Phoolan Devi

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Phoolan Devi
Phoolan Devi.jpg
Native name फूलन देवी
Born (1963-08-10)10 August 1963
Ghura Ka Purwa, UP, India
Died 25 July 2001(2001-07-25) (aged 37)
New Delhi, India
Cause of death
Assassination by shooting
Nationality Indian
Other names Bandit Queen
Occupation Dacoit (bandit), politician
Political party
Samajwadi Party
Criminal charge
48 major crimes (30 murder; rest kidnapping for ransom and looting)[1]
Spouse(s) Putti Lal
Phoolan Devi
Member of Parliament (11th Lok Sabha)
In office
Constituency Mirzapur
Member of Parliament (13th Lok Sabha)
In office
Constituency Mirzapur

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 politician. After becoming estranged from her family, a young Phoolan became the moll of the leader of a group of a bandits. During an internecine struggle for gang leadership, her paramour was killed and Phoolan was raped. She then took up banditry in her own right and became the leader of a section of the divided gang.

Devi's gang was responsible for the Behmai massacre of 1981, when 22 unarmed Thakur cast villagers, including two men who had raped her, were lined up in the village square and shot dead. The incident was characterized in the press, as an act of courage and righteous rebellion by an oppressed person. Phoolan was lionized as India's only woman bandit and gutsy low-caste-woman-underdog, and the image of an oppressed feminist Robin Hood grew up around her. Indian police authorities dismiss this view, pointing out that there is not even a single recorded instance of Phoolan having helped any person in need, and that all her crimes can be attributed to motives of personal revenge or enrichment.[2][3]

Phoolan and her surviving gang-members eventually surrendered and was tried for committing 30 instances of murder and numerous other crimes, such as plunder, arson and kidnapping for ransom. The trials were never concluded because the state government, in a controversial act, withdrew all cases against her. Phoolan, who had remained in jail for 11 years during the pendency of the trials, was released. She then contested elections as a candidate of the Samajwadi Party, whose government had withdrawn the cases against her, and was elected to parliament.

Phoolan was murdered at the gates of the house allotted to her as MP in New Delhi by former rival bandits whose kin had been murdered by her or at her behest. The 1994 film Bandit Queen is loosely based on her life.

Early life[edit]

Phoolan was born into the mallah (boatmen) caste,[4] in the small village of Ghura Ka Purwa (also spelled Gorha ka Purwa) in Jalaun District, Uttar Pradesh.[5] She was the fourth and youngest child of Devi Din and his wife Moola.[6] Only she and one older sister survived to adulthood.

Phoolan's family were very poor. The major asset owned by them was around one acre (0.4 hectare) of farmland with a large Neem tree on it.[7] 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 common 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 in quick succession and her father's elder brother became the head of the family. Her uncle's son, Maya Din, proposed to cut down the Neem tree which stood on their land, intending to cultivate the acre of land with more profitable crops.[8] Phoolan's father acknowledged that there was some sense to this act, and agreed to it with mild protest. However, the teenage Phoolan was incensed. She felt that since her father had no sons (only two daughters), her uncle and cousin were asserting sole claim on the family's farmland inherited from the paternal grandfather. She confronted her much older cousin, taunted him publicly, called him a thief and even attacked him physically when he berated her.[7] Along with her elder sister, Phoolan staged a sit-in on the land, and did not budge even when the family elders tried to use force to drag them home.

A few months after this incident, Phoolan's family arranged for her to marry to a man named Putti Lal, who lived several hundred miles away and was more than 12 years older than her.[2] This was in keeping with the customs of her society, which demands that marriages be arranged by parents, and favours early marriage for girls, so that they can grow up in their husband's family and learn their ways and customs from a young age. Also in keeping with custom, the marriage would not be consummated until Phoolan was around 16 years of age. After her wedding, Phoolan's husband and his parents tried to discipline her and make her behave in a more ladylike and docile manner, which was agonising for Phoolan, given that she was of fractious and quarrelsome disposition even within her own family. After a few months, she ran away from her marital home and returned to her parents, but they admonished her for coming and returned her back to her husband's parents. She again raised hell in her husband's house, and a few months later, again returned to her parents. This time, her in-laws refused to take her back immediately. They suggested that she should remain with her parents at least until she was old enough to cohabit with her husband, and that she should be properly trained in wifely duties until then.

During her stays in her parents' house, Phoolan continued to bait and taunt her cousin Maya Din. She even took him to court for unlawfully holding her father's land, but lost the case, since her own father did not support her in court. In fact, the land had belonged to Phoolan's grandfather and Maya Din's father had the same rights as Phoolan's own father. Further, the produce from that land was being consumed in the family's common kitchen, including both of Phoolan's parents, while the labour was mainly contributed by Maya Din; Phoolan had no brothers who could labour in the fields or inherit the land.[8]

In retailiation for the public and private humiliations heaped on him, and in order to teach her a lesson, Maya Din went to the local cops and accused Phoolan of stealing small items belonging to him, including a gold ring and a wrist-watch. The cops, who belonged to nearby villages knew Phoolan and her family well and did what the family wanted. They kept Phoolan in jail for three days, gave her a sound thrashing, and then let her off with a warning to behave better in future and live quietly without quarreling with her family or others.[8] Phoolan never forgave her cousin for this injustice, and developed hatred for men such as her uncle, cousin and husband, who wanted to control women and their behavior.

After she was released from jail, her parents once again wanted to send her to her husband. They approached Phoolan's in-laws with the pleas that Phoolan was now 16 years of age and therefore old enough to begin cohabiting with her husband. However, Phoolan's in-laws had come to hear about all the shenanigans of the past few years, the fruitless court case against Maya Din and Phoolan's own subsequent stint in jail. They initially refused to take Phoolan back. However, Phoolan's in-laws were themselves very poor, her husband was now 28 years old and it would be very difficult to find another bride for him, especially with one wife still living. Divorce was simply out of the question in that society. After Phoolan's family offered generous gifts, they 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.

However, history soon repeated itself and within a few months, Phoolan, this time no longer a virgin, 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. This was in 1979 and Phoolan was barely 16 years old. Phoolan 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, was a serious taboo in the rural areas, and Phoolan was marked as a social outcast. She was taunted and insulted both at home and in the village for being a troublemaker unwanted by anyone.

Career as a bandit[edit]

The region where Phoolan lived (Bundelkhand) is even today extremely poor, arid and devoid of industry; most of the able-bodied men migrate to large cities in search of manual work. During the period in question, industry was depressed even in the large cities due to the socialistic policies pursued by Indira Gandhi's government, 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.

Shortly after her stint in jail and her final sojourn in her husband's house, and in the same year (1979), Phoolan fell in with one such gang of dacoits. How exactly this happened is unclear; some say that she was kidnapped because her "spirited temperament," estrangement from her own family and outspoken rejection of her much older husband (on the grounds that she did not find him attractive) had attracted the attention of the bandits, while others say that she "walked away from her life."[8] In her autobiography, she merely says "kismet ko yehi manzoor tha" meaning "it was the dictate of fate" that she become part of a gang of bandits.

Whether it was kidnapping or her own folly, Phoolan had immediate cause for regret: the gang leader, Babu Gujjar, who was of the Gujjar caste, wanted to have sex with her. He courted her for a few days but when she would not yield, he attempted to rape her one night. 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. Vikram Mallah killed Babu Gujjar during the rape attempt and assumed leadership of the gang.

Vikram Mallah's moll[edit]

Undaunted by the fact that Vikram already had a wife and that she likewise had a husband, Phoolan and Vikram began cohabiting together. A few weeks later, the 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.

Phoolan learned how to use a rifle from Vikram, 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 train robberies. 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.[4] The gang's main hideouts were in the ravines of the Chambal River.

Sometime later, Shri Ram and Lala Ram, two upper-caste brothers belonging to the Thakur caste, who had previously belonged to the gang and had quit to return to their families, 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.[8] They berated her for being a divisive wanton, and she answered them back with her characteristic foulness of tongue. 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 Thakur caste to which they themselves belonged.

Whenever the gang ransacked a village, Shri Ram and Lala 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 Thakurs joined the gang at the invitation of Shri Ram and Lala Ram, and the balance of power gradually shifted in favour of the Thakurs. Vikram Mallah then suggested that the gang be divided into two, one comprising mainly of Thakurs and the other mainly of Mallahs. Shri 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. 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; and Phoolan's tongue did not endear her to anyone who interacted with her. A few days after the proposal for division had been floated, a quarrel ensued between Shri Ram and Vikram. 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 was shot dead. Phoolan was taken to the Thakur-dominated village of Behmai, home to Shri Ram, Lala Ram and several of the new Thakur recruits.[4]

Two incidents in Behmai village[edit]

Phoolan was locked up in a room in one of the houses in Behmai. She was beaten and raped by several men over a period of three weeks.[8] 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 lovers and joint leaders of a gang comprising solely of Mallahs. The gang carried out a series of violent raids and robberies across Bundelkhand, usually (but not always) targeting upper-caste people. Some say that Phoolan Devi targeted only the upper-caste people and shared the loot with the lower-caste people, but the Indian authorities insist this is a myth; there is no evidence whatsoever of Phoolan or any of her partners sharing money with anyone.[2]

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, at a time when a wedding was in progress in the village. 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 Thakur members of the former gang of bandits were found. These two men were not among those who had gang-raped Phoolan; they were merely Thakur-caste members of the gang's Shri Ram faction which was opposed to Vikram Mallah.

Phoolan is said to have been frustrated that no actual culprit had been apprehended. Nevertheless, she had by this time developed a deep hatred for the entire caste of Thakurs, a few of whose members had protested the killing of Babu Gujjar, then challenged the leadership of his murderer Vikram Mallah, then deposed and killed Vikram Mallah and then gang-raped Phoolan herself. Phoolan therefore ordered her gang members to line up each and every man belonging to the Thakur caste that they could lay their hands on in Behmai village. This included Thakurs who belonged to other villages and towns and who had come to attend the wedding in the village. The Thakur men were lined up and then, at Phoolan's order, they were shot dead by Phoolan's Mallah gang members. Twenty-two Thakur 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.[4]

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.[9] 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 by a segment of the Indian media[2] 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. None of these stories had much basis in fact and not a single confirmed instance has ever come to light where Phoolan gave money to anyone in charity.

Surrender and jail term[edit]

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 Mahatma Gandhi's picture and the Hindu goddess Durga, not to the police.[10] 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 48 crimes, including 30 charges of dacoity (banditry) and kidnapping. Her trial was delayed for 11 years, during which time she remained in prison. During this period, she was operated on for ovarian cysts and underwent a hysterectomy. The doctor of the hospital reportedly joked that "We don't want Phoolan Devi breeding more Phoolan Devis".[11] 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.

Member of Parliament[edit]

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. 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.

Movie and autobiography[edit]

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.[12] 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. Eventually, she withdrew her objections after the producer Channel 4 paid her £40,000.[12] 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.[13]

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.[14]


Assassination of Phoolan Devi
Location New Delhi
Coordinates 28.6139° N, 77.2089° E
Date July 25, 2001
Attack type
Weapons Gun
Deaths Phoolan Devi
Assailants 3 unidentified gunmen[15]
Suspected perpetrators
Sher Singh Rana (alias Pankaj Singh)
Motive Revenge

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.[15] 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.[16] Rana allegedly claimed to have murdered Phoolan Devi in revenge for the upper-caste men she gunned down in the Behmai massacre.[17] In the latest ruling, on August 14, 2014, the court sentenced Sher Singh Rana to a life in prison and a fine.[18]


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.[19] On August 14, 2014 Sher Sing Rana was given life term for killing Phoolan Devi by a Delhi court.[20]


  1. ^ Manju Jain (2009). Narratives of Indian cinema. Primus Books. p. 164. ISBN 978-81-908918-4-4. 
  2. ^ a b c d "Phoolan Devi: Champion of the poor". BBC News. 2001-07-25. Retrieved 2006-12-11. 
  3. ^ "The queen is dead". The Guardian. 2001-07-26. Retrieved 2011-11-18. 
  4. ^ a b c d "Phoolan Devi, India's Bandit Queen". Retrieved 2006-12-11. 
  5. ^ Henry Scholberg (1994). A Hindi movie. Indus (HarperCollins India). p. 24. ISBN 978-81-7223-097-5. 
  6. ^ India today, Volume 26. Thomson Living Media India Ltd., 2001
  7. ^ a b Jan Stradling (2011). "12: Phoolan Devi - 'Bandit Queen', freedom fighter, politician". Good Girls Don’t Make History. Pier. ISBN 978-1-74266-623-5. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f John Arquilla (2011). Insurgents, Raiders, and Bandits. 9781566638326. pp. 245–251. 
  9. ^ "Kshatriya Samaj to honour Phoolan's killer". The Tribune, Chandigarh. 2006-05-21. Retrieved 2006-12-11. 
  10. ^ Anuja Pande. "Phoolan Power". Retrieved 2006-12-11. 
  11. ^ "Phoolan Devi". The Telegraph. 26 July 2001. Retrieved 9 August 2012. 
  12. ^ a b "Obituaries: Mala Sen". The Telegraph. 2011-05-30. Retrieved 2011-11-28. 
  13. ^ The Great Indian Rape-Trick @ SAWNET -The South Asian Women's NETwork , Retrieved 25 November 2011.
  14. ^ The Bandit Queen of India: An Indian Woman's Amazing Journey from Peasant to International Legend @, Retrieved 25 November 2011.
  15. ^ a b "The queen is dead". The Guardian. 26 July 2001. Retrieved 9 August 2012. 
  16. ^ "Profile of Sher Singh Rana". Times of India. 27 July 2001. Retrieved 9 August 2012. 
  17. ^ "Man arrested for murder of 'Bandit Queen'". The Telegraph. 27 July 2001. Retrieved 9 August 2012. 
  18. ^ "Profile of life sentences". Times of India. 14 August 2014. Retrieved 14 August 2014. 
  19. ^ "Mystery surrounds Bandit Queen murder". The Guardian. 30 July 2001. Retrieved 10 August 2012. 
  20. ^ Shakil, Sana (14 August 2014). "Life sentence to Sher Singh Rana for killing Phoolan Devi". The Times of India. Retrieved 14 August 2014. 

Further reading[edit]

Books on Phoolan Devi

  • Devi: The Bandit Queen, by Richard Shears, Isobelle Gidley. Published by Allen & Unwin, 1984. ISBN 0-04-920097-6.
  • India's Bandit Queen: The True Story of Phoolan Devi, by Mala Sen. Published by HarperCollins Publishers, 1993. ISBN 0-04-440888-9.
  • I, Phoolan Devi: The Autobiography of India's Bandit Queen, by Phoolan Devi, Marie-Thérèse Cuny, Paul Rambali. Published by Little, Brown and Co., 1996. ISBN 0-316-87960-6.
  • Moxham, Roy (3 June 2010). Outlaw: India's Bandit Queen and Me. Rider. ISBN 978-1-84604-182-2. 
  • Phoolan Devi, with Marie-Therese Cuny, and Paul Rambali, The Bandit Queen of India: An Indian Woman's Amazing Journey from Peasant to International Legend, Guilford, Connecticut: The Lyons Press, 2006. ISBN 978-1-59228-641-6
  • Phoolan Devi - by N.Pugazhendhi, Coimbatore in TAMIL translated from Malayalam.

Other sources

External links[edit]