Prince Frederick knocks on the same doors that were banged open by dacoits 30 years ago. The incident that happened near Pammal sent shock waves across the city.

In Sankaranagar adjoining Pammal, I knock gently on a door that was pounded open by masked robbers 30 years ago. A stately gentleman with snowy-white hair answers me. While explaining my effort to revisit the early 1980s when these depredators had Madras in a grip of panic, I expect the door to be banged shut on my face. Instead, I am waved to a chair.

“Thirty years on, I am still scared stiff whenever I recollect the details of that night,” says 71-year-old N.S. Sampath, whose house as well as those of his two brothers, N.S. Santhanam and N.S. Narayanan, all three set in a row against the backdrop of the Sengazhuneer hill, were attacked back-to-back by men in masks, a little past midnight on November 9, 1983. “For months after the attack, we found it difficult to sleep at night.”

For the three brothers and their families, the dacoity confirmed media accounts of the elusive mugamoodi kollaikaaran (masked robber), an easy label assigned to gangs of nomadic bandits, believed to be from the North, that ran amok in sparsely populated localities on the fringes of Madras during the early 1980s. In 1983, their activities appeared to be spread out in a wider territory, with strikingly similar robberies reported from localities fringing Hyderabad.

Well-planned attack

“Except for the eyes, their faces were masked. All of them wore khakhi trousers. Most carried casuarina logs. Short axes and knives were part of their arsenal. With the majority standing guard outside the three houses, it seemed to be a well-orchestrated operation. At the slightest hint of resistance, they would put their clubs to use. They spoke little and whenever they did, it was crisp imperatives in Hindi to one another. The only words I heard them speak were ‘Chalo! Chalo!’, after they had emptied our house of valuables,” says Sampath.

Fear of the mugamoodi kollaikaaran, answering to the above description, was part of life in the suburbia of the early 1980s. Anticipating attacks, the residents would bandthemselves into patrol groups. A school-going boy in Valasaravakkam around that time, this writer has had a ringside view of attempts at community policing. The fact that the armed robbers struck at Sankaranagar only when patrolling by residents had been discontinued, underlines its effectiveness.

Going by Sampath’s account, people living on the outskirts had little going for them and, often, the bulwark of residential unity was their only defence. “A blitz on three houses is no mean event, but nobody, beyond the affected families, came to know about it until the break of dawn. For want of a telephone, we could not inform anyone. The nearest phone booth was in Pammal and the nearest police station, in Pallavaram. It was the milkman who carried the news to the others, the next morning,” says Sampath.

From this picture, it is clear that the suburbs of those days contrasted greatly with our idea of suburbia. With the promise of self-sustained gated communities, life in the suburbs is now inviting. Not so, in the 1980s. Says 37-year-old S. Anand, one of Sampath’s two sons, both of whom were helpless spectators to the dacoity: “Back then, a suburban locality was unbelievably stark. With no buildings to impede our view, we could clearly see things that were over a kilometre away from our house. From where we lived, we could faintly see the Pallavaram bus stop, 4 km away.”

After the incident, the Sampaths wanted to pack their bags and leave Sankaranagar for good. Assurance of safety, backed by prompt action, persuaded them to stay on. “A police inspector and two constables were posted at our house. The move built our confidence in the establishment. For want of an outpost in the area, the cops stayed at our house tilla booth was installed for them,” says Sampath.

Traumatic experience

But a total return to normality was not easy. “The traumatic incident left deep scars on my mind: for six months, I did not step out of the house. Moving on was even more difficult for my elder brother (40 years old now), whose left hand was nicked by a dacoit’s knife, leaving a scar,” says Anand. “Clubbed on the head, my younger brother Narayanan had to undergo a surgery that was far from simple,” says Sampath.

Finding the silver lining in such an incident is difficult. But these families have. Says Anand, “Community patrolling and a willingness to warn one’s immediate neighbours of suspected danger are keys to a safe neighbourhood. Whenever we hear or see something suspicious, we inform our neighbours. And, they do the same thing.”

Mugamoodi’s modus operandi

* In the early 1980s – especially 1983 – masked robbers held Chennai in a grip of panic.

* They struck in sparsely populated localities on the fringes, made further vulnerable by poor communication systems.

* According to victims, the robbers spoke in Hindi; they were widely believed to be nomadic gangs from the North.

* Besides axes and knives, they carried logs and beat up anyone that offered resistance.

* Their ‘operations’ were well-orchestrated and multi-layered: while one group attacked a house, another stood guard outside.