In politics she was still among thieves
She possibly knew they would never let her live. The Thakurs had been gunning for Phoolan ever since she came out of her dark, dank prison cell. She had always feared for her life as the threat had loomed over her.
In the end, she died a violent shooting death. It is so sad that her armed bodyguards who shadowed her, a high-security Member of Parliament, failed to protect her.
I am not saying that the Thakurs have killed her, but this is what I suspect. It's for the police to trace the killers and bring them to justice.
Phoolan was a woman wronged, all her life. She was first abused by the high-caste Thakurs who had made a bandit of her. Later, she was used by politicians who saw in her potential to bag the minority votes because of her closeness to Baba Mustakim.
A volley of bullets brought her life to an abrupt end just when she appeared to have put her horrible past behind her and was enjoying her new-found status as MP.
I really couldn't believe it when a friend broke the news to me at lunch.
"Are you sure she is dead," I found myself asking her. She nodded yes. I frantically tried calling her family members in New Delhi in the next couple of hours, but never got through.
I still remember the day I first met her in her prison cell in the late eighties. I was then researching my book I would write on her. She appeared to be cowering, but when you probed you saw the fire smouldering in her. I knew she would be a legend.
As I got to know her, I realised she was a straight person, always speaking her mind, never bothering about the consequences. We became close friends in the course of researching the book that had taken me 11 years to write.
She not just called me "didi", but regarded me as her sister, someone she could confide in, she could share her feelings with. I became a member of her family over time. She always asserted she was innocent. She swore that she had never killed anybody. She dismissed the accounts that she had killed 23 people during her days as the bandit queen. She claimed to have shot two men only and that too through their knees.
I wrote what she told me in my book and that's what Shekhar Kapur portrayed in his film on her. Phoolan told me she had tried to seek out the two men she felt were responsible for her plight, but could never trace them.
She would never say what she would have done to them if she had tracked them down. Though I always had a sympathy for Phoolan the woman, I never agreed with Phoolan the politician. We had a row over her politics the last time we met in 1997.
A Japanese filmmaker, a friend of mine, was planning a documentary on Phoolan Devi as a parliamentarian, and he had roped me in. So, in 1997, Phoolan and I travelled together through the length and breadth of her constituency in eastern Uttar Pradesh for more than two weeks as I tried to find out her politics.
I was shocked when I found small children working in carpet factories in her constituency in gross violation of the law. The children, much sought after because of their nimble fingers, were slowly losing their eyesight because of the delicate work.
I couldn't take it, but Phoolan wouldn't listen. We had an argument. "You have no idea what poverty or hunger is, so are raising this child labour issue," she kept telling me. If these kids did not work, she said, they would go hungry. "What do you prefer, hunger or work," she argued loudly, refusing to make a stand.
I refused to buy this specious argument most politicians make in support of child labour. I told her so and pulled out of the documentary. The project fell through.
Though the meeting had ended on a sour note, it had never spoiled our relationship. In the last three years, she kept phoning me up and we talked about many things. We also wrote letters. They were often intimate, in fact, too intimate to reveal. I surely cannot talk about the ups and downs in her marriage or emotional relationship.
Phoolan never asked me before she joined politics. But I figured she needed a job once she was out of jail and politics provided her with one. In any case, she needed to make a living, so I don't want to go into the rights or wrongs of it. She didn't have much choice either.
After she became a politician, she told me she often felt like she was still working with the crooks and thieves. When I asked her to be careful, she said: "Don't worry didi. I am a baaghi too."
Mala Sen is the author of India's Bandit Queen: The True Story of Phoolan Devi (As told to Debashis Bhattacharyya)