Standing at nearly 6 feet, Ruby Singh towers over most of the people in this nondescript village, commanding respect, awe and fear in equal measure.
And to add to the aura about her, she is a former bandit queen who was once a terror in the area, close to the badlands of Chambal, the breeding ground to some of India’s most dreaded dacoits.
But that is in the past. Today, Ruby Singh, 42, is a “reformed person”, as her admirers say.
She was the sarpanch till recently before the seat was reserved for scheduled caste candidates. Her followers say she is also a social worker engaged in uplift of women of the village in Madhya Pradesh’s Bhind district, around 500 km north from capital Bhopal.
The former bandit is herself not ashamed of her past and said she became a ‘baagi’ – Hindi for rebel – to protect the honour of women of her village, who she alleges were being molested.
“I was only 13 years when I killed two people, including a woman constable, on the same day. My aim (now) is to strengthen the women of my area and make them strong so that they can fight male atrocities,” Ruby Singh told Hindustan Times.
Ruby was born in Bamayan village, now in Auraiya district of Uttar Pradesh, which falls in the Chambal region straddling two states.
After becoming a bandit, the ravines of Chambal became her home, providing hide-outs to her gang. However, not much is known about her ways as an outlaw.
But she had a change of heart when she married Veer Singh, another dacoit of the Bhind region, and both surrendered in 1994. She was 21 then.
A year later, both settled down in Gaurai village though they were given a plot of land by the government at Guna, around 175 km away.
Mother of a teenage daughter and two sons, Ruby said that since surrendering, she has tried to change the very society which forced her take up arms.
A self-help group started by her is helping woman of the village to attain economic independence.
“We learnt stitching under the SHG. Now I earn about Rs 50-70 daily by stitching. She is always with us in difficult situations,” said Lakhi Bai, a resident of the village.
People said that the village now does not hear about incidents of drunk husbands abusing their wives as the fear of Ruby runs deep.
“She never tolerates atrocity on women and poor and this is what makes her our saviour,” said Urmila, another resident of Gaurai.
However, there are others who resent her strong-arm tactics.
Ram Prakash Nagar, secretary of the cooperative bank at Gaurai, said Ruby Singh is not respected but feared by the people.
“She is cunning and uses the poor and gullible people for her benefit. She had a fight with me once and threatened to kill me. She also threatens people to get them booked under false cases,” Nagar said.
A few cases of assault are also pending against her at the local police station.