On 10th August 1963, Phoolan Devi, one of India’s most notorious bandits was born in Ghura ka Purwa in Uttar Pradesh.
Phoolan Devi was born to Devi Din and Moola Devi who belonged to the Mallah (boatmen) caste. She was the youngest of four children and only she and her elder sister survived to adulthood. As a poor and low caste family, from a young age Phoolan was taught to respect people belonging to higher castes. Phoolan Devi’s father owned one acre of land with a neem tree on it. Since neem leaves are used extensively in cooking and for medication, Phoolan Devi’s father hoped to grow more such trees so he could pay for his daughters’ weddings. Unfortunately, Phoolan’s family was cheated out of their land by her uncle who beat Phoolan and insulted her father. As an eleven year old, Phoolan took up a public battle with her cousin Mayadin to reclaim her family’s land.
Observing her feisty side, Phoolan’s uncle had her forcefully married to a man twenty years older than her. She was only eleven at the time she was married and was raped by her husband repeatedly. Phoolan’s husband tried to discipline her, but since she was not the kind who would give into demands. She ran away from her marital home and went back to live with her parents. Upon her return, Phoolan again became involved in her family’s land conflict and her cousin Mayadin falsely accused her of robbery and had her arrested. In jail, Phoolan was repeatedly raped and beaten. By the time she came out of the jail, Phoolan’s standing and that of her family had dropped in society, to the extent that her family was asked to pay money to draw water from the village well.
In 1979 Phoolan Devi joined a band of dacoits. It is not clear how she ended up with them and there are theories of her either being sold into the gang, or being kidnapped by them. Either way, for the next four years the ravines of the Chambal were to be Phoolan’s home. The leader of this gang was a man named Babu Gujjar, a higher caste man, who was continuously trying to abuse Phoolan. His efforts were crushed by another gang member, Vikram Mallah who belonged to the same caste as Phoolan Devi and hence empathized with her. The tension between both men reached its peak one night when Babu Gujjar tried to rape Phoolan Devi and was shot dead by Vikram Mallah. Phoolan was drawn to Vikram because he respected her and brought back her sense of self-respect and pride. Despite the fact that Vikram was already married, he and Phoolan continued with their relationship.
With Babu Gujjar dead, Vikram Mallah became the gang leader of a gang that now only consisted of low caste people and they operated within the 20,000 sq meters of concealed jungle area. The group of bandits would disguise themselves as policemen and would stop trucks and loot them and distribute their loot with the poorer sections of society. After a few weeks, Phoolan Devi’s gang attacked the village where her husband lived. Phoolan stabbed her estranged husband and dragged him out of his house in front of all the villagers and left him almost dying by the roadside. The gang warned people against marrying young girls to much older men, before they left.
With her Robin Hood like image, Phoolan Devi’s name soon struck terror in the hearts of people across the country and it was believed that she would revisit all the men who had harmed her and take revenge on them. Phoolan learned to use a rifle and she and her gang would ransack high caste villages, kidnap people for ransom and even loot trains. Phoolan was the only woman member of the gang of dacoits and was a devout follower of Goddess Durga, whose temple she visited after every looting incident.
The popularity of Phoolan and her gang soon began to be perceived as a threat to other rival gangs and one night Vikram and other members of the gang were killed by two bandit brothers Sri Ram and Lala Ram, who then kidnapped Phoolan and took her to a village called Behmai. In the village, Phoolan was raped and tortured by the men and finally after three weeks she managed to escape. Upon escaping, Phoolan met a bandit called Man Singh, with whom she united and formed a new gang which she headed.
Man Singh and Phoolan Devi became lovers and the pair of them along with the gang looted villages across Uttar Pradesh and distributed the spoils among the poor. Phoolan Devi was soon looked up as a hero and began to be referred to as the “Bandit Queen” of India.
A little over a year after she escaped from Behmai, On 14th February 1981, Phoolan and her gang returned to the village looking for Sri Ram and Lala Ram, responsible for Vikram’s death and her rape. The Thakurs of the village were preparing for a wedding when Phoolan’s gang stormed in; demanding Sri Ram and Lala Ram make themselves present. When both men failed to appear, Phoolan Devi ordered her gang to round up and shoot twenty upper-caste men dead. The horrific killings came to be known as the “Valentine’s Day Massacre”. Even though Phoolan Devi denied having any role in these killings, she became a wanted criminal across the country.
Eventually, owing to ill health and the reducing number of members of her gang, Phoolan Devi decided to surrender in February 1983. A negotiation had been reached with the Madhya Pradesh government in which none of her gang members would be imprisoned for more than eight years. Phoolan Devi’s surrender was an important event and was witnessed by over ten thousand people, including three hundred police personnel and Arjun Singh, the then Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh. Phoolan Devi put down her arms in front of a photograph of Mahatma Gandhi and Goddess Durga. After her surrender Phoolan Devi was sent to the Gwalior jail where she would be lodged for eleven years; though she was later moved to Delhi’s Tihar Jail. Phoolan Devi was charged with 48 crimes, which included 30 charges of dacoity and kidnapping. Her trial was delayed for eleven years and in 1991 while she was still in prison she contested the Delhi by-elections, but did not win, since both her opponents were famous film stars. In 1994, Phoolan Devi was released on parole on the request of the leader of the fishermen community, Vishambhar Prasad Nishad. Following this, the Government of Uttar Pradesh headed by then Chief Minister, Mulayam Singh Yadav, withdrew all cases against her.
In 1996 Phoolan Devi represented the Samajwadi Party, contested in the 11th Lok Sabha elections with a desire to help the poor and oppressed. She was elected to the Mirzapur Constituency of Uttar Pradesh. She lost her seat in 1998, but was again re-elected in the 1999 elections and became a sitting Member of Parliament.
On 25th July 2001, Phoolan Devi was shot dead by gunmen outside her residence in New Delhi. The accused Sher Singh Rana surrendered to the police and said he killed Phoolan Devi to avenge the death of the high caste men she had shot dead in Behmai. Phoolan’s death came months after she herself had said that as someone who had lived all her life by the gun, was destined to die by the gun too, “I was born into violence, I will die in violence. This is my fate”.
Popular Indian film director Shekhar Kapoor made a famous film on Phoolan Devi called Bandit Queen in 1994, starring Seema Biswas. Even though the film was centered on Phoolan Devi, she challenged its accuracy and wanted the film to be banned. Despite being illiterate, Phoolan Devi composed her autobiography titled “the Bandit Queen of India: An Indian Woman’s Amazing Journey From Peasant to International Legend”, in collaboration with authors Marie-Therese Cuny and Paul Rambali.
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