Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Bijnot Fort

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The fortress of Bijnot lies way out in the Cholistan Desert — a hundred and twenty kilometres southeast of Derawar Fort and just about twenty-five from the Indian border. Dating back to the 8th century, it is now in a state of utter ruin — ruin that was caused not by the passage of time, but by the accuracy of Indian artillery shelling during the 1971 conflict. The story to recount is not of the fort's history and glory; it is the story of two outlaws who frequented this area.

Madho Singh (aka Jagmaal Singh) of the clan Rathore was a native of Bikaner and one of the three sons of a Thakur who held two villages as jagir. One day the Thakur was rudely put down by a neighbour whose cattle were grazing in the Thakur's fields. The incident much distressed young Madho Singh and catching the offender at a lonely spot did him in with his steel-tipped staff. The long arm of the law reached out and Madho Singh became a fugitive.

Moving to Jaisalmir, the man fell in with a gang of petty thugs who terrorised local traders to collect a daily stipend. With his six-foot three-inch frame, handsome face and proud Rajput bearing, Madho Singh soon became the leader of the gang with Krishen Singh, an older member becoming his closest confidante. Petty crime leads to bigger evil and soon it was time for the gang's big heist. Bhoor Singh, a man of good means, was the chosen unfortunate one whose house was raided in the quiet of night. The robbers made off not only with two hundred thousand rupees, but the man's daughter as well. The girl was eventually returned untouched for Madho Singh had laid down the law: death to rapists and squealers. With the police hot on their heels, the heat in Rajasthan got unbearable for the gang and the lot escaped across the new border to Pakistan. This was the year 1948 and Madho Singh and his men chose to live in the neighbourhood of Fort Abbas (many miles north of Bijnot).

That was a time when there were no border fences or ditches and the gang began to make plundering forays into India. But crime, they say, never pays.

One day a posse sent out by the Rajasthan police engaged the gang in a fire-fight by the fort of Bijnot and Madho's deputy Krishen Singh went to his Maker. To this day a simple structure a kilometre to the west of Bijnot marks the spot where Krishen's body was cremated. The ashes, it is told, were somehow sent off to be dispersed in the Ganga River.

Madho Singh now petitioned the killadar of Derawar Fort for an audience with the Nawab of Bahawalpur. The interview was granted and the Rathore Thakur, a fugitive of the law of India, presented the Abbasi ruler of the state with a richly caparisoned camel. Shortly thereafter Madho Singh and the remainder of his gang came to live at Dera Nawab, the seat of the ruler of Bahawalpur.

Traditionally, the Nawab's harem guards were Poorbia Rajputs. But after the merger of Bahawalpur with Pakistan, these people were expatriated home to India. And so it fell upon Madho Singh and his gang to take up this responsibility. Members of the princely family, who had seen the Thakur, relate that he was known to be a man of honour who kept his word and was fair in his dealings. They say that having pledged loyalty once, there was nothing that could then sway Madho Singh. And so he and his men stood guard at the home of the Nawab.

But the stringent discipline of the royal residence did not quite suit the free-spirited man. Not long after taking the assignment, Madho Singh requested permission to go live in the desert. It was granted with some reluctance and the gang moved to Bijnot. Once again they began to operate across the border and in a few short months Madho Singh or Jagmaal became a byword for terror. Rajput mothers would get unruly children back in line with a whispered, 'Jagmaal ayo ray!' By 1963, so legend relates, Madho Singh was wanted in one hundred and thirty-five cases in India.

Having long harboured the notion that his mate Krishen was killed because the two had raided Bhoor Singh's home, Madho had nurtured the thought of avenging the death. During a cross-border raid in 1963, Krishen Singh kidnapped Bhoor Singh and dragged him across the desert to Bijnot. It is said that a heavy posse followed him and that the Indian government even requested Pakistan Air Force to flush the man out, but the outlaws could not be caught. Ten days, they say, a running fight was kept up across the dunes, but Madho and his gang remained one step ahead of the Indian police and our air force.

When the dust settled, Madho brought the hapless Bhoor Singh to the very spot where many years earlier Krishen Singh had breathed his last. There, telling him that he was to pay for that long ago death, Madho Singh needlessly did the poor man in. Not long afterwards, Madho Singh was shot in the arm and he and his gang taken into custody. But there were no cases against the lot under Pakistan's law; they were held to be repatriated to India as her citizens. But Madho who had already sent his wife and two sons to India, refused to go. Caught in the byzantine corridors of bureaucracy, Madho Singh and his gang remained in custody for fourteen years without trial or conviction. Abid Minto, the renowned human rights lawyer, took the case to the high court and in 1978 secured the gang's release. Madho Singh and his associates Moolji, Pannay Singh and Gopi Singh were free once again. Now they were also were granted Pakistani citizenship. Madho alias Jagmaal Singh was an outlaw with a known record of crime. Upon his release he was swamped by offers of haven from law-abiding, god-fearing people were he to return to his old sinful ways.

Madho Singh, now almost sixty, was finally looking for peace. He refused. An aging and peaceful person is good for nothing and is only a drain on the larder. And so the offers of protection were withdrawn. Madho and his men ended up at the threshold of Lal Mian Abbasi of the princely family who offered him shelter against the pledge of abiding by the law. But little was left of that action-packed life. In 1983 Madho Singh, tall, slim and erect with little subtracted from his proud Rajput countenance, passed away.

Upon his deathbed, it is told, Thakur Madho Singh Rathore extracted a promise from his three accomplices: to forever be law-abiding citizens of Pakistan and to remain unflinchingly loyal to Lal Mian Abbasi and his family for taking them in when no other would. The word was kept until Moolji, the last of them, passed away in 1999. But for this family of the Abbasi clan and a few elderly people in Bijnot, Madho Jagmaal Singh fades from memory. And so I tell this story not to glorify an outlaw and murderer but to preserve a part of history that will never make it to the books and will by and by be forever lost.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 20 June 2014 at 12:47, Blogger Unknown said...

Well documented. This is what I like the best about your work. You are documenting these bits which would have stayed in oblivion otherwise.
Our history binds us to our roots, explains our relationship to the soil we live on, strengthens our foothold on the ground we tread on.

At 20 June 2014 at 20:24, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

A great article which gives minor details for the reader to bridge the missing gapes. Well done sir.

At 21 June 2014 at 06:38, Anonymous Amardeep Singh said...

A great account. Fascinating how the borders did not matter in those days. To me it's not about the outlawness of Madho Singh but the freedom with which he could move across the two nations.


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

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