Dandupalya-A name that stuck

BP
For over a decade, the village of Dandupalya has been subjected to a terrible calumny. Located off Old Madras Road in Hoskote taluk, an hour's drive from Bangalore, the settlement of about 400 families became Karnataka's cradle of infamy at the turn of the century when over a dozen members of an extended family, some of them settled in the village and hence known as the Dandupalya gang, began killing and looting at will. The gang, descendants of migrants from Andhra Pradesh who came to the village in the 1930s or '40s, is believed to have killed over 80 people across south India in a span of three-to-four years. Most active between 1996 and 2001, the gang comprised about 30 people, both men and women

Dandupalya was never the dacoits' hive of operation—they would carefully target women who were alone at their homes in Bangalore, Mysore, Hubli or Mangalore—but their connection to the village was enough to set off a media frenzy that consumed its reputation and destroyed any hope of a normal life. Sixteen death sentences have since been awarded to 11 members of the gang, four have received life sentences, a dozen have been sentenced to several years in prison. The last of the judgments came from a special sessions court in January this year, sentencing five to the gallows for a double murder in Mangalore in 1997.

The 4,000-plus residents of Dandupalya, most of them of the Kuruva (cattle-rearers) caste and other scheduled castes, still cannot dissociate themselves enough from the trail of blood or convince the world of their innocence. They have since become wary of outsiders, as outsiders have become of them. In the face of obvious affronts—buses to Dandupalya, for instance, do not bear its name for fear of alarming passengers—they have led a lonely struggle.

A Kannada film titled Dandupalya starring actor Pooja Gandhi in various states of undress has angered villagers and added new fuel to an old fire. "Why is the film named after the village? It may be about the gang, but it wasn't shot here. Moreover, the poster shows a half-naked woman. This will further tarnish the reputation of the village. The villagers are suffering for no fault of theirs," says D K Nagaraj, councillor of Ward No. 23 in Hoskote taluk. The village, easily accessible from National Highway 4, has a history of shutting out anyone who comes asking questions. Locals have thrown cowdung at a TV crew in the past and refused to talk to so-called sympathisers. A bylane from the highway leads through the campus of MVJ Medical College and Teaching Hospital and into the heart of the village. Brick-coloured sand is everywhere, casting a red haze over the sunny morning.

Dandupalya is almost entirely bereft of green cover and crisscrossed by open drains and electricity wires. About 10 small kirana stores, a government middle school, several water pumps, an anganwadi centre, a tailor's shed, and half-a-dozen temples service the village. For everything else, the town of Hoskote is just five km away. Young men on motorbikes honk their way past Munikrishnappa's shop, one of a handful of meeting places in the village. The fact that there are no gang members in the village now, he says, isn't enough to win outsiders' approval. "When I go out, I tell people I am from Hoskote," he says, refusing to accept money in return for a couple of bananas. "This is not a city. We don't charge our guests for food," he says.

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"We are proud of our village," says Sriram, whose grandfather was a panchayat head in his time. It is at his home, where he lives with his brother, councillor Nagaraj, and his family, that we hear the first stories about the migrant miscreants. "They came in the 1940s and were given a patch of waste land to build themselves a home," says Nagaraj's wife Chandrakala.

According to villagers, the newcomers' crookedness was revealed in time and the panchayat leaders slashed the ankle tendons of the head of the family hoping that would slow him down. In today's Dandupalya, the misdeeds of the gang's forebears have become the stuff of legend, but talk of its recent murderous ways is taboo.

The gang did commit unspeakable crimes. "They are the most barbaric people I have come across in my career," says N Chalapathi, deputy superintendent of police, CID, at his office in Bangalore. Chalapathi is single-handedly responsible for netting the core members of the gang and extracting confessions that have held in court and led to their conviction. "It was a gang of about 30, all part of one big extended family. Only a few are from Dandupalya, notably the head of the gang Dandupalya Krishna, his second-in-command Dodda Hanuma and the latter's wife Lakshmi; the rest did not live in the village, they would only visit from time to time," says Chalapathi, whose first contact with the gang was in 1999 in Bangalore, where they attempted to plunder a temple. He has since braved several threats and went on to arrest and interrogate the dacoits for some of the most lurid crimes Karnataka has witnessed in recent times. Some 15 members of the group are still at large, he says, but they have been more or less inactive for several years now. Those who are behind bars have hired eminent legal counsel and are preparing to appeal in higher courts, he says.

The gang had a beguilingly simple approach: the women gang members would look for houses with elderly or lone women, approach them on the pretext of asking for water and engage with them every day over the next few days. Then, one day, the unsuspecting women would step out of their doors and into the arms of death. The dacoits would take their turns raping them, slit their throats and rob money and jewellery from the house. They also allegedly took on hit jobs now and then, and, according to Chalapathi, amassed great wealth. Chalapathi has chilling tales to tell from his interactions with the murderers: their choice of terminal technique, the slitting of throats, he says, came from a morbid fascination with the whistling sound made by the torn windpipe. Indeed, in videotaped interviews organised neatly into folders on his laptop, the murderers calmly recall in Kannada every detail of their crimes: from the colours of their victims' saris to the escape routes they took after committing the murders.

