Phoolan Devi (Hindi: फूलन देवी, Phūlan Dēvi) (10 August 1963 – 25 July 2001), popularly known as “Bandit Queen”, was an Indian bandit and later a Member of Parliament. Born to a low caste family in rural Uttar Pradesh, Phoolan grew up in poverty, was subjected to child abuse by her older husband, and upon becoming a social pariah, took to a life of crime.
While still a teenager, Phoolan was kidnapped by a gang of bandits, as the village headman had asked them to kill a troublemaker. The gang members were shocked to see a little girl and refused to kill her. She had nowhere to go so she began living in the forest as one of the gang members. The leader of the gang and Phoolan fell in love and got married. Her relationship with one gang member became a source of rancour, culminating in Phoolan’s lover being shot in gunfight. Phoolan was then gang-raped by the rival faction. After her recovery she rallied gang members that she trusted and returned to Behmai, the village where she had been raped, to seek revenge. Twenty-two Rajput men were lined up and shot dead.
The press portrayed the Behmai massacre as an act of righteous lower-caste rebellion and Phoolan herself as an oppressed feminist Robin Hood. The respectful sobriquet ‘Devi’ was conferred upon her by the media at this point. Phoolan evaded capture for two years after the massacre before she and her few surviving gang-members surrendered in 1983. She was charged with forty-eight crimes, including multiple murders, plunder, arson and kidnapping for ransom.After eleven years pending trial, the state government headed by Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party withdrew all charges against her, and Phoolan was released in 1994. She then stood for election to parliament as a candidate of the Samajwadi Party and was twice elected to the Lok Sabha as the member for Mirzapur. In 2001, she was shot dead at the gates of her official bungalow (allotted to her as MP) in New Delhi by former rival bandits whose kinsmen had been slaughtered at Behmai by her gang. The 1994 film Bandit Queen is based on her life.
Phoolan was born into the mallah (boatmen) caste,in the small village of Ghura Ka Purwa (also spelled Gorha ka Purwa) in Jalaun District, Uttar Pradesh. She was the fourth and youngest child of Devi Din and his wife Moola.Only she and one older sister survived to adulthood.
Phoolan’s family was very poor. The major asset they owned was around one acre (0.4 hectare) of farmland with a large and very old Neem tree on it. They lived, as is traditional in India, as a joint family, meaning that her paternal grandparents, her father’s brother, his wife and son shared the family home and kitchen with Phoolan’s parents, her sister and herself. Phoolan’s father, uncle and cousin, the three able-bodied men of the family, cultivated the acre of land and laboured at other jobs as daily-wagers in order to support this large family.
When Phoolan was eleven years old, her paternal grandparents passed away and her father’s elder brother became the head of the family. Phoolan’s family arranged for her to marry a man named Putti Lal, who lived several hundred miles away and was twelve years older than her.After experiencing child abuse within the marriage, she ran away from her marital home and returned to her parents, but they sent her back to her husband. A few months later, she again returned to her parents. This time, her in-laws suggested that she should remain with her parents until she was old enough to cohabit with her husband, and that she should be properly trained in domestic duties until then.
When Phoolan was sixteen, her parents approached Phoolan’s in-laws and plead that she was now old enough to live with her husband. However, Phoolan’s in-laws initially refused to take her back because of a unsuccessful court case against Maya Din and Phoolan’s own subsequent stint in jail. Phoolan’s in-laws were themselves very poor, however, and her husband was now twenty-eight years old, and would have difficulty finding another bride for him with one still living. After Phoolan’s family offered generous gifts, Lal’s parents finally agreed to take her back. Phoolan’s parents performed the ceremony of gauna (after which a married woman begins to cohabit with her husband), took Phoolan to her husband’s house and left her there.
Within a few months, Phoolan again returned to her parents. Shortly afterwards, her in-laws returned the gifts that Phoolan’s parents had given them and sent word that under no circumstances would they accept Phoolan back again. She later claimed in her autobiography that her husband was a man of “very bad character.” A wife leaving her husband, or being abandoned by her husband, is a serious taboo in rural India, and Phoolan was marked as a social outcast.
The region where Phoolan lived (Bundelkhand) is was and remains extremely poor, arid and devoid of industry; most of the able-bodied men migrate to large cities in search of manual work. During this period, industry was depressed even in the large cities and daily life was a grim engagement with subsistence farming in a dry region with poor soil. It was not unusual for young men to seek escape from fruitless labour in the fields by running away to the ravines (the main geographical feature of the region), forming groups of bandits, and plundering their more prosperous neighbours in the villages or passing townspeople on the highways.
In 1979, shortly after her final sojourn in her husband’s house, Phoolan fell in with one such gang of dacoits. It is unclear whether she was kidnapped or willingly joined the gang; Phoolan later wrote of the incident in her biography, “kismet ko yehi manzoor tha” (“it was the dictate of fate”) that she become part of a gang of bandits.
Phoolan had immediate cause for regret upon joining the bandits. The leader, Babu Gujjar, who was of the Gujjar caste, wanted to have sex with her. He playfully courted her for a few days, but when she would not yield, he attempted to rape her. At this juncture, Phoolan was saved from rape by Vikram Mallah, the second-in-command of the gang, who belonged to Phoolan’s own Mallah caste. In the altercation connected to the rape attempt, Vikram Mallah killed Babu Gujjar. The next morning, he assumed leadership of the gang.
Phoolan and Vikram began living together. A few weeks later, the gang attacked the village where Phoolan’s husband lived. Phoolan dragged her husband from his house and stabbed him in front of the villagers. The gang left him lying in the road with a note warning older men not to marry young girls. Putti Lal survived, carrying a scar running down his abdomen for the rest of his life.
Phoolan learned how to use a rifle, and participated in the gang’s activities across Bundelkhand, which straddles the border between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. These activities consisted of attacking and looting villages where upper-caste people lived, kidnapping relatively prosperous people for ransom, and occasional highway robberies which targeted flashy cars. Phoolan was the only woman member of that gang of dacoits. After every crime, she would visit a Durga temple and thank the Goddess for her protection. The gang’s main hideouts were in the ravines of the Chambal River.
Sometime later, Shri Ram and Lalla Ram, two upper-caste Rajput brothers who had been caught by the police, were released from jail and came back to the gang. They were outraged to hear of the murder of Babu Gujjar, their former leader, and held Phoolan responsible for inciting the act.They berated her for being a divisive wanton, and she answered them back with her strongly. Shri Ram then held her by the cuff of the neck and slapped her hard, and a scuffle ensued. Phoolan seized this opportunity to allege that Shri Ram had touched her breasts and molested her during the scuffle. As leader of the gang, Vikram Mallah berated Shri Ram for attacking a woman and made him apologise to Phoolan. Shri Ram and his brother smarted under this humiliation, which was exacerbated by the fact that Phoolan and Vikram both belonged to the Mallah caste of boatmen, much lower even that the Gujjar caste of milkmen & peasants to which Babu Gujjar had belonged, and vastly lower than the land-owning Rajput to which they themselves belonged.
Whenever the gang ransacked a village, Shri Ram and Lalla Ram would make it a point to beat and insult the Mallahs of that village. This displeased the Mallah members of the bandit gang, many of whom left the gang. On the other hand, around a dozen Rajputs joined the gang at the invitation of Shri Ram and Lalla Ram, and the balance of power gradually shifted in favour of the Rajput caste. Vikram Mallah then suggested that the gang be divided into two, one comprising mainly Rajputs and the other mainly Mallahs. Shri Ram and Lalla Ram refused this suggestion on the grounds that the gang had always included a mixture of castes during the days of Babu Gujjar and his predecessors. Meanwhile, the other Mallahs were also not happy with Vikram Mallah. The fact that he alone had a woman cohabiting with him incited jealousy; some of the other Mallahs had bonds of kinship with Vikram’s actual wife. A few days after the proposal for division had been floated, a quarrel ensued between Shri Ram and Vikram Mallah. Apparently, Shri Ram made a disdaining comment about Phoolan’s morals, and Vikram responded with comments about Shri Ram’s womenfolk. A gunfight ensued. Vikram and Phoolan, with not a single supporter, managed to escape in the dark. However, they were later tracked down and Vikram Mallah was shot dead. Phoolan was taken to the Rajput-dominated village of Behmai, home to Shri Ram, Lalla Ram and several of the new Rajput recruits.
Phoolan was locked up in a room in one of the houses in Behmai village. She was beaten and raped by several men over a period of three weeks. She then managed to escape, after three weeks of captivity, with the help of a low-caste villager of Behmai and two Mallah members from Vikram’s gang, including Man Singh Mallah.
Phoolan and Man Singh soon became partners. Man Singh became her lieutenant and a brother for Phoolan( as stated in her autobiography – I,Phoolan Devi). Both then joined leaders of a gang composed of Mallahs. The gang carried out a series of violent raids and robberies across Bundelkhand, focussing on targeting upper-caste people.
Seven months after her escape from Behmai, Phoolan returned to the village to seek revenge. On the evening of 14 February 1981, Phoolan and her gang marched into Behmai dressed as police officers. Phoolan demanded that her tormentors be produced, along with all the valuables in the village. However, most of the able-bodied men had gone to the city in search of manual work, and even after an exhaustive search, only two Rajput members of the former gang of bandits were found.
Phoolan is said to have been frustrated that no actual culprit had been apprehended. Nevertheless, she had by this time developed a hatred for the caste of Rajputs, who have long been committing heinous atrocities on low-caste members of the surrounding villages. Phoolan therefore 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 village. This included Rajputs who belonged to other villages and towns who had come to attend a 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. Later, Phoolan claimed 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, resigned in the wake of the Behmai killings.
A massive police manhunt was launched which however failed to locate Phoolan Devi. It began to be said that the manhunt was not successful because Phoolan had the support of poor people in the region; stories on the Robin Hood model began circulating in the media. Phoolan began to be called the Bandit Queen, and she was glorified as an intrepid and undaunted woman, the underdog struggling to survive in the world. Her aggressive 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 was her greatest commendation and her crimes are viewed in the context of patriarchy and caste inequalities prevalent in the Indian society. It was at this time that Phoolan, known until then by only one name, received the respectful sobriquet “Devi” from a reverent media.
Two years after the Behmai massacre, the police had still not captured Phoolan. The Indira Gandhi Government decided to negotiate a surrender. By this time, Phoolan was in poor health and most of her gang members were dead. In February 1983, she agreed to surrender to the authorities. However, 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
An unarmed police chief met her at a rendezvous in the Chambal ravines. They traveled to Bhind in Madhya Pradesh, where she laid down her rifle before the portraits of Gandhi and Goddess Durga. The onlookers included a crowd of around 10,000 people and 300 policemen, apart from the then chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Arjun Singh. Other members of her gang also surrendered at the same time with her.
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. During this period, she was operated on for ovarian cysts and underwent a hysterectomy. She was finally released on parole in 1994 after intercession by Vishambhar Prasad Nishad, the leader of the Nishadha fishermen community. The Government of Uttar Pradesh, led by Mulayam Singh Yadav, withdrew all cases against her. This move sent shock-waves across India and became a matter of public discussion and controversy.
In 1996, about 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. 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 was assassinated.
Shekhar Kapur made a movie Bandit Queen (1994) about Phoolan Devi’s life up to her 1983 surrender, based on Mala Sen’s 1993 book India’s Bandit Queen: The True Story of Phoolan Devi.Although Phoolan Devi is a heroine in the film, she fiercely disputed its accuracy and fought to get it banned in India. She even threatened to immolate herself outside a theater if the film were not withdrawn. The film brought her international recognition. Author-activist Arundhati Roy in her film review entitled, “The Great Indian Rape Trick”, questioned the right to “restage the rape of a living woman without her permission”, and charged Shekhar Kapur with exploiting Phoolan Devi and misrepresenting both her life and its meaning.
Although she was illiterate, Phoolan composed her autobiography entitled The Bandit Queen of India: An Indian Woman’s Amazing Journey From Peasant to International Legend, with the help of international authors Marie-Therese Cuny and Paul Rambali
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 fled the scene in a Maruti car. She was taken to a nearby hospital but was declared dead. The prime suspect, Sher Singh Rana (alias Pankaj Singh), later surrendered to the police.Rana allegedly claimed to have murdered Phoolan Devi in revenge for the upper-caste men she gunned down in the Behmai massacre. In the latest ruling, on August 14, 2014, the court sentenced Sher Singh Rana to a life in prison and a fine.
In the immediate aftermath of the murder, the police were accused of incompetence in their handling of the case. It was alleged that a party worker picked up revolvers that had been dumped by the killers and hid them. Three other people staying in her house were accused of knowing about the revolvers. The revolvers then disappeared before the police could conduct a forensic test on them.
Sher Singh Rana, the main accused, was convicted by Delhi court on August 8, 2014. However, the other ten accused have been acquitted. Sher Singh Rana has been convicted for the offences under Sections 302 (murder), 307 (attempt to murder) and 34 (common intention) under the IPC. The judge had fixed August 12, 2014 as the date for arguments and pronouncement of sentence. On August 14, 2014 Sher Sing Rana was given life term for killing Phoolan Devi by a Delhi court