social & justice

WOMEN'S HISTORY MONTH: Phoolan Devi

Karthika S Nair | Mar 09 2020
Image credits: Youtube

Phoolan Devi: Bandit Queen Who Fought For The Mass

"I endured a lot of atrocities in my lifetime, but why should I die?" - Phoolan Devi.

Phoolan Devi's story is a remarkable one. She did a lot of activities and crimes that question her morality but her voice echoed what the poor endured. Therefore, her story needs to be told.  She was born to a system that oppressed her due to her caste, social status and gender. Before she was old enough to even understand what violence and its consequencesare, little Phoolan Devi had to undergo a lot of it.

What she did, later on, is become a rebel and fight against the system that tried to oppress her. 

Early Life, Atrocities By Family And Husband

Phoolan Devi was born on 10 August 1963 into a very poor family in Patherakala, Uttar Pradesh. She was born into the Mallah, boatsmen community that is denoted under scheduled caste category. The community itself was subjected to various forms of atrocities. She was the fourth child of Moola and her husband Devi Din Mallah. Due to the severe degree of poverty, only Phoolan Devi and her elder sister survived. Her father’s family-owned an acre of land but as per patriarchal traditions, her father did not get his share of the land because he did not have sons.

After knowing this, an eleven-year-old Phoolan Devi confronted her cousin and her uncle. She taunted them for "stealing" what should be hers and expressed her protest in anger. 

She even gathered a few village girls and staged a Dharna (sit-in) on the land to protest. When she refused to move, the elders in her family used force. Thus, Phoolan became a victim of sexist traditions and the violence that came with it. 

Her family arranged for her marriage when she was still a child to a man three times her age. She was subjected to a severe degree of physical abuse, sexual harassment and other forms of atrocities. She ran back to her home several times.

At one point, her cousin brother, whom she humiliated, filed a fake complaint with the police to get her beaten. She was kept in jail for three days by the police and then released with a warning; i.e. to live with her parents or husband in peace. 

She was sent back to her husband again, after she turned sixteen, by her parents after a lot of pleading and with many gifts. 

She returned home again as her husband was a "very bad man". But, due to the social taboo attached to women who leave their husbands or are abandoned by their husbands, Phoolan became a social outcast. 

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Image source: wikimedia

Phoolan And Bandits

During this period in 1979, as per the records, Phoolan was kidnapped by a group who was believed to have been attracted to her temperament, rejection of husband and family over what she endured. 

The gang leader Babu Gujjar raped and brutalised her for three days. She was saved by Vikram Mallah, the second-in-command of the gang, who killed Gujjar to save her and take leadership of the gang. She learned how to fire a gun and fight back. 

From then on, her life as a criminal and rebel began. She attacked her abusive estranged husband by dragging him out of his house and stabbed him. She left him on the road with a note telling men not to marry little girls. Her husband lived for the rest of his life in fear and was unable to marry due to his marital status with Phoolan. 

Phoolan's gang was involved in several looting, robberies and kidnaps across Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. 

She had mentioned that she would visit Goddess Durga's temple whenever she could to thank her for her safety amidst all that. 

Return Of Rajput Brothers

Two Rajput men, Shri Ram and Lalla Ram, who were in jail were released by the police and returned to the gang. They were angered to know of Babu Gujjar 's death and blamed Phoolan for it. 

This led to a scuffle within the gang which eventually divided it on the basis of caste. Shri Ram and Lalla Ram, who were both upper caste, dominated the whole group. Then it was divided between Rajputs and Mallahs, which led to expressions of disappointment because during Gujjar's days, there was no caste division. Mallahs themselves were disappointed with both Phoolan Devi and Vikram. The Rajput men also started beating the Mallahs of the villages they raided, further causing tensions within their group.

One day, after a war of words between Vikram and Rajput brothers about the women in their lives, a gunfight broke out between them forcing Vikram and Phoolan to escape. 