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What's in a name, one might ask. Everything, for those born in Dandupalya. B N Bache Gowda, MLA from Hoskote and Karnataka labour minister, says villagers have approached him in the past requesting a change of the village name. "They asked me to change the name in the revenue records, but this is not easy. We have, however, removed the signboard bearing the name from the highway," he says.

Srinivas Raju, director of Dandupalya, has his own reasons for not changing the name of his film. "My film is a 90 per cent true representation of facts about the gang. The gang has always been known as the Dandupalya gang and I can't change that. What I can do is incorporate voice-overs by villagers and some footage of the village if they wish to talk about their problems," he says.

The name Dandupalya roughly translates into 'cantonment'. Villagers say British soldiers often pitched tents here for days on end. Today, the name is tainted beyond recovery. Ask Shantabai, a 50-year-old who cannot find brides for her two sons, both workers in a brick kiln behind the fields bordering the village. Shantabai explains that about 50 young men and women in the village are single because no one would marry into the village.

"I have had to get my two daughters married to distant cousins because no one else would marry them. And now, for more than two years, I have been looking in Bangalore and Bangarpet for brides for my sons, but which girl would want to come to a village of thieves?" she says. Shantabai owns five buffaloes and makes enough money letting out a few rooms to nurses from Kerala who work in the neighbouring hospital, but no amount of fortune, it seems, can revoke the curse that has befallen the village. "All I can say is that I sleep with my front door open and there hasn't been a robbery in my house," she says.

"This is a peaceful place," assures Manjula, who lives in Hoskote and teaches social science and English at the government middle school in Dandupalya. "All six teachers in this school come from outside the village. I have been teaching here for 16 years and I have never come across violence," she says.

Education could have been cathartic in this village, a college degree a way out of the hardscrabble life. Yet, many children drop out of high school, possibly because of the stigma surrounding their village.

But Dandupalya is by no means a village in decline. Bicycles have given way to motorbikes and seven cars; a new borewell has ensured consistent water supply in the summer months; a dozen tractors work the fields; a bus stand and a community centre are set to come up. Thanks to the proximity to Bangalore, an acre here is worth about Rs 2 crore, which, for many farmers, is temptation enough to sell and move to the city. Not for D K Sriram, who has held on to his family's five-acre plot, where he cultivates millets, potatoes and grapes for wine. "This is the Bangalore Blue variety," he says, inspecting unripe grapes from one of the vineyards. "A kilo sells for Rs 10-20 and I sell about 10 tonnes every six months," says Sriram, one of the few landed farmers in the village. Most villagers work as agricultural labourers for Rs 200-300 a day and make extra cash by selling milk: Dandupalya is known for its dairy, which supplies over 1,000 litres of milk every day to Hoskote and Bangalore.

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In Gandhinagar, an area at a far end of Dandupalya, Gangamma, over 60 years of age and mother of the feared Dandupalya Krishna, stands with her hands on her hips, presiding over the construction of her new home. "The old house was so leaky it was impossible to live there. I applied for a loan from the municipality to build a new house," she says. Workers dart around, mixing cement, carrying stones and casting sly glances at the imposing figure.

Gangamma has something of a reputation: many say she managed the activities of the gang from behind the scenes, plotting its moves and training the men for the worst. In a pink sari and white blouse, she insists she did not do any wrong. Furious about the charges against her son and other relatives, she curses and gestures heavenward. "My family has been framed for murders they did not commit. Only two of the people charged with all those crimes are from Dandupalya. Lord Rama knows the truth," she says. Her granddaughter, Radha, brings her a jug of water. "One of my daughters committed suicide by consuming pesticide five or six years ago. My son Krishna's wife died because she couldn't stand all the torture. I am alone now, with my two grandchildren. I have gone to Sonia Gandhi twice to ask for support, but nothing has come. I will commit suicide too," she says, in an impassioned voice.

Gangamma visits her family, lodged in a jail in Belgaum, once a month. The villagers have been nice to her, she says. "They wanted to tear my house down a few years ago, but I requested them not to and they agreed," she says. There is no room for resentment in a small village, and even those who wouldn't talk about the gang's activities stand around watching, as Gangamma gesticulates wildly. "Write only what you see, what is the truth," she warns us.

THE GANG

Most active between 1996 and 2001, the gang had about 30 people, both men and women. Led by Dandupalya Krishna and Dodda Hanuma—both were sentenced to death by a special sessions court for multiple murders—they are said to have killed over 80 people in south India. The female gang members were the scouts: they would befriend the woman of the house that was to be their target and gain access, while the men would rape and kill the woman, usually slitting her throat, before looting valuables. According to N Chalapathi, deputy superintendent of police, CID, Bangalore, who cracked the case after first chancing upon a temple robbery by the gang in 1999, the men would often rape their victim in front of their wives, who were also part of the gang. (Dodda Hanuma's wife Lakshmi is among those sentenced to death.) Chalapathi produced before the court extensive videotaped interviews with 15 gang members, of whom 12—one of them died in prison—were found deserving of the death penalty. Three were released and 15 other gang members are still at large, but are not active in a big way, says Chalapathi.

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