Phoolan Devi

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Phoolan Devi
फूलन देवी
Phoolan Devi.jpg
Member of Parliament (11th Lok Sabha)
Constituency Mirzapur
Member of Parliament (13th Lok Sabha)
In office
Constituency Mirzapur
Personal details
Born (1963-08-10)10 August 1963
Ghura Ka Purwa (Shekhpur Gudda, Jalaun), UP, India
Died 25 July 2001(2001-07-25) (aged 37)
New Delhi, India
Nationality Indian
Political party Samajwadi Party
Spouse(s) Putti Lal, Vikram Mallah, Umaid Singh
Occupation Dacoit (Bandit), Politician

Phoolan Devi (10 August 1963 – 25 July 2001), popularly known as the "Bandit Queen", was an Indian dacoit (armed bandit), and later a politician.

Phoolan was born in rural India, in a poor family belonging to the Mallaah caste. Married to a much older man at an early age, she was branded as a social outcast after she left her husband to escape marital mistreatment. A family feud resulted in her arrest and made her a victim of police brutality, which greatly embittered her. She was kidnapped by a gang of bandits, who had been paid to kill her. Subsequently, she married one of them, Vikram Mallah, who protected her from a rape attempt by the gang leader, and became part of the gang. With Vikram as the new leader of the gang, the group punished Phoolan's ex-husband, and carried out several robberies. Later, a group of bandits belonging to the Thakur caste murdered Vikram and gang-raped Phoolan. After escaping from their captivity, she raised a Mallah-dominated gang, which carried out a series of violent robberies. In 1981, her gang raided the Thakur village where she killed 22 Thakur men in what came to be known as the Behmai massacre.

She gained a fearsome reputation as the "Bandit Queen", and some villagers started calling her an incarnation of the Hindu goddess Durga.[1] Some people saw her violence as the lower castes' retaliation against the cruelty of the upper-castes. In 1983, she surrendered and was tried for complicity in over 30 instances of murder and numerous other crimes. She spent 11 years in prison while her trial was pending. The 1994 film Bandit Queen, made against her will, was based on her life. Subsequently, the Samajwadi Party's state government withdrew all cases against her. After her release, she contested elections as a candidate of the Samajwadi Party, and was elected to parliament in 1996. On 25 July 2001, she was shot dead outside her home by masked men claiming to seek revenge for the Behmai massacre.[2]

Early life[edit]

Phoolan Devi was born into the mallah caste (boatmen),[3] in the small village of (also spelled Gorha ka Purwa) in Jalaun District, Uttar Pradesh.[4] She was the fourth and youngest child of Shri Devi Din and his wife Shrimati Moola Devi.[5] Only she and one older sister survived to adulthood.

Phoolan's family owned around one acre (0.4 hectare) of land with a very large Neem tree on it. Her father had hoped that the produce of the tree would enable him to pay dowry for his daughters' weddings.[6] When Phoolan Devi was eleven years old, her paternal grandparents passed away within a short time of each other. Her father's elder brother, who, according to Devi, used to beat her, her sister and her mother,[7] became the head of the family, and took charge of the family's only asset, the acre of land.[8] Her uncle had a son, Maya Din (or Mayadin), who cut down the Neem tree, intending to cultivate the acre of land with more profitable crops. Although her father responded to this with mild protest, the 11-year-old Phoolan confronted her much older cousin. She publicly accused him of appropriating the land.[6] Along with her elder sister, Phoolan staged a sit-in on the land, and did not move when he tried to use force to remove them. Phoolan's uncle arranged to have her married to a man named Putti Lal, who lived several hundred miles away and was 20 years older than she.[9] Phoolan Devi later stated in her autobiography that her husband forced himself on her.[7]

Phoolan Devi ran away several times from her marital home, and was returned by her parents to her husband each time to be punished. Eventually, her husband asked her parents to keep her. Three years later in 1977, he was asked by Phoolan Devi's parents to accept her back. She protested in her husband's house, and was again returned to her father's home.[8] A wife leaving her husband was a serious taboo in the rural areas of India, and Phoolan Devi was marked as a social outcast. During her numerous stays in her parents' house, Phoolan continued to confront her cousin Mayadin. She took him to court for unlawfully holding her father's land, but lost the case.[8]

In retaliation, Mayadin accused Phoolan Devi of stealing various small items belonging to him and had her arrested by the local police. She was severely abused and raped by the police during her three days' stay in jail.[7][8] After she was released from jail, her parents wanted to send her back to her husband, but he refused, and she was returned to her parental house at the age of 15 or 16 in 1979.

Early life 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. 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 wealthy travellers on the highways.

Shortly after her stint in jail, and during 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 became part of a gang of bandits. Whether it was kidnapping or whether it was her own folly, Phoolan had immediate cause for regret: the gang leader, Babu Gujjar,wanted to have sex with her. At this juncture, Phoolan was saved by Vikram Mallah, the second-in-command of the gang, who belonged to Phoolan's own Mallah caste. Vikram Mallah killed Babu Gujjar and assumed the gang leadership the next morning. Undaunted by the fact that Vikram already had a wife and that she likewise had a husband, Phoolan and Vikram began living together. A few weeks later, the gang attacked the village where Phoolan's husband lived. Phoolan herself stabbed her estranged husband and dragged 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.[3] The gang's main hideouts were in the ravines of the Chambal River.

Behmai incidents[edit]

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, rejoined 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 body parts 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 the humiliation, exacerbated by the fact that Phoolan and Vikram both belonged to the Mallah caste of boatmen, vastly lower than the land-owning Thakur caste to which they themselves belonged.

After this incident, 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 shifted gradually to the Thakurs. Vikram Mallah then suggested the gang be divided into two, one mainly of Thakurs and the other mainly of Mallahs. Shri Ram refused this suggestion on the grounds that the gang had been composed of a mixture of castes during the days of Babu Gujjar and his predecessors and it should remain that way. Meanwhile, the other Mallahs were also not happy with Vikram. The fact that he alone had a woman living 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 and the result was that Vikram and Phoolan, with not a single supporter, had to make their escape in the dark. However, they were tracked down in daylight by the other gangsters 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.[3]

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 composed solely of Mallahs. The gang carried out a series of violent 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.[9]

Seventeen 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 members of the gang's Shri Ram faction that 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 were executed. Later, Phoolan would try to absolve herself in court by claiming that she herself had not opened fire or killed a single person.[3]

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.[10] 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[9] 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]

Surrender of Phoolan Devi

Two years after the Behmai massacre the police had still not captured Phoolan Devi. The Indira Gandhi Government decided to negotiate a surrender. By this time, Phoolan Devi 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.[11] She laid down four conditions :[citation needed]

  • Affirmation of an aversion of death penalty
  • The term for the other members should not exceed eight years.
  • A plot of land for her reconciliation.
  • Her entire family should be escorted by the police to her surrender ceremony

An unarmed police chief met her at a hiding place in the Chambal ravines. They walked their way to Bhind, where she laid her rifle before the portraits of Gandhi and Goddess Durga. The onlookers included a crowd of around 10,000 people and 300 police and the then chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Arjun Singh. 300 police personnel were waiting to arrest her and other members of her gang who surrendered at the same time.

Phoolan Devi was charged with 48 crimes, including 30 charges of dacoity (banditry) and kidnapping. Her trial was delayed for 11 years, which she served in the prison. During this period, she was operated on for ovarian cysts and was given an unnecessary hysterectomy. The doctor of the hospital reportedly said later that "We don't want Phoolan Devi breeding more Phoolan Devis".[12] She was finally released on parole in 1994 after persuasion by Vishambhar Prasad Nishad, the leader of the Nishadha fishermen community. The Government of Uttar Pradesh, led by Mulayam Singh Yadav, withdrew all the cases against her.

Political career[edit]

In 1996, Phoolan Devi stood for election to the 11th Lok Sabha, representing the Samajwadi Party, on a platform of helping the poor and oppressed. She was elected in the constituency of Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh. She lost her seat in the 1998 election but was reelected in the 1999 election.[13]

In the 1990s, Phoolan Devi served as the president of Eklavya Sena, an organization formed by the Bharatiya Janata Party leader Ganga Charan Rajput to "protect the weaker sections".[14] Under Phoolan's leadership, the group aimed at teaching lower-caste people the art of self-defense. During this period, Phoolan married Umed Singh, her sister's husband and a New Delhi business contractor.

In a 1999 interview, she stated that her political objectives included providing drinking water, electricity, schools and hospitals to the poor. She also emphasized on equal status for women, stressing their education and employment.[15]

Phoolan Devi's political career was not devoid of controversies. During her election campaign, she was criticized by the women widowed in the Behmai massacre. Kshatriya Swabhimaan Andolan Samanvay Committee (KSASC), a Kshatriya (upper-caste) organization, held a statewide campaign to protest against her. As a Member of the Indian Parliament, she got a train stopped at unscheduled stops to meet her acquaintances in Uttar Pradesh. The railway minister, Ram Vilas Paswan played down the train incident and ordered only a nominal enquiry. Once, she visited the Gwalior jail (where she had been imprisoned) to meet her former inmates. When the jail officers didn't let her in due to the visiting hours rules, she abused them. Later, a suspension order was issued against the jail officials involved in the incident, without any explanation.[11]

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.[16] 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.[16] 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.[17]

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.[18]


On 25 July 2001, Phoolan 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.[19] The gunmen fled the scene in a Maruti car.[19] She was taken to a nearby hospital but was declared dead. Sher Singh Rana alias Pankaj, later confessed publicly and surrendered to the police.[20] Rana claimed to have murdered Phoolan Devi to take revenge for the upper-caste men she gunned down in the Behmai massacre.[21]

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 dropped 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.[22]


  1. ^ Mala Sen (1993). India's Bandit Queen: The True Story of Phoolan Devi. Pandora. p. 215. ISBN 978-0-04-440888-8. Retrieved 30 September 2013. 
  2. ^ "Phoolan Devi Shot Dead". Retrieved 2013-11-04. 
  3. ^ a b c d "Phoolan Devi, India's Bandit Queen". Retrieved 2006-12-11. 
  4. ^ Henry Scholberg (1994). A Hindi movie. Indus (HarperCollins India). p. 24. ISBN 978-81-7223-097-5. 
  5. ^ India Today, Volume 26. Thomson Living Media India Ltd, 2001.
  6. ^ a b Jan Stradling (2011). "12: Phoolan Devi - freedom fighter, politician". Good Girls Don’t Make History. Pier. ISBN 978-1-74266-623-5. 
  7. ^ a b c Phoolan Devi (2011). I, Phoolan Devi – The autobiography of India’s Bandit Queen. 0751519642. pp. 6–7. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f g John Arquilla (2011). Insurgents, Raiders, and Bandits. 9781566638326. pp. 245–251. 
  9. ^ a b c "Phoolan Devi: Champion of the poor". BBC News. 25 July 2001. Retrieved 2006-12-11. 
  10. ^ "Kshatriya Samaj to honour Phoolan's killer". The Tribune, Chandigarh. 21 May 2006. Retrieved 2006-12-11. 
  11. ^ a b Anuja Pande. "Phoolan Power". Retrieved 2006-12-11. 
  12. ^ "Phoolan Devi". The Telegraph. 26 July 2001. Retrieved 9 August 2012. 
  13. ^ "Biographical Sketch of Member of Parliament - 13th Lok Sabha - Phoolan Devi". Retrieved 2012-02-02. 
  14. ^ Srikanta Ghosh (1997). Indian democracy derailed politics and politicians. APH Publishing. p. 145. ISBN 978-81-7024-866-8. 
  15. ^ "1999 Interview with Catherine Pawasarat of Kyoto Journal". Retrieved 2012-02-02. 
  16. ^ a b "Obituaries: Mala Sen". The Telegraph. 30 May 2011. Retrieved 2011-11-28. 
  17. ^ "The Great Indian Rape-Trick". SAWNET -The South Asian Women's NETwork. Retrieved 25 November 2011.
  18. ^ The Bandit Queen of India: An Indian Woman's Amazing Journey from Peasant to International Legend @ Retrieved 25 November 2011.
  19. ^ a b "The queen is dead". The Guardian. 26 July 2001. Retrieved 9 August 2012. 
  20. ^ "Profile of Sher Singh Rana". Times of India. 27 July 2001. Retrieved 9 August 2012. 
  21. ^ "Man arrested for murder of 'Bandit Queen'". The Telegraph. 27 July 2001. Retrieved 9 August 2012. 
  22. ^ "Mystery surrounds Bandit Queen murder". The Guardian. 30 July 2001. Retrieved 10 August 2012. 

Further reading[edit]

Books on Phoolan Devi

  • Richard Shears, Isobelle Gidley. Devi: The Bandit Queen, London: Allen & Unwin, 1984. ISBN 0-04-920097-6.
  • Mala Sen. India's Bandit Queen: The True Story of Phoolan Devi, London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993. ISBN 0-04-440888-9.
  • Phoolan Devi, Marie-Thérèse Cuny, Paul Rambali. I, Phoolan Devi: The Autobiography of India's Bandit Queen, London: 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
  • N. Pugazhendhi. Phoolan Devi, Coimbatore; in Tamil translated from Malayalam.

Other sources

External links[edit]