Phoolan Devi

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Phoolan Devi
Phoolan Devi-Bandit Queen.jpg
Member of Parliament (11th Lok Sabha)
In office
Member of Parliament (13th Lok Sabha)
In office
1999 – 26 July 2001
Personal details
Phoolan Mallah

(1963-08-10)10 August 1963
Patherakala, Uttar Pradesh, India
Died26 July 2001(2001-07-26) (aged 37)
New Delhi, India
Cause of deathAssassination by shooting
Political partySamajwadi Party
OccupationDacoit, politician

Phoolan Devi (10 August 1963 – 26 July 2001), popularly known as "Bandit Queen", was an Indian female rights activist, bandit and politician from the Samajwadi Party who later served as Member of Parliament.

Born into a poor family in rural Uttar Pradesh, Phoolan endured poverty, child marriage and had an abusive marriage before taking to a life of crime. Having developed major differences with her parents and being raped multiple times by her husband, the teenage Phoolan sought escape by running away and joining a gang of bandits. She was the only woman in that gang, and her relationship with one gang member, coupled with caste difference, caused a gunfight between gang members. Phoolan's lover was killed in that gunfight. The victorious rival faction, who were Rajputs, took Phoolan to their village of Behmai, confined her in a room, and took turns to rape her repeatedly over several weeks. After escaping, Phoolan rejoined the remnants of her dead lover's faction who were gangs of Mallaah, took another lover from among those men, and continued with banditry. A few months later, her new gang descended upon the village of Behmai to exact revenge for what she had suffered.[1][2] As many as twenty-two Rajput men belonging to that village were shot dead by Phoolan's gang.

Her act of revenge was portrayed by the press as an act of righteous rebellion. The respectful sobriquet 'Devi' was conferred upon her by the media and public at this point.[3]

Phoolan evaded capture for two years after the massacre before she and her few surviving gang-members surrendered to the police in 1983. She was charged with 48 crimes, including multiple murders, plunder, arson and kidnapping for ransom.[4] Phoolan spent the next eleven years in jail, as the various charges against her were tried in court. In 1994, the state government headed by Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party summarily withdrew all charges against her, and Phoolan was released.[4] 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 (made around the time of her release from jail) is loosely based on her life until that point.

Early life[edit]

Phoolan was born into the Mallah (boatmen) caste,[5] in the small village of Ghura Ka Purwa (also spelled Gorha ka Purwa) in Jalaun District, Uttar Pradesh.[6] She was the fourth and youngest child of Moola and her husband Devi Din Mallah.[7] Only she and one older sister survived to adulthood.

Phoolan's family was very poor. The major asset owned by them was around 1 acre (0.4 hectares) of farmland with a large but very old neem tree on it.[8] When Phoolan was eleven years old, her paternal grandparents died in quick succession and her father's elder brother became the head of the family. His son, Maya Din Mallah, proposed to cut down the Neem tree which occupied a largish patch of their one-acre farmland. He wanted to do this because the Neem tree was old and not very productive, and he wished to cultivate that patch of land with more profitable crops.[9] 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 repeatedly and, over a period of several weeks, showered abuse and taunts upon him. One of the things attested about Phoolan by nearly every source is the fact that she had a very foul tongue, and routinely used abuses.[8] Phoolan also attacked her cousin physically when he berated her for abusing him and making accusations against him. She then gathered a few village girls and staged a Dharna (sit-in) on the land, and did not budge even when the family elders tried to use force to drag them home. She was eventually beaten unconscious with a brick.[10]

A few months after this incident, when Phoolan was eleven years old, her family arranged for her to marry a man named Puttilal Mallah, who lived several hundred miles away and was thrice her age.[11] She suffered continuous beatings and sexual abuse at the hands of her husband and after several attempts at running away was returned to her family in 'disgrace'.

In retaliation for the public and private humiliations heaped on him, and to teach her a lesson, Maya Din went to the local cops and accused Phoolan of stealing small items from him, including a gold ring and a wrist watch. The cops, who belonged to nearby villages, knew Phoolan and her family well, and they did what Maya Din wanted. They kept Phoolan in jail for three days, physically abused her, and then let her off with a warning to behave and live quietly without quarreling with her family or with others.[9] Phoolan never forgave her cousin for this incident.

After Phoolan was released from jail, her parents once again wanted to send her to her husband. They approached Phoolan's in-laws with the plea that she was now sixteen years of age and therefore old enough to begin cohabiting with her husband. They initially refused to take Phoolan back. However, they were themselves very poor, Phoolan's husband was now thirty-eight 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.

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 only a few months past her sixteenth birthday. 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.

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. During the period in question, 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 nearby 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 final sojourn in her husband's house, and in the same year (1979), Phoolan fell in the company of one such gang of dacoits. How exactly this happened is unclear; some say that she was kidnapped by them because her "spirited temperament," estrangement from her own family and outspoken rejection of her husband had attracted the attention of the bandits, while others say that she "walked away from her life."[9] In her autobiography, she merely says "kismet ko yehi manzoor tha" ("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, raped and brutalized her for three days. 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, Vikram Mallah killed Babu Gujjar. The next morning, he assumed leadership of the gang.

Relationship with Vikram Mallah[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. The man survived, but carried a scar running down his abdomen for the rest of his life. Due to this incident, and because he legally remained Phoolan's husband, the man was never able to marry again. He lived his life as a recluse because most people in the village began avoiding his company out of fear of the bandits.[12]

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 committing 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.[5] 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.[9] 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 Mallaah caste of boatmen, much lower than the land-owning Rajput caste 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, and there was no reason to change. 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; 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 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 by the victorious faction to the Rajput-dominated village of Behmai, home to Shri Ram, Lalla Ram and several of the new Rajput recruits.[5]

According to legend, Vikram taught Phoolan, "If you are going to kill, kill twenty, not just one. For if you kill twenty, your fame will spread; if you kill only one, they will hang you as a murderess."[13]

Detainment in Behmai[edit]

Phoolan was locked up in a room in one of the houses in Behmai village. She was beaten, raped and humiliated by succession of several upper caste Thakur men over a period of three weeks. In a final indignity they paraded her naked around the village.[3][9] 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.

A new gang[edit]

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. Some say that Phoolan targeted only the upper-caste people and shared the loot with the lower-caste people, but the Indian authorities claim this is a myth; there is no evidence of Phoolan or her partners in crime sharing money with anyone, whether low-caste or otherwise.[11]

Massacre in Behmai[edit]

Several months after her escape from Behmai, Phoolan returned to the village to seek revenge. On the evening of 14 February 1981, at a time when a wedding was in progress in the village, Phoolan and her gang marched into Behmai dressed as police officers. Phoolan demanded that her tormentors "Sri Ram" and "Lala Ram" be produced.[citation needed] she allegedly said, The two men could not be found. And so Devi rounded up all the young men in the village and stood them in a line before a well. They were then marched in file to the river. At a green embankment they were ordered to kneel. There was a burst of gunfire and 22 men lay dead.[3] [5]

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.[14] A massive police manhunt was launched which however failed to locate Phoolan. 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 sections of the Indian media[11] as an intrepid and undaunted woman, the underdog struggling to survive in the world.

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, some having died at the hands of the police, some others at the hands of rival gangs. 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.[15] She laid down four further conditions:

  1. A promise that the death penalty would not be imposed on any member of her gang who surrenders
  2. The term for the other members of the gang should not exceed eight years.
  3. A plot of land to be given to her
  4. 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 forty-eight crimes, including thirty 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. The doctor of the hospital reportedly joked that "We don't want Phoolan Devi breeding more Phoolan Devis".[16] She was finally released on parole in 1994 after intercession by Vishambhar Prasad Nishad, the leader of the Nishadha community (another name for the Mallah community of boatmen and fisherfolk). 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.

Marriage with Ummed Singh[edit]

This time around Phoolan married Ummed Singh. Ummed Singh contested the 2004 and 2009 elections on Indian National Congress's ticket. In 2014 he contested election on Bahujan Samaj Party's ticket. Phoolan's sister Munni Devi later accused him of being involved in Phoolan's murder.[17]

Conversion to Buddhism[edit]

On 15 February 1995, Phoolan Devi and her husband Ummed Singh embraced Buddhism at the famous Buddhist site Deekshabhoomi.[18]

Member of Parliament[edit]

In 1995, one year after her release, Phoolan was invited by Dr. Ramadoss (founder of Pattali Makkal Katchi) to participate in the conference about alcohol prohibition and women Pornography. This was her first conference after her release which began her political career in India. However, 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 re-elected in the 1999 election and was the sitting member of parliament for Mirzapur when she was assassinated.


Assassination of Phoolan Devi
LocationNew Delhi
Coordinates28.6139° N, 77.2089° E
Date26 July 2001
1:30 pm (UTC+5.5)
Attack type
WeaponsWebley & Scott pistol, IOF .32 Revolver
DeathsPhoolan Devi
Injured1 (Balinder Singh)
Perpetrators3 unidentified gunmen

At 1:30 p.m. IST (08:30 UTC) on 26 July 2001, Devi was shot dead by three masked gunmen outside of her Delhi bungalow. She was hit nine times, variously in the head, chest, shoulder and right arm. Her personal security guard, Balinder Singh, was shot in his right chest and right arm, who returned fire with a 9-mm service pistol when the gunmen fled the scene in a Maruti 800 car. They abandoned the car mid-way and boarded an auto rickshaw. The police recovered a Webley & Scott pistol and an improvised firearm, an IOF .32 Revolver from the spot, along with nine empty and 15 live rounds, from the car.[19]

Devi was taken to Ram Manohar Lohia hospital but was declared dead. The prime suspect, Sher Singh Rana, later surrendered to the police.[20] Rana allegedly claimed to have murdered Devi in revenge for the upper-caste men she gunned down in the Behmai massacre.[21] In the latest ruling, on 14 August 2014, the court sentenced Rana to life in prison and a fine.[22]


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 forensic tests on them.[citation needed]

Sher Singh Rana, the main accused, was convicted by Delhi court on 8 August 2014. However, the other ten accused were acquitted. Rana was convicted of 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.[23][24] On 14 August 2014 Rana was sentenced to a life term by a Delhi court.[25]

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.[26] 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.[26] 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.[27]

In 1985 another low budget Bengali movie Phoolan Devi was released loosely based on Phoolan's life. This film was directed by Ashok Roy and starred by Suresh Oberoi, Rita Bhaduri and Joy Banerjee.[28]

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.[29]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Devi, Phoolan (1996). I, Phoolan Devi. Warner Books. pp. 384–388. ISBN 0-7515-1964-2.
  2. ^ Press, Associated (14 August 2014). "Killer of Phoolan Devi, India's 'Bandit Queen', given life sentence". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 4 October 2017.
  3. ^ a b c "The queen is dead". The Guardian. 26 July 2001. Retrieved 18 November 2011.
  4. ^ a b "Phoolan Devi". The Daily Telegraph. 26 July 2001.
  5. ^ a b c d "Phoolan Devi, India's Bandit Queen". Archived from the original on 28 December 2005. Retrieved 11 December 2006.
  6. ^ Henry Scholberg (1994). A Hindi movie. Indus (HarperCollins India). p. 24. ISBN 978-81-7223-097-5.
  7. ^ India today, Volume 26. Thomson Living Media India Ltd., 2001
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ a b c d e John Arquilla (2011). Insurgents, Raiders, and Bandits. Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 245–251. ISBN 9781566638326.
  10. ^ "The Great Indian Rape-Trick". Sawnet news. 22 August 1992. Archived from the original on 14 April 2016. Retrieved 11 December 2015.
  11. ^ a b c "Phoolan Devi: Champion of the poor". BBC News. 25 July 2001. Retrieved 11 December 2006.
  12. ^ "Outlaw. India's Bandit Queen and Me by Roy Moxham / KissLibrary: Affordable Ebooks". Retrieved 30 May 2019.
  13. ^ "India's bandit queen died as she once lived". Time. 25 July 2001.
  14. ^ "Kshatriya Samaj to honour Phoolan's killer". The Tribune. Chandigarh. 21 May 2006. Retrieved 11 December 2006.
  15. ^ Anuja Pande. "Phoolan Power". Retrieved 11 December 2006.
  16. ^ "Phoolan Devi". The Telegraph. 26 July 2001. Retrieved 9 August 2012.
  17. ^
  18. ^[permanent dead link]
  19. ^ "Phoolan Devi shot dead". The Hindu. 26 July 2001. Retrieved 31 October 2018.
  20. ^ "Profile of Sher Singh Rana". The 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. ^ "Profile of life sentences". The Times of India. 14 August 2014. Retrieved 14 August 2014.
  23. ^
  24. ^ "Mystery surrounds Bandit Queen murder". The Guardian. 30 July 2001. Retrieved 10 August 2012.
  25. ^ Shakil, Sana (14 August 2014). "Life sentence to Sher Singh Rana for killing Phoolan Devi". The Times of India. Retrieved 14 August 2014.
  26. ^ a b "Obituaries: Mala Sen". The Telegraph. 30 May 2011. Retrieved 28 November 2011.
  27. ^ The Great Indian Rape-Trick Archived 14 April 2016 at the Wayback Machine @ SAWNