal fled from the prison. He tried to convince his bosses that it was not his fault but nobody listened to him. Layak’s father was the sole bread winner for his family. Raged by the way his father was treated by the system, Layak fled from home and became a robber.
“As his hopes got dashed from the autocratic Dogra system he found becoming a robber an easy way to avenge himself,” says Zarief who quoted from the book Tazulme Doogran Bar Musalmane Kashmere by Khaja Khaleel Marjanpoori.
While Madav Lal became robber to vent his anger that he had amassed over the years while living with his step mother, who, it is said did not treat well Madhav. He was raised by his Muslim neighbours. According to Zarief, his neighbors tried hard to give him education but Madhav had no interest. He was always wandering in his mystic world.
One night Layak Singh sneaked into one house in old city in search of food. While he was searching for food, an old lady owner of the house saw him. After Singh took her in confidence she told him that they (family) are living in ultimate penury.
Madhav and Usman sometimes used to go together for robbing. Both of them were alcoholic. During nights they also attended opium and drug parties where they gave opium free of cost to those who could not afford.
All of them were bachelors. Though it has not been ascertained which families they belonged to, but Zarif says they died in separate incidents.
Zarif says Usman died on the banks of Jehlum in old city one night when he was chased by police. He was coming out of a mosque when police spotted and started chasing him. It is believed that to evade arrest he took refuge in a saw mill near old city Srinagar where he collapsed under heavy logs.
While Madhav died in solitude as he could not move freely because he was wanted. Due to his poor health, Zarif says, he could not even consult doctor because police was deployed on all the streets he used to walk through. Layak singh fled to Amritsar to live a free life. His successors are still living at Rainawari, informs Zarief.