A garbage-strewn bumpy road looks odd among a row of double-storey houses, women decked up in gold jewellery, young men riding costly bikes and children playing games on tablets and showing off their new iPhones.

But as impressive are the houses from outside, they are as minimalist inside. The floors are paved with tiles but there is no furniture. There are French window panes but no curtains. There are dining areas but no tables. Instead, piles of sacks are bundled together on top of earthen pots.

And the oddity continues. Residents of this village, Kadiya, in Pachor district of Rajgarh, Madhya Pradesh, 300 km from Bhopal, are notorious for ‘renting’ their children to ‘Band, Baja, Barat’ gangs , which steal from glitzy weddings in Metropolitan cities such as Delhi. Investigations in various cases have led police to the village, where parents sign bondage agreements with the gang members to send their children with them in return for an annual fee of Rs 2- 5 lakh.

Over the past four months, 86 police teams from different states have visited Pachor to trace suspects and arrest gang members who hire them. In April, the Delhi Police attributed 34 thefts at lavish weddings to minors, including those from Pachor. The latest case was reported on July 3, in which a minor allegedly stole a bag containing gifts and Rs 8 lakh cash from a wedding venue in southwest Delhi.

Investigations show that over 11 minors left the village in the last three months with the gangs for “job training”.

The ‘social’ contract

So entrenched is the practice here, a Delhi Police official says, that ‘bondage contracts’, are drafted under the local panchayat’s watch.

“In three cases, in which jewellery worth Rs 30 lakh was stolen from five-star hotels, we found that the accused boys, aged between 7 and 12, had been signed off to gangs in Delhi by their mothers for Rs 2 lakh each. The contract is popularly known as the ‘ikrarnama’ (agreement) in these parts,” says a Delhi Police official.

A house in Kadiya village. Most houses are two-storeyed and new but lack furniture, curtains and other essentials. (Mujeeb Faruqui/Hindustan Times)

Most of the villagers in Pachor belong to the Sansi tribe, which was notified as criminals by the British colonialists. The Sansi and other similar communities were de-notified after the Independence yet they continue to face the stigma.

“These people only invest in branded sturdy bags because they are always on the move and have to carry around stolen goods. We get tip-offs about children leaving with the gangs but we cannot do anything as they don’t commit any crime here,” says YS Chauhan, thana (police station) incharge at Pachor.

Stigma, stereotype

Jitendra Sisodia, a Sansi who works with an NGO, Neev Social Welfare Association, says, “The police still treats us as criminals. I agree that some people from the community might be involved in crimes but is it fair to judge the entire community with the same yardstick?”

Sisodia claims decades of deprivation, lack of education and job opportunities have pushed the Sansis to take up crime. He also alleges witch-hunt. “It suits the police to blame it all on us. They can bank on the preconceived notions that theft is our traditional occupation,” Sisodia says.

The Madhya Pradesh police exposed another dangerous trend – some members of the tribe are adopting juveniles from the Child Welfare Committees to rent them out to gangs. “Some people even used fake documents and posed as parents to adopt kids and gave them to the gangs,” says Rajgarh Collector Tarun Pithore.

Pithore says that they will conduct DNA tests on all kids adopted from the committees to make sure they are not taken illegally and prosecute the offenders.

Job, not crime

Local residents say that kids are taken away in batches and once the gang collects up to Rs 20 lakh, they return home and lay low to avoid police radar. During this time, they also search for potential recruits.

“The tribe feels that there is nothing wrong to steal from the rich. Interestingly, as a matter of principle, they do not steal from hospitals, schools or weddings of the poor. They do not hesitate in renting their kids as they consider it a job and not crime,” says Yogesh Chaudhary, IG, Bhopal.

Kids from Sansi tribe are preferred since the clan doesn’t trust others. The families say there is nothing wrong in ‘lending’ their kids. “So what if the kids are being sent outside for a job. We are not selling them. It is our men who employ our kids and take care of them. The contract is just a confirmation that the money will be paid. The people who are sending kids for the job use this money for the betterment of their children,” says a local resident.

Wall of silence

A visit to the neighbouring village Gulkhedi in Pachore Tehsil, reveals why trails on several suspects go cold as soon as the police reach the villages. The tribe swears by their allegiance to their community and despite the police teams having extensive details about suspects, nobody provides any clue to their whereabouts. Every inquiry hits an unshakeable wall of silence.

“The tribe feels that there is nothing wrong to steal from the rich. They do not hesitate in renting their kids as they consider it a job and not crime.”

“They (police team) even have photos but they do not realize how difficult it is to penetrate these villages. We give them access and all the help possible but raids are rarely successful. They (police) wait for several days and return home,” says a Gurgaon police head constable.

” They conduct searches, try to talk to the villagers but return empty handed,” the head constable says.

“They once stole a diamond from a wedding of a royal family in Chhattisgarh, jewellery worth lakhs from Banswara in Rajasthan, cash from (cricketer) Harbhajan Singh’s wedding and jewellery from a wedding at the SP’s (superintendent of police) house. The booty reached the village but nobody was caught,” he said.

Multiple identities

Another major hurdle before the police is that residents of the village maintain multiple identities. “One person has at least four voter ID cards, three to four Aadhaar cards and at least 20 operational names. Hence, police are never able to find the right person,” explains Chauhan.

They also don’t use a particular phone number for more than a week to escape technical surveillance. “From Delhi alone, six teams visited the village in the last two months with specific inputs, but returned empty handed,” says Chauhan.

Even the Madhya Pradesh Police has not had it easy. In the past two months, MP police has received over 23 arrest warrants for men and kids involved in thefts from the village but the raids have failed.

HOW IT WORKS

  • The gang member identifies potential recruits and approaches the family
  • He enters into a contract with the family for ‘renting’ the kid
  • Usually, the contracts are made over an annual fees of Rs 2 lakh – Rs 5 lakh
  • Once the kids are taken, they are kept in posh neighbourhoods as part of their training.
  • They are asked to observe the mannerism of the elite
  • They are trained to eat with a knife and fork, dress well and behave around the rich.
  • Once trained, the kids are then sent to wedding ceremonies in five star hotels and high-profile venues
  • They mingle with the crowd, identify the bags that have cash and jewellery and steal them
  • Once the job is done, they leave the state within an hour.
  • The gangs make prior arrangements for their travel
  • The gangs prefer kids as they are quick learners and even if they are caught, they are not jailed
  • The gangs have their lawyers in several states
  • The moment a child is caught, the lawyer bails him out soon
  • The child is taken back, and then sent for another job

CASES
On July 3, a minor allegedly stole a bag containing gifts and Rs 8 lakh cash from a wedding in southwest Delhi.

Police say three accused aged between 7 and 12 years had been given to the gangs for an annual fee of Rs 2 lakh

Who needs courts

Whenever an arrest warrant is received, the police call the village sarpanch, who acts as a middleman between the locals and the police. He usually tells the police that the person concerned is not in the village. The warrant is then marked ‘untraceable’ and is sent back to the court.

“The arrest warrants keep pouring in but what can we do? Their network is so strong that they never let any information out about a member of their tribe,” says Chauhan.

Not surprisingly, the cases reported to the police are negligible. Over the past year, only 1,033 cases were registered across Pachor, the majority being those of scuffles. Most others are settled at the panchayat. “There is nothing much that we can do to stop them. The only relief is that they never commit thefts or robberies in and around their area. This keeps our crime rates in control,” says Chauhan.

It is only when the locals sense that an arrest is unavoidable that the sarpanch steps in and strikes a “compromise” with police.

“We try to sort it out, no one has to go to the court. If we know the person who has committed the theft, we ask him to return the money. We then request the police to shut the case. In most cases the police agree to take the money that they later show as recovery,” says Madhu, sarpanch, Kadiya village.

No room for betrayal

If a person dares to go against the community and talks to the police, he is given ‘dand’ (punishment). “If a tribe member leaks out information about a fellow to an outsider, which leads to him getting identified or arrested, then that person pays the entire amount for his trial – from the arrest to bail, including the lawyer’s fees. In case the information leads the police to the stolen goods, then the guilty has to repay the amount the booty was worth,” says a local resident, refusing to share his name.

Sitting inside the Pachor police station, Chauhan glances at a jeep entering the premises. “Another state police team has come looking for the boys. Show them the room and give them water,” he tells his help.

This time it is the Chennai police.