What drove Phoolan to Chambal?
Phoolan Devi (the first name literally means Goddess of Flowers) was born on 10 August 1963, in Gorha Ka Purwa - a small village in Uttar Pradesh. Born into a family of poor, low-caste boatmen (mallah), Phoolan learnt that she must do everything asked of her by the higher-caste Thakurs of the village and gratefully accept every scrap of food she received.
Although not the poorest in the village, her family’s inheritance of land had been cheated from them by her uncle Bihari – who constantly beat and insulted Phoolan and her sisters. Unlike her father Devidin, molded into a humble and submissive man by years of avoiding trouble, Phoolan took after her mother, who taught her to be proud and stand up for what she believed in. This pride and strong sense of justice got Phoolan caught up in a high-spirited battle against Bihari and her cousin Mayadin to reclaim her family’s rightful inheritance.
Despite having not yet reached puberty, Phoolan’s childhood came to an abrupt end when she was sold in marriage, at age 11, to a man three times her age – in return for a cow and a bicycle. She suffered continuous beatings and sexual abuse at the hands of her husband and, after several attempts at running away, was returned to her family in ‘disgrace’. She again became embroiled in the conflict over her father’s land until 1979, when she was arrested on the basis of a robbery at her cousin Mayadin's home.
She spent a month in police custody, where she was repeatedly beaten and raped. After her release, her standing in society was lowered to such a degree that her parents were forced to pay extra money if their daughter wished to use the same water as the other villagers, as the police told them she would contaminate the water with “her filth”.
It is unclear exactly how Phoolan Devi ended up in the hands of outlaw bandits. Whether she was sold to the bandits or kidnapped by them, Phoolan Devi was marched out of Gorha Ka Purwa in 1979 and into the rugged and dreaded Chambal ravines – the place she would call home for the next four years.
The Goddess of Flowers would henceforth be in the midst of bullets.
Why was violence inevitable for Phoolan?
The gang was led by Babulal Gujjar, a higher caste man, who continuously tried to abuse Phoolan. His efforts were thwarted by gang-member Vikram Mallah, who was of the same caste as Phoolan.
Tension rose between the two men until Babu attempted to rape Phoolan one night and was shot dead by Vikram. Vikram’s tender and respectful treatment of Phoolan drew them close and helped to restore her pride and self-respect.
Undaunted by the fact that Vikram already had a wife and that she likewise had a husband, Phoolan and Vikram began cohabiting together. Operating within a 20000 sq. metre area of uncharted jungle terrain, the gang – now all low-caste and led by Vikram – carried out many raids.
In the first event that would add to her legend, her gang attacked the village where Phoolan's husband lived. Phoolan herself dragged him out of his house and stabbed him in front of the villagers. The gang left him lying almost dead by the road, with a note warning older men not to marry young girls. The man survived, but carried a scar running down his abdomen for the rest of his life. He lived as a recluse because most people in the village began avoiding his company out of fear of the bandits.
Hiding out in the Chambal ravines, Phoolan and Co would disguise themselves as policemen and venture out to stop trucks and rob landowners. The name of Phoolan Devi began to strike terror in the hearts of those who had degraded her as she would revisit all the men who had done her harm and make them pay for their crimes.
However, Vikram and Phoolan’s increasing notoriety caused other gangs to see them as a threat. One night two dacoit brothers – Sri Ram and Lala Ram – killed Vikram and many of his gang-members while they slept. They captured Phoolan and took to a village called Behmai, where she was tortured and gang-raped by the men of the village. After three weeks of abuse and degradation, a sympathetic priest smuggled a shotgun into her and she managed to escape.
Phoolan Devi then met with the gang of one of Vikram’s friends. They united together with a bandit called Man Singh, and formed a new gang that Phoolan would command. After some time, Man Singh and Phoolan became lovers. This gang carried out many raids in both Uttar Pradesh and the adjacent state of Madhya Pradesh.
In one notorious incident they captured a town, looted the market and distributed the goods to the poor in Robin Hood style. Phoolan was seen as a folk hero and became known as the ‘Bandit Queen’ of India.
It must, however, be noted that it is difficult to separate Phoolan the woman from Phoolan the myth. Many sympathizers say that Phoolan targeted only the upper-caste people and shared the loot with the lower-caste people, but the police have always dismissed this as a myth; there is no evidence of Phoolan or her partners in crime sharing money with anyone, whether low-caste or otherwise.
When did Phoolan get her revenge?
Seventeen months after she had escaped from Behmai, Phoolan Devi and her gang returned to the village. Their goal was to hunt down Sri Ram Singh (the man responsible for Vikram's death) and his brother Lala Ram Singh, as well as others involved in the gang rape and torture of Phoolan.
On the 14th of February 1981, Valentine’s Day, when the high-class Thakurs (Rajputs) in Behmai were preparing for a wedding, Phoolan Devi and her gang stormed the village. Having spent the night in the nearby hamlet of Ingwi, the band of dacoits had prepared their attack carefully.
Phoolan, Man Singh, and Baba Mustakim (a fellow dacoit leader) had decided to split their forces into three units – one taking a direct path to the village and attacking head-on, while the other two intercepting those trying to flee. Charging the village, the gang demanded that Sri Ram, Lala Ram and her kidnappers show themselves. The men were not to be found, nor would their whereabouts be known.
Frustrated, Phoolan ordered her gang members to line up each and every man belonging to the Rajput caste that they could lay their hands on in Behmai. This included Rajputs who belonged to other villages and towns who had come to attend the wedding in the village. The Rajput men were lined up and then, at Phoolan's order, they were shot dead by Phoolan and her gang members.
Twenty-two Rajput men, all but two of them utterly innocent, were summarily killed. Later, Phoolan would try to absolve herself in court by claiming that she herself had not opened fire or killed a single person. The Behmai massacre provoked outrage across the country. V. P. Singh, the then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and future Prime Minister of India, resigned in the wake of the Behmai killings.
This was also the time when Phoolan Devi acquired a legendary status through the discussions in Indian media.
Phoolan began to be called the Bandit Queen, and she was glorified by the "liberal" segment of the Indian media as an intrepid and undaunted woman, the underdog struggling to survive in the world.
The very flaws in her character and personality were interpreted as being manifestations of the suffering she had supposedly undergone at the hands of a feudal and patriarchal system.
The fact that she was a woman dacoit seeking and achieving revenge made for a great story, and the media fell over itself in locating her crimes in the context of patriarchy in Indian society.
When did she surrender?
It was February 1983, two years since the Indian government had launched the greatest manhunt ever conducted in Uttar Pradesh. Even with 2000 police officers and a helicopter on her trail, as well as a huge bounty on her head, Phoolan had been able to evade capture with the aid of local support.
Finally, with the number of her gang members dwindling and her own health worsening, she was forced to end her banditry and give herself over to the police. She said that she didn't trust the Uttar Pradesh Police and insisted that she would only surrender to the Madhya Pradesh Police. She also insisted that she would lay down her arms only before the pictures of Mahatma Gandhi and the Hindu goddess Durga, not to the police.
She laid down four further conditions:
A promise that the death penalty would not be imposed on any member of her gang who surrenders
The term for the other members of the gang should not exceed eight years.
A plot of land to be given to her
Her entire family should be escorted by the police to witness her surrender ceremony
Her surrender was to be a momentous event, with 10,000 people – including the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Arjun Singh - turning out to witness the mystical, heroic, and almost Robin Hood like Bandit Queen put down her arms.
Phoolan was charged with as many as 48 crimes, including 30 charges of dacoity (banditry) and kidnapping.
Her trial was delayed for eleven years, during which time she remained in prison as an undertrial.
She was finally released on parole in 1994 after intervention by Vishambhar Prasad Nishad, the leader of the Mallah community of boatmen to which Phoolan beloged.
In a move that would shock the nation, the government of Uttar Pradesh, led by Mulayam Singh Yadav, withdrew all cases against her.
Where was the second innings played?
On 15 February 1995, Phoolan Devi embraced Buddhism at the famous Buddhist site Deekshabhoomi.
In 1996, two years after her release, Phoolan stood for election to the 11th Lok Sabha from the Mirzapur constituency in Uttar Pradesh. She contested the election as a member of the Samajwadi Party of Mulayam Singh Yadav, whose government had withdrawn all cases against her and summarily released her from prison.
Phoolan became at once both symbol and avenger of atrocities committed against the lower castes - a woman who had taken justice into her own hands and achieved a singular vindication, despite her own bloody, violent trail. It was not the character of Phoolan Devi that mattered but the trend she represented: as a creation of the worst aspects of a monstrous social structure, she could lead a credible challenge against the caste system that has defined India since ancient times. And in it lay her political appeal.
She was also arriving on the political stage at a time when India's ever- turbulent politics were in even greater confusion than usual. Each day brought new resignations from the government, or indictments by a newly activist Supreme Court, in the biggest kickback scandal (Bofors) ever to occur in modern India. Rarely had an election been called in an atmosphere of such political uncertainty, and Phoolan was said to be delighted by it all.
With extraordinary crowd appeal, she rode the new low-caste tide in politics with assurance and panache. Sweeping through the remote villages of Uttar Pradesh in a campaign motorcade guarded by heavily armed security men, she styled herself the "Gandhi of Mirzapur" and appealed directly to the frustrations of voters from India's lower castes. Her admirers turned out in record numbers to support her as she vowed to work for the "upliftment of women, the downtrodden, and the poor."
She won the election and served as an MP during the term of the 11th Lok Sabha (1996–98). She lost her seat in the 1998 election but was reelected in the 1999 election and was the sitting member of parliament for Mirzapur when she would meet her end.
Those who live by the gun die by the gun. It would also hold true for Phoolan.
Who killed her?
On 25 July 2001, Devi was shot dead by three masked gunmen outside of her Delhi bungalow. She was hit five times: three shots to her head and two to her body.
The gunmen escaped in a Maruti car which they later abandoned a kilometer away when they switched to an auto rickshaw. The auto rickshaw driver had been traced and told police that one of the three men got off within half a kilometer of the murder site while the other two got off some distance away.
“It was divine retribution. God punished her for her sins," was the brief and crisp remark of 50-year old Santoshi Devi, who had helplessly watched her husband Banwari begging for his life before Phoolan who refused to show any mercy.
There was much speculation on who had murdered Phoolan Devi. Even after a week of her murder the police had little clue. One Sher Singh Rana (alias Pankaj Singh) came forward to claim that he had killed her. He said he killed her in retribution for Devi's infamous massacre in 1981, in which she gunned down 22 Thakurs in Behmai. Bizarrely, Rana also said he carried out the killing because he (perhaps inspired by the life of Phoolan herself) wanted a career in Indian politics.
Rana wanted to go down (or rise up if he escaped prison) as a Rajput hero, and he was not done trying yet.
Even though Rana had surrendered before the police in Dehra Dun in July 2001 right after the murder, he escaped from Tihar prison in 2004. Rana had a national mission in his mind - he wanted to bring back to India the ashes of Rajput king Prithviraj Chauhan which were buried in Afghanistan. Rana said he brought relics and sand from the king's grave at Deak village at the outskirts of Ghazni in Afghanistan. He also had a memorial built in Etawah in Uttar Pradesh.
He was tracked down by the police and arrested in Kolkata in 2006, two years after his escape. In August 2014, Rana was sentenced to life imprisonment and a fine of 100,000 rupees for Devi's assassination, as well as charges of conspiracy, after a 10-year trial.
The Delhi High Court granted bail to Sher Singh Rana in 2016, and he continues to nurture political aspirations, projecting himself as the hero of Rajputs. Rana has been participating in what he calls “social activities” since his bail.
“I was framed, but I believe justice shall prevail and I’ll be acquitted,” said Rana at a political rally in July 2019, though he was introduced to the gathering as the one who avenged the killing of 22 Rajputs by Phoolan Devi, who had in 1981 avenged her gang-rape by Rajput men of Behmai village. “Whoever killed her did the right thing. I would have stood by her if she had killed those actually responsible for assaulting her, but she killed innocent men of the village,” added Rana.
History has a way of repeating itself. Phoolan Devi's killer, much like Phoolan herself, has become a cult figure among his caste people, hailed for avenging the massacre of Behmai. Many allege that, behind the mask of revenge, Phoolan was murdered because her rising popularity had begun to change the political equations.