Guns cast a shadow on Bandit Queen's life
PHOOLAN DEVI - 1963-2001
RAJAT S BHATTACHARJEE
STATESMAN NEWS SERVICE
It will remain a mystery in the history of modern India that a woman, barely 5 ft tall with a A.315 Mauser hung from her shoulder, could attract the world media's attention from a sleepy village near Behmai in Uttar Pradesh.
Subject of folk ballads, compared to Durga and Shakti, but a victim of sexual exploitation all the same, 'Bandit Queen' was born in Gorha Ka Purwa village in northern Uttar Pradesh near Behmai in 1963, where she killed 22 upper caste men on 14 February 1981. Two years later she was to surrender before the portrait of Mahatma Gandhi in front of a 10,000-strong crowd with a total number of 57 cases and an amount of over Rs 1.5 lakh on her head.
Born in a Mallah (fisherman's tribe) family to Devidin and Moola, Phoolan had rarely travelled 20 km beyond her village.
Phoolan's journey into banditry began at eleven by fighting against the forceful occupation of her father's farmland by a cousin, Maiyadin. Some upper caste men, at Maiyadin's behest, came to her house and raped her.
Fearing more such raids, Phoolan's parents married her off to a man three times her age in exchange for a bicycle and a cow. She abandoned him shortly thereafter. First arrested in 1979 on robbery charges, Phoolan was repeatedly beaten and raped in police custody. Soon after her release, Phoolan was abducted by the bandit gang of Baboo Gujar Singh and his thirty men. And in what could have been a real life alternative of a favourite Bollywood formula, Vikram Mallah, one of Baboo's men fell in love with her. Mallah killed Baboo.
The duo married and thereafter began the saga of murder and mayhem. The largest heist she participated in, she admitted secretly later, was worth Rs 95 lakh.
The Behmai massacre was a natural culmination of events in a strictly caste based social structure. On Valentine's day 1981, Behmai, a small village inhabited by fifty Thakur families with no roads connecting it with the outside world, was raided by Phoolan's men. They killed 22 Thakurs, the biggest toll ever in a single incident by dacoits in modern India. Vikram was later killed by two Thakur brothers Shri Ram and Lalla Ram.
Phoolan surrendered only after an assurance from the government of her release after eight years, leading to her release in 1994.
She joined the Samajwadi Party soon after and married Umed Singh, a Thakur, in 1995 and the couple embraced Buddhism, which preaches non-violence.
She contested the Mirzapur parliamentary seat in 1996 and won but lost the same seat to the BJP's Mr Virendra Pratap in 1998. She won it back in the 1999 Lok Sabha polls.
In the Lok Sabha, she was vocal on the issue of women's reservation, going along with her political mentor, Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav's advocacy of reservations for OBC women within the quota of legislative seats reserved for women. She also spoke against atrocities committed on deprived backward classes, specially women.
This morning, she rushed to the well of the Lok Sabha, along with several party colleagues, protesting against the gruesome massacre earlier this week of some backward caste people near Moradabad. In fact, the Lok Sabha was adjourned till after lunch because of such protests.
Phoolan attended the UN world conference on women last year where, although she didn't give a speech, had in a written statement said, "Women constitute 50 per cent of world population and they are the worst sufferers of exploitation." While millions of women suffer fates similar to Phoolan, what stood out was her capacity to fight back for her rights.
No other bandit has perhaps been as media savvy as Phoolan with several biographers like Mala Sen, Mary Anne Weaver and others giving their own versions on what led Phoolan to become a bandit. Shekhar Kapur's controversial movie saw Phoolan suing the director only to settle it out of court.
With the end of an extremely eventful and adventurous life, Phoolan has now actually become the character of those innumerable legends which folk singers in northern Uttar Pradesh sing in her name.