Phoolan Devi was an Indian Bandit who later turned into a politician. She is popularly known as, “Bandit Queen.”
Phoolan Devi was born on 10 August 1963 (age 38 years at the time of her death) in a small village Ghura Ka Purwa (also called Gorha ka Purwa) in the Jalaun District, Uttar Pradesh. Her zodiac sign is Sagittarius. Phoolan Devi’s family was poor, the only asset they had was a piece of farmland of about an acre with a neem tree on it. At the age of 11, when her grandfather passed away, her father’s elder brother became the head of the family. They proposed to remove the neem tree for using the land for the cultivation of other profitable crops. She felt that her uncle was dominating her father only because he had no sons. She started taunting her cousins, used abusive words against them and even attacked one of his cousins. She then led a gang of village girls and sat on Dharna (sit-in protest) on the land and did not even move when her family members came to take her home; to this, she was so brutally beaten up by her family members that she fell unconscious.
Family, Caste & Husband
She was born into a Mallah (boatman caste) community and was the fourth child of Devi Din Mallah and his wife, Moola. Out of all her sibling, only Phoolan, her elder sister Rukmini Devi Nishad, her younger sister Munni Devi, and her brother survived.
When she turned 11, she got married to Puttilal Mallah, who was almost three times elder to her. She was in a live-in relationship with a bandit called Vikram Mallah, who was the second-in-command of the gang, where Phoolan went on to become a Dacoit herself. After Vikram Mallah died in a fight with the gang, Rajput members of the gang took her and abused her in Behmai Village. She then came in a love relationship with Man Singh, who helped her escape from the house where she was locked in the Behmai Village and later also became her partner in the Behmai Massacre.
She later got married to Ummed Singh, who was a politician.
Life As A Bandit
In the year 1979, after her husband abandoned her, Phoolan fell on the hands of dacoits. However, it is unclear as to how it happened. Phoolan in her biography says, “Kismet Ko Yehi Manzoor Tha (It was dictate of the fate).” She soon regretted this after the gang leader Babu Gujjar abused her sexually and brutalised her. She was saved by Vikram Mallah, who killed Babu Gujjar in a quarrel related to her rape. Phoolan and Vikram later went on to live-in together; even both of them were aware of each other’s previous marriages.
Meanwhile, Shri Ram and Lalla Ram, two upper-caste Rajput brothers, were released from jail and were angry at the news of Babu Gujjar’s death. They attacked a village and began harassing Mallahs of that village. The Mallahs in the gang decided that they would divide the gang into Rajputs and Mallahs. Both the communities were displeased by the decision, and a hot argument between Shri Ram and Vikram Mallah led to a gunfight. Vikram Mallah was shot dead, and Phoolan was taken captive by Shri Ram and Lalla Ram to their home in Behmai village; where she was beaten, raped, and humiliated by Rajputs over a period of 3 weeks. In the final humiliation, she was paraded naked in the village. She was able to escape with the help of a lower-caste villager of Behmai and two Mallahs of Vikram’s gang including Man Singh.
Behmai Massacre: The Tale Of Revenge
She, along with Man Singh, led the gang comprised entirely of Mallahs and started violent raids and robberies across Bundelkhand; mostly targeting the upper-caste community. Some say that she used to rob the upper-caste people and share the loot with the lower-caste people in a ‘Robinhood-style,’ although the Indian authorities claim it to be a myth. Phoolan, along with her gang, returned to Behmai to seek revenge, they were dressed as the police officers. On the evening of 14 February 1981, she lined-up the upper-caste men from the village and shot them dead. The shootout left 20 men dead.
The massacre aroused rage across the country; a search was carried out following several rewards for her head, which turned out to be unsuccessful. Two years after the Behmai Massacre, Phoolan accepted to surrender on certain conditions. At the time of her surrender, she was facing charges related to 48 crimes, which she had committed including dacoity, kidnapping, and mass killing. Her trial was delayed for 11 years, during which she remained in Gwalior Central Jail as an undertrial.
Life As A Politician
Following her release in 1994, she had been invited by Dr Ramadoss (founder of Pattali Makkal Katchi) to participate in a conference about alcohol prohibition and women pornography. This conference paved her way to Indian politics. She stood in the 11th Lok Sabha elections from the Mirzapur Constituency in Uttar Pradesh as a member of Samajwadi Party. Reportedly, she was brought into the active politics by Mulayam Singh Yadav. She won the election and served as an MP from the year 1996 to 1998. She lost her seat in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections but was re-elected in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections and served as an MP until her assassination in 2001.
- The Government of Uttar Pradesh, led by Mulayam Singh Yadav, withdrew all the cases against her that sent shocks across the country; the matter became a public discussion.
- Shekhar Kapur made the movie “Bandit Queen (1983)” on her life. Seema Biswas essayed the role of Phoolan Devi in the film. However, before the release of the film, Phoolan Devi wasn’t satisfied with the content and its accuracy in the film and fiercely fought to get it banned. She even threatened to burn herself alive outside the theatre if the film would not be banned.
- There was another controversy arising about the movie that producers of the film Channel 4 had to give her £40,000 (approx. Rs. 36.4 Lakhs) to withdraw her objections over the movie.
- Controversy followed Phoolan Devi right to her crematorium site. Her family members wanted her to be cremated in New Delhi whereas her party members wanted her body to be cremated at the place that once was her political constituency, i.e., Mirzapur. She was finally cremated at Chaubey Ghat, Mirzapur.
- Song: Dil Hoom Hoom Kare
- After Phoolan joined politics, she used to study in her spare time.
- Once, in an interview, she said that she didn’t want to be a woman in her next birth.
- When she returned home after fleeing from her husband’s home; to teach Phoolan a lesson for the disgrace she caused to their family, her cousins sent her to prison accusing her of stealing their belongings. There she was abused physically. They let her off with a warning to behave herself in the future with her family.
- In 1969, her husband had abandoned her a few months after the ceremony of Gauna (a ceremony where married women start cohabiting with their husband). She was considered a social outcast; as it has been a taboo in Indian society for a woman to leave her husband or a husband to leave his wife.
- She composed her autobiography entitled “I, Phoolan Devi” with the help of international authors Marie-Therese Cuny and Paul Rambali.
- In her autobiography, she describes her husband of a “very bad character.”
- She learned to use the rifle with the help of Vikram Mallah.
- According to a legend, Vikram Mallah taught her,
If you are going to kill, kill twenty, not just one. For if you kill twenty, your fame will spread; if you kill only one, they will hang you as a murderess.”
- Phoolan was the only woman in the gang of dacoits. She would go to Durga Temple after every crime she had committed and thank the goddess for her protection.
- After the manhunt carried out for Phoolan that turned out unsuccessful, she was glorified by the sections of media and came to be known as ‘The Bandit Queen.’
- Behmai Massacre became one of the prominent reasons behind V. P. Singh’s resignation from the post of the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh.
- It was this time that she was acknowledged as Devi by various media houses and hence, came to be known as “Phoolan Devi.”
- The Indira Gandhi Government negotiated a surrender with Phoolan through Rajendra Chaturvedi, SP in Bhind at that time.
- She agreed to surrender with a condition that she would only surrender to the Madhya Pradesh Police and not the Uttar Pradesh Police. With few more conditions that included not imposing any death penalty on her fellow gang members, the term for other gang members not exceeding eight years, a plot of land to be given to her, and her family should be escorted by police to witness her surrender.
- Apart from that, she had one more condition that she would lay down her hands only before the pictures of Mahatma Gandhi and goddess Durga; not to the police.
- She never faced any trial for the massacre, as Phoolan and her 10 gang members had surrendered before the Madhya Pradesh Government in February 1983 under the amnesty scheme.
- She was first released on parole in 1994 after mediation by Vishambhar Prasad Nishad, the leader of the Nishadha community (another name for the Mallah community of boatmen and fisherfolk).
- During her course in prison, Phoolan Devi was operated on ovarian cysts and underwent a hysterectomy.
- The doctor reportedly joked about the operation saying that they didn’t want to breed more Phoolan Devis.
- Behmai still has only Thakurs with exception of two families, one is Brahmin and the other is a Dalit family.
- On 15 February 1995, Phoolan Devi and her husband Ummed Singh, converted to Buddhism in Deekshabhoomi, the famous Buddhist site.
- Phoolan was shot nine times on her head, chest, shoulder, and right arm outside her Delhi bungalow by three gunmen who fled the scene in a Maruti 800 car, later abandoning the car in mid-way, they boarded an auto rickshaw.
- The police recovered a Webley & Scott Pistol and an improvised firearm, an IOF .32 Revolver from the spot, along with nine empty and 15 live rounds, from the car. But before any forensic tests could be performed on them, revolvers disappeared.
- Phoolan’s sister, Munni Devi, later accused Phoolan’s husband, Ummed Singh, of being involved in Phoolan’s murder.
- Sher Singh Rana was the main accused of the case, who walked into the police station and confessed his crime. He said that he was motivated to take revenge on her for her actions to kill the upper caste men when she was the leader of the bandit gang.
- Sher Singh Rana escaped Tihar Jail and reportedly fled to Kandahar in Afghanistan, two years later, he was caught in Kolkata. He even filed papers to fight elections for the Uttar Pradesh Assembly Elections in 2012, which he lost. The Delhi High Court granted him bail in 2016.
- Sher Singh Rana was helped by another Uttar Pradesh-based criminal Subhash Thakur, who gave him Rs. 15,000 to Rs. 20,000 per month as a personal expense.
- Sher Singh Rana has written his autobiography entitled “Jail Diary: Tihar Se Kabul-Kandahar Tak.”
- Shekhar Kapur made the movie “Bandit Queen (1983)” on her life. The film brought Phoolan Devi an international recognition.
- Author-activist Arundhati Roy, in her film review entitled “The Great Indian Rape Trick, ” questioning the right to “restage the rape of a living woman without her permission,” charging Shekhar Kapur for exploiting Phoolan Devi and misinterpreting her life’s story and its meaning.