Sureshchandra’s "dream" project will cater to the educational needs of people in the Bundelkhand-Chambal region, one of the most backward areas of the country.

In popular culture, the ravines of Chambal have more often than not been synonymous with feared dacoits, murder, underdevelopment, dacoit-politician nexus and everything else that’s bad. Now, a dacoit-turned-Gandhian is attempting to change that perception.

Sixty-one-year-old Sureshchandra ‘Sarvodaya’ does not resemble the archetypal Robin Hood figure; yet for much of his early life he has worn that character. He sports a Gandhian cap; his voice is meek but words strong. If spotted in a crowd you may even mistake him for an Anna Hazare supporter.

In an attempt to dislodge the culture of violence in the ravines, he is working to build a school for the young and the old, based on Gandhiji’s principles of self-reliance. “Those who quit violence can reform themselves here,” he says. “Besides education and exercise facilities, the school will serve as a character-reforming institute for the youth of the area. It’s so easy for them to join gangs.”

While he hopes to complete the necessary groundwork for his ambitious “non-violence” institution within a year, Suresh has begun seeking the support and contribution of people. Notably, he is also part of a group of intellectuals, academicians and journalists that envisages a university in Chambal, something unthinkable to most observers.

The “dream” project will cater to the educational needs of people in the Bundelkhand-Chambal region, one of the most backward areas of the country and often neglected.

Born in Uttar Pradesh’s Mahoba district, adjoining Madhya Pradesh, Suresh’s family belongs to the goldsmith caste. His father was in the service sector while his mother taught in a primary girl’s school. Though from an early age Suresh was deeply religious and was fond of reading and reciting texts, he also revered freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh. Defiant, he even said no when as a child he was set to be married off.

Suresh committed his first crime at the tender age of 16 after being inspired by the play Rang de Basanti Chola, which features the Kakori train robbery sequence. He then shot dead a rich man, who was accused of raping a girl in his locality. “I always believed that for good to win over the bad, force is sometimes required. After this incident I began to think that it was not entirely wrong to kill for fighting injustice.”

As his reputation grew, his friends started seeking favours from him, which led Suresh to commit some robberies. “Back then little did I realise that this chain of violence would never end,” he says.

Many stray incidents later, as if to follow protocol in Chambal of those days, Suresh formed his own gang. Yet, even while committing the most outrageous crimes Suresh made sure that no women, children or elderly people were harmed. “We would target the rich in nearby cities of Madhya Pradesh and U.P. and distribute the wealth among the poor and the needy,” he says.

But his run came to an end in 1973, when aged just 21, he was arrested and sentenced to life for murdering a policeman while escaping after a robbery. The court rejected Suresh’s bail application, moved by his father, and sent him to a jail in Kanpur. However, after serving just one-and-a-half years behind bars Suresh escaped while he was out on bail. He went underground and spent his days on the run, mostly in forests and ravines but only to be captured again. This is when he accepted his destiny.

“The first time I was arrested I was angry and burning with vengeance. When I was captured again, I realised this was fate. The life of violence would never end. The more I harmed or killed, the more enemies I made,” says Suresh, who was booked in at least 20 cases, including murder and dacoity.

His life and perception changed during his stay in jail, in particular after he attended a lecture on Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of life during one of the rehabilitation missions led by a college principal in Hamidpur. The principal provided him with books and Suresh started reading on Gandhiji’s principles. Deeply influenced by the Mahatma’s teachings, he decided to live the rest of his life on the basis his principles. He even used to read out to other prisoners.

Based on his goodwill and “Sarvodaya” nature, Suresh was released from jail in March 1999 after serving a 21-year jail term.

“Unlike most dacoits who are hounded by the police even after their release, police have never had any complaint against me,” he says. He even encouraged other dacoits to leave behind their life of violence. After his release, Suresh went to an ashram in Maharashtra and changed his surname to Sarvodaya, one of Gandhihi’s ideologies. Today, he carries on the Father of Nation’s message and travels around the country, delivering lectures in schools and colleges, participating in film festivals and cultural programmes.