10 August 1963|
Ghura Ka Purwa, UP, India
|Died||25 July 2001
New Delhi, India
Cause of death
|Assassination by shooting|
|Other names||Bandit Queen|
|48 major crimes (30 charges of dacoity; rest kidnapping for ransom and looting)|
Phoolan Devi (10 August 1963 – 25 July 2001) was an Indian Member of Parliament affiliated with the Samajwadi Party. In 1996, Phoolan Devi successfully contested her first election and was admitted to the 11th Lok Sabha, representing the constituency of Mirzapur. Phoolan Devi would again represent the people of Mirzapur during the 13th Lok Sabha, having won her second election in 1999.
Born to a low-caste family in rural Uttar Pradesh, Devi's early years were characterised by numerous incidents of sexual abuse, followed by a criminal career she later became known for.
At the age of 18, Devi was gang-raped by high-caste bandits after the gang she was part of was ambushed by rivals. As a result of this incident, she became a gang-leader in her own right and sought revenge. In 1981 Devi and her gang returned to the village where she had been raped and 22 Thakur caste villagers, including two of her rapists, were rounded up and executed.
The press portrayed the Behmai massacre as an act of righteous lower-caste rebellion and popularized an interpretation of Phoolan Devi herself as an oppressed feminist Robin Hood. Conversely, Indian police authorities claimed there were no recorded instances of Devi helping those in need.
Devi and surviving gang-members evaded capture for two years after the massacre had taken place before finally surrendering in 1983. She was charged for 48 crimes, including murder, plunder, arson and kidnapping for ransom. Phoolan Devi was denied trial for 11 years, the entirety of the time remaining in prison. The state government would ultimately withdraw all charges against her. She was released in 1994. She then ran for election as a candidate of the Samajwadi Party and was elected to parliament.
In 2001, Phoolan Devi, a sitting Member of Parliament in the 13th Lok Sabha, was assassinated outside her New Delhi home by three upper-caste men. The 1994 film Bandit Queen is loosely based on her life.
Phoolan Devi 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 of six children. Only she and one older sister survived to adulthood.
Devi's family were very poor. Their main asset consisted of one acre (0.4 hectare) of farmland with a large Neem tree on it. Her father cultivated the acre of land and worked as a casual labourer in order to support his family.
When Devi was 11 years old, her father's elder brother became the head of the family and inherited some wealth. His son, Maya Din, cut down and sold the Neem tree which stood on their land. Devi disputed her cousin's claim on the tree publicly, calling him a thief. Along with her elder sister, Devi staged a sit-in on the land, and did not give way when the family elders tried to use force to drag them home.
A few months later, Devi's family arranged for her to marry to a man in his 30s. Though illegal, this was in keeping with the customs of her community, which favoured early marriage for girls. According to Devi, her husband raped her days after the wedding. Her health declined until her father took her home to recover, but once healthy she was returned to the marital home despite her protestations. She was finally permitted to return to her home village after her husband took a second wife.
A wife leaving her husband was a taboo in the rural areas, and Devi became a target for unwanted sexual advances among the men of her village. Her outcast status brought shame to her family and her cousin Maya Din distanced himself by accusing her of theft, causing her to be temporarily jailed on charges of dacoity (banditry).
Career as a bandit
The region where Devi lived (Bundelkhand) is even today extremely poor, arid and devoid of industry; rural life depends on subsistence farming. During the 1970s and 80s it was not unusual for young men to run away to the ravines of the Chambal valley and form groups of bandits, able to rob wealthier villagers and passing townspeople on the highways.
Shortly after her stint in jail (1979), Devi was kidnapped from her family home by gang of dacoits. The gang leader, a member of the Gujjar caste, tried to rape Devi but was shot in the attempt by his second-in-command Vikram Mallah, who belonged to Devi's own Mallah caste. After this incident Mallah became the gang leader, and he and Devi began a relationship.
Initiation into banditry
Devi and Mallah began cohabiting together despite their respective marriages. At Mallah's encouragement, the gang attacked the village where Devi's husband lived. Devi dragged him from 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.
Mallah taught Devi how to use a rifle, and she helped the gang loot villages where upper-caste people lived, kidnap people for ransom, and rob freight trains. She 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.
Some time later two upper-caste brothers belonging to the Thakur caste, Shri Ram and Lala Ram, returned to the gang after a sojourn. They were outraged to hear of the murder of Babu Gujjar, their former leader, and attacked Devi. Mallah demanded that they apologize; the shame of land-owning Thakur caste members apologising to two Mallahs led to tensions within the gang.
Whenever the gang ransacked a village, Shri Ram and Lala Ram made a point of beating and insulting Mallah villagers. This displeased the Mallah members of the bandit gang, many of whom left. 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 in favour of the Thakurs. Mallah then suggested that the gang be divided into two, one comprising mainly Thakurs and the other mainly 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.
Shortly after this proposal was floated, a quarrel ensued between Shri Ram and Vikram Mallah. A gunfight ensued, with Mallah and Devi escaping in the dark. However, Ram tracked tracked them down and shot Mallah dead. Devi was taken to the Thakur-dominated village of Behmai, home to Shri Ram, Lala Ram and several of the new Thakur recruits.
Two incidents in Behmai village
Devi 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.
She then managed to escape with the help of a low-caste villager of Behmai and two 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 raids and robberies across Bundelkhand, usually (but not always) targeting upper-caste people.
Seven months after her escape from Behmai, Devi returned to the village to seek revenge. On the evening of 14 February 1981, Devi's gang marched into Behmai dressed as police officers. Devi demanded that her tormentors be produced, along with all the valuables in the village.
Devi 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 due to the abuse she had endured in association with them. Devi therefore ordered her gang members to line up and shoot all Thakur-caste men in the village. Twenty-two Thakur men were killed. Later, Devi argued in court 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 large-scale police manhunt was launched which failed to locate Phoolan Devi, possibly due to the support of poor people in the region; at this stage the media dubbed her Bandit Queen.
Surrender and jail term
Devi evaded capture for two years after the Behmai massacre, causing the Indira Gandhi government to negotiate a surrender. In February 1983, she agreed to surrender to the authorities on her terms: as she didn't trust the Uttar Pradesh police she 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. 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 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.
Devi 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 diagnosed with ovarian cysts and underwent an unnecessary hysterectomy. The doctor of the prison hospital reportedly joked that "We don't want Phoolan Devi breeding more Phoolan Devis."
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
In 1996, two years after her release, Phoolan Devi 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
Shekhar Kapur directed the 1994 Hindi-language film Bandit Queen based on the late Mala Sen's 1993 book India’s Bandit Queen: The True Story of Phoolan Devi, with the film purporting to represent Phoolan Devi's life up to her surrender to the police in 1983.  Although Phoolan Devi is a heroine in the film, she fiercely disputed its accuracy and fought to get it banned in India, threatening to immolate outside a theater if the film were not withdrawn. Eventually, she withdrew her objections after the producer Channel 4 paid her £40,000.
Author and activist Arundhati Roy, in her review of the film 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.
Despite never being formally educated and therefore illiterate, Devi 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.
|Assassination of Phoolan Devi|
|Coordinates||28.6139° N, 77.2089° E|
|Date||25 July 2001|
|Assailants||3 unidentified gunmen|
|Sher Singh Rana (alias Pankaj Singh)|
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, 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 14 August 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 8 August 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 12 August 2014 as the date for arguments and pronouncement of sentence. On 14 August 2014 Sher Sing Rana was given life term for killing Phoolan Devi by a Delhi court.
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- Devi, Phoolan (1996). I, Phoolan Devi. Warner Books. pp. 384–388. ISBN 0-7515-1964-2.
- "Phoolan Devi: Champion of the poor". BBC News. 2001-07-25. Retrieved 2006-12-11.
- "The queen is dead". The Guardian. 2001-07-26. Retrieved 2011-11-18.
- "Phoolan Devi". The Daily Telegraph. 26 July 2001.
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- "Phoolan Devi, India's Bandit Queen". Retrieved 2006-12-11.
- Henry Scholberg (1994). A Hindi movie. Indus (HarperCollins India). p. 24. ISBN 978-81-7223-097-5.
- India today, Volume 26. Thomson Living Media India Ltd., 2001
- Jan Stradling (2011). "12: Phoolan Devi - 'Bandit Queen', freedom fighter, politician". Good Girls Don’t Make History. Pier. ISBN 978-1-74266-623-5.
- citation needed
- John Arquilla (2011). Insurgents, Raiders, and Bandits. 9781566638326. pp. 245–251.
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- "Obituaries: Mala Sen". The Telegraph. 2011-05-30. Retrieved 2011-11-28.
- The Great Indian Rape-Trick @ SAWNET -The South Asian Women's NETwork , Retrieved 25 November 2011.
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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.
- Gabriel, Karen (2009). "Reading Rape: Sexual Difference, Representational Excess and Narrative Containment". pp. 9–16.
- India's Bandit Queen by Mary Anne Weaver
- Peacock, J. Sunita "Phoolan Devi: The Primordial Tradition of the Bandit Queen." in: Transnationalism and the Asian American Heroine: Essays on Literature, Film, Myth and Media. pp. 187–195.
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