The single lane disappeared deep into the darkness of the road. Shadows of the trees ran past as the headlight of the car illuminated them. There was a deep forest on both sides of the road. The Multan Road, a four-lane highway that after connecting Lahore with Multan runs off to Karachi, was behind us.
It was about midnight but there were several cars, buses and trucks on the Multan Road, while the Changa Manga road was deserted.
We were heading in the direction of Chunian, a historical city about 90km from Lahore. The city once fell within Lahore district, but when Kasur was separated from Lahore and made into a separate district in the 1970s, Chunian became a part of Kasur district.
Earliest archaeological mounds found in the vicinity of the city date back to the 11th century. According to folk history, however, the city of Chunian is believed to have existed in the 8th century when Muhammad Bin Qasim invaded Sindh.
Chunian at that time was said to have been ruled by a Hindu king, whose empire was captured by the Muslim invader.
When the king could not pay the Arab general war indemnity, the Muslim forces took his young boy, Maha Chawar, hostage. Years later, when Maha Chawar returned to his father, he was shunned by the religious orthodoxy for having traveled overseas and living with the Muslims.
Legend has it that the king, under pressure, decided to have his son assassinated. But his daughter Kangana found out about the plan and escaped with her brother.
Before they could be captured by the forces of the king, they entered the earth alive, giving birth to one of the earliest Muslim shrines in the southern Punjab. The shrine exists today close to the city of Bahawal Nagar, controlled by a feudal family from the region. Not far from Chunian is another historical city called Kanganpur, said to be the fiefdom of Princess Kangana.
The Sikh Encyclopedia records that Chunian was dominated by Hindu untouchables who converted to Islam under the influence of Peer Jahania. His shrine lies in a lonely ground facing the walled city of Chunian. The city became prominent during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, who set up an arms factory in the city, which served as a major cantonment during the Mughal era.
An outlaw emerges
There was an awkward silence in the car. Perhaps all the occupants were aware of the danger lurking in the depths of the forest. Far along the road, we saw two headlights coming towards us. I felt a sense of relief, reassured that we weren’t the only ones driving on this dangerous road. But then another set of lights appeared, both completely occupying the road. I panicked. I had no other option but to halt the car.
Maybe this was how the dacoits planned to stop us.
For years before and after Partition, this region has been known for its dacoits. Many travelers have suffered at their hands. According to land revenue records that were collected by the British immediately after the annexation of Punjab, the forest of Changa Manga derives its name from two dacoits, Changa and Manga, who escaped British prison and disappeared in this thick forest. They would emerge in the night looting travelers.
Eventually they were killed in a police encounter, but it is popularly believed that their ghosts linger in this forest. Today, the forest of Changa Manga has been converted into a national park and is one of the most important tourist destinations around Lahore.
While dacoits are seen as outlaws and bandits, they are also romanticised to an extent. Several dacoits have been projected as Robin Hoods. Songs of their bravery are even sung today.
Raati raat Malangi din nu raaj Farangi da
(Whereas the British rule in the day
It is Malangi who governs the night)
Malangi belonged to a village called Lakho close to Changa Manga. He was orphaned in his infancy. Taking advantage of the situation, the feudal lord of the village usurped the land that rightfully belonged to Malangi. After marriage, Malangi and his stepbrother decided to fight the feudal to take back what was rightful his. He succeeded in gaining control over the land but the feudal had a couple of tricks up his sleeve.
He first managed to ostracise Malangi and his new wife from the village. Raised as a Sikh, Malangi married a Muslim woman and the feudal used this intermarriage as an excuse for Malangi’s social exclusion.
This discrimination led to a fierce battle between Malangi and the feudal lord’s men. Since the feudal was also the Lambardar of the area ─ a title awarded to powerful families in India by the British and entitled them to a number of governmental and administrative perks ─ he filed a murder case against Malangi.
It was in these circumstances that Malangi escaped from his village and became a dacoit.
According to popular folk stories, Malangi waged his battle against corrupt government officials, feudal and interest seekers. He would rob the rich and powerful, and distribute their wealth to the poor and oppressed members of society.
Malangi also extended his support to the Babbar Akali Movement, a militant splinter group of the Akali Movement which aimed to wrest control of Sikh gurdwaras from hereditary Hindu mahants supported by the government.
Members of the Akali Movement alleged that the Hindu priests at Sikh gurdwaras did not adhere to the doctrines of the Sikh religion and carried out activities against certain Sikh commandments. The movement began in 1920 and faced stiff opposition from the Hindu mahant and the British government. In 1921, several Sikh demonstrators were killed in Nankana Sahib as they marched peacefully to Gurdwara Guru Nanak Janamasthan. This led to a nationwide protest. Mahatama Gandhi visited Nankana Sahib after the massacre.
Malangi and his group dominated the areas of Central Punjab that include Lahore, Kasur and Sheikupura. He would often use the jungle of Changa Manga to evade the authorities.
Another prominent dacoit who used the jungle of Changa Manga to escape the authorities was Nizam Lohar, an ironsmith who used to make weapons for the British government. He once got embroiled in an argument with a British official who had insulted India. The quarrel heated up and Nizam ended up killing him, following which he joined the forces of Jeet Singh and Malkeet Singh, both prominent proponents of the Babbar Akali Movement.
Nizam Lohar started making weapons for them, providing an impetus to their movement. He would also attack government officials and moneylenders, burning their records before distributing their money to the oppressed classes. There are many legends about him rescuing a poor family from a greedy feudal lord. Nizam Lohar and his supporters saw themselves as nationalists struggling for the cause of freedom. For the British government, however, they remained dacoits.
Dacoits or bandits emerge out of a political context. Nizam Lohar and Malangi were both products of the feudalisation of Punjabi society by the British. Recently, the Punjab government, assisted by the army, executed an operation in Rajanpur against a group of bandits known as Chotu Gang. Devoid of any historical context, the gang and its leaders were portrayed as devils while the role of the authorities was lauded.
Before the emergence of this gang, however, Rajanpur district did not exist in the imagination of the political class of the country. One of the poorest districts in the country, it borders with Balochistan and Sindh. Unlike Central Punjab, feudal lords govern these territories as independent warlords. It is in this context that the dacoits of Rajanpur emerge and caused havoc in the region. The gang has been defeated but the conditions that led to its formation remain.
As my car came to a halt, I prepared for the worst. There were two trucks carrying sugarcane. In a miscalculation, one tried to overtake the other and blocked the road. I parked on the edge allowing one of the trucks to go past.
This post originally appeared on Scroll.in and has been reproduced with permission.