They caught up with them, shot Vikram dead and captured Phoolan. 

Detainment In Behmai And Revenge

Phoolan was kept in a house in Behmai where she was repeatedly gang-raped by Rajput and Thakur men including the two brothers. They even forcefully paraded her naked in the village to humiliate her. 

After all the agonies, she managed to escape and then returned to Behmai with her gang for revenge. She came looking for Shri Ram and Lalla Ram but couldn't find them. She then made the upper caste men line up and march. She shot them all dead for the sexual violence she had to endure, leading to the Behmai massacre. 

This caught national media and political attention forcing V. P. Singh, the then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, to resign. 

Though she committed the atrocity which led to anger across the nation, it was difficult for the authorities to find due to her popularity amidst the poor and suffering. She had provided them with necessities whenever she looted and created a Robin Hood-like image.

She also received the nickname "Bandit Queen". More than that, as an oppressed caste woman, her stories of rebellion and survival were glorified by the media. 

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Image credit: wikimedia

Surrender And Sentencing

The then Indira Gandhi government chose to negotiate a surrender with Phoolan Devi. Due to the poor health and death of her gang members, she chose to surrender after dictating several conditions including the avoidance of the death penalty. 

She surrendered to the Madhya Pradesh police at Bhind where she laid down her rifle before the portraits of Gandhi and Goddess Durga, as per her request. 

She was charged for 48 crimes including kidnapping and banditry. She remained in prison for eleven years and was released on parole in 1994. 

Mulayam Singh Yadav-led Uttar Pradesh government then withdrew all the cases against her leading to more controversies and debates. 

Politics

Phoolan Devi became a subject of how she managed to turn her life around. After her marriage to Ummed Singh, she entered politics. Her first touch with politics was when she was invited to talk about alcohol prohibition and women Pornography by Dr Ramadoss who is the founder of Pattali Makkal Katchi.

She joined Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party and contested in elections. She served as an MP during the term of the 11th Lok Sabha (1996-98) and won again in 1999. 

As an MP, she began to work for the lower caste people by teaching them self defence through Eklavya Sena. She fought for the welfare of the poor, women's rights, land rights and end of child marriage as she herself was a victim. 

Assassination And Legacy

As the sitting MP of Mirzapur, Phoolan Devi was shot dead by three masked gunmen outside her Delhi bungalow along with her bodyguard.  Perpetrator Sher Singh Rana said that he was seeking revenge for the Behmai massacre. He was convicted of first-degree murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2014 though ten others in the case were acquitted. 

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Image credit: beyondpink

Phoolan was a subject of both praise and scrutiny. She was admired for fighting back the system and people who tried to oppress her and ruin her life. She was also praised for the romantic Robin hood image she created before the poor. 

She was criticised for the lifetime of crimes including the Behmai massacre. Her story of poverty and child marriage and related abuse were served as awareness about what happens to little girls born in marginalised caste families. 

She called out the idea of honour and loss linked to rape survivor saying that "why should rape survivors die for atrocities committed to them?"

Due to her fight against child marriage and for women's rights, Phoolan was regarded as a feminist icon.

Pop Culture

Phoolan Devi helped in the creation of her autobiography 'The Bandit Queen of India: An Indian Woman's Amazing Journey From Peasant to International Legend' with the help of Marie-Therese Cuny and Paul Rambali.

Mala Sen wrote a book about her in 1993 titled 'India's Bandit Queen: The True Story of Phoolan Devi.'

Based on this, director Shekhar Kapur made a movie 'Bandit Queen' with Seema Biswas in the lead role. Biswas won a national award for her performance. 'Bandit Queen' became a subject of scrutiny due to explicit rape scenes and other debatable contents that were not approved by Phoolan Devi herself. The movie was banned in India. 

Another film was based on her film title 'Phoolan Devi' with Rita Bhaduri and Suresh Oberoi.