Sacrifice at temple to murder cult
FROM SUJAN DUTTA
Mirzapur-Bhadohi, July 26:
Flames from the pyre lick the inky sky as dusk shrouds Chaube Ghat, Mirzapur, on the Ganga. Phoolan Devi is turning to ash here, within sight of a temple to a cult of murder. Phoolan is not cremated a bandit queen.As the cortege bearing her body is escorted by a long convoy that cuts a swathe across south-east Uttar Pradesh, from Varanasi airport to Mirzapur, she is feted in death.
And not by Mirzapur alone. Before her body was flown out of Delhi, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee led a stream of government and political leaders to Phoolan's residence, blessing her bandit legend with the perfumed respectability of their flowers-in-hand presence.
After Bhadohi, the funeral convoy crosses Shastri bridge over the river. The bridge is choking with people and cars. From Chaube Ghat, it is a line of bobbing heads. Beyond the bridge, on the same bank, is the Vindhyavasini temple, home to a goddess who inspired the thuggee movement, a cult of murder in her honour.
"Gali gali mein naara hain, Rajnath hatyara hain," someone raises the slogan. The crowd, mostly young villagers who have marched through the drizzle over slushy paddy fields, joins in.
The priest goes round the pyre, setting it alight as Mulayam Singh Yadav, son Akhilesh, Amar Singh and Phoolan's husband Umedh Singh supervise the last rites. On the loudspeakers, a shehnai drones. It is playing the matam, music of mourning. Moolah Devi, Phoolan's mother, is on the bank with the family. Her face is set in stone. Phoolan's elder sister, Rukhmani, who stood by her when the family was torn by disputes after her surrender, is wailing. She leans on her son's shoulder. Phoolan's mother-in-law, Ramkali, takes ill in the crush of people. She is escorted to a car. The crowd is trying to identify who is who in the family - Phoolan's younger sisters, Ramkali and Munni, a brother-in-law, Hargobind, his sons, Sonu and Lalit, two other nephews, Mathura and Santosh. Phoolan's brother, Shivnarain, forces his way to the pyre. But for him, all of them leave, virtually carried by helpful hands through the crowd, just as the pyre is being lit.
This is not a family that looks prosperous, fattened by deals with film producers or others. Their clothes are dirty and cheap; the hair is dishevelled. Phoolan had taken a fancy to Shahnaz Hussain's cosmetics, but Delhi's sanitised environs have not yet untied all of Moolah Devi's matted hair.
The family blends into the countryside. They look like many of the people who had lined the roads as the convoy passed from Varanasi district through Bhadohi to Mirzapur. This is not Phoolan's Chambal, not Shekhpur Gurha, where she was born. But she was a Mallah and spoke their language. This is the Samajwadi constituency. Mulayam Singh's spectacle of Phoolan's death is thought through. It is getting to be election time in Uttar Pradesh. "I was with her last Saturday, at the district magistrate's office in Gyanpur," says Feroze Waziri, national secretary of the Samajwadi youth front. "I filled up her application forms for gun licences which were refused. I didn't take it so seriously then. I told her yeh mamla to apka chalta hi rehta hain. If she was in Mirzapur, she would not have been killed because here she was well protected. So they got to her in Delhi." Who are they?
Phoolan's constituents in Mirzapur point their accusing finger westwards, towards Behmai, where she allegedly killed 23 Thakurs in February 1981. Even those who are not Samajwadi loyalists point to Behmai."I was in Behmai that evening," recalls Sriram Misra, a police driver. "In Behmai, people put tikas of blood swearing revenge. Last night, they lit lamps of ghee."
Behmai had sworn not to celebrate Diwali till it was avenged. Many in Mirzapur believe Behmai celebrated its festival of lights yesterday. The cult of the thuggee is not yet buried.