Phoolan - brutalised, demonised and glorified by feudalism

Subodh Ghildiyal

DH News Service

LUCKNOW, July 25

From being the country's most-wanted criminal to establishing herself as the most potent symbol of backward assertion, assassins bullets today brought an end to a story of a person who was brutalised, demonised and then glorified by the same system.

Phoolan Devi, after a decade of incarceration in jail and then successful tenure as politician, still remained an enigma for all and sundry. While she remained a cold-blooded murderer for Behmai village where she gunned down 20 Thakurs on February 14, 1981, she remained an icon for backward castes in the post-Mandal society in a feudal state. Phoolan's death is being mourned and rejoiced by people depending on the side of fence they fall in. The name conjures up image of a bandana-sporting, pint-sized woman holding guns with two hands and surrendering in a public function. That was in 1983. An enterprising superintendent of police from Bhind, a dominated district in Madhya Pradesh, had managed to establish a contact with her and managed to persuade her to give up guns for good.

After repeated negotiations with the then MP chief minister Arjun Singh, Superintendent of Police Chaturvedi succeeded in engineering a coup that none could dream of. Phoolan remained behind the bars for 11 years, before being released on a Supreme Court order. She turned into an object of curiosity as scribes and researchers thronged her to dig out the story that made a girl, married at 11 years, into a "bandit queen" who ruled the dreaded ravines of Chambal undisputed for a good time.

Phoolan was not much in a region where dacoity and murders were the order of the day in seventies and eighties. It was only the casteist overtones of the Behmai massacre that pitchforked Phoolan into limelight. Twenty Thakurs were killed pointblank in a sleepy village in Kanpur dehat. The reason was the shelter the villagers gave to Lalaram, a Thakur dacoit, who had shot dead her paramour Vikram Mallah. The massacre had forced the resignation of Mr V P Singh, who later rose to become the prime minister. Can only be a coincidence that Mr V P Singh's Mandal Commission enabled her to become a symbol in the fight between forward caste and backward caste politics.

None would have expected that a woman fearing gallows would soon be the biggest hoarding for the post-Mandal backward assertion. It happened when the wily Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav saw this Mallah (boatmen) woman as the strongest medium of backward caste mobilisation. In 1994, the Samajwadi Party supremo and the then chief minister of UP, Mr Mulayam, got about wooing her by announcing withdrawal of all criminal cases against her. She was fielded in the 1996 parliamentary polls from a Mirzapur constituency and, as expected, she romped home. While she lost the next election in 1998 to a BJP Thakur, Virendra Singh, she claimed back the seat in 1999. Her importance could be guaged from the fact that she was the most audible and visible face of the most oppressed among backward castes in the state. And of course an asset for the party dominated by neo-feudals like Yadavs and Kurmis. Phoolan is no more. She could never have touched the heights in politics which she could in the ravines. Money did flow her way. Numerous biographies, interviews and movies on her life fetched her huge royalties which led to a wedge between her and Umed Singh, her husband, and had adopted her niece.

A pity that when the state is crowing about Mandalising the Mandal to benefit the Most Backward Castes, its most identifiable symbol has fallen to bullets. But as a sympathiser consoles himself, "Those who live by the sword, perish by it".

The end of a violent saga

DH News Service

NEW DELHI, July 25

It was the power of the gun that had made her a legend in the ravines of Chambal before she returned to the civil society in a much-publicised surrender ceremony in 1983. Eighteen years later, it was the same power of the gun which silenced the bandit queen-turned-people's representative forever.

A terror in the Hindi heartland during her heyday, Phoolan Devi shot into international fame with the Saint Valentine's Day massacre of 20 upper caste thakurs at Behmai in Uttar Pradesh in 1981, and later became a worldwide celebrity when Shekhar Kapur converted her life's story into a hard-hitting celluloid saga.

Ironically, it was a violent end for the "dasyu sundari" (beautiful bandit) - as she was called by the people of the Chambal region during the days when she was the undisputed queen of the ravines - who after striking terror for years in the minds of specially the upper caste people, had chosen to take to democratic ways and become an MP from Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh representing Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party.

Born in 1963 in Shekhpur Gudda of Jalaun district of UP, Phoolan spent 13 years in various jails after her surrender before the then Madhya Pradesh chief minister Arjun Singh. One of the major conditions for her surrender was that she would never be sent for trial to UP, the state she represented in Lok Sabha after entering politics. The low Mallah caste short-statured woman was afraid that the thakurs, her major target of "revenge" for a gang rape perpetrated on her, would kill her for the Behmai massacre if she stepped into the state. In fact, even after she became an MP in 1996, she never dared to go to Behmai even once.

A legend in her own lifetime, the story of Phoolan's saga became the fodder for not only the superhit film but also several books, including Mala Sen's rendition which became the basis for Shekhar Kapur's venture as well as an autobiography titled I, Phoolan Devi which was brought out by a French publishing house.

The MP, who was killed when she had come to have lunch at her official residence during the recess in Parliament, entered Lok Sabha for the first time in 1996, defeating BJP's Virendra Singh, whom she surpassed again in the 1999 polls after biting the dust in the 1998 elections.

Phoolan, who in 1994 married Umed Singh, an upper caste Jat who had helped much in getting her out of jail, had said after her surrender that she only knew "how to fire a gun and how to cut grass", had termed her marriage as a means to become a "housewife, agriculturist and farmer". She was not happy at both Mala Sen's book and Shekhar Kapur's film, saying they had not represented her in true light. She had, in fact, also filed lawsuits against the makers of the film.

Her political mentor Mulayam Singh Yadav, as chief minister of UP, had withdrawn all the 57 cases filed against her in various courts in the state in 1994, though additional district judge S K Saxena did not allow withdrawal in four cases of dacoity and murder which took place in Kanpur Dehat, including that of the Behmai massacre. Incidentally, after the Behmai massacre, the then chief minister V P Singh had intensified anti-dacoity operations, but he himself was forced to resign when his brother was gunned down in the jungles of Allahabad.

Even as she rose to notoriety during her days in the jungles, many began to see her as a saviour of the poor and the oppressed, some kind of a "lady Robinhood". Later, when she returned to normal life and became a politician, on many occasions she expressed her special desire to work for the poor, the downtrodden, the exploited and the backwards and minorities. Ironically, the one time apostle of violence had embraced Buddhism along with her husband in 1995.

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Referred by:Mukundan CM
Published on: July 25, 2001
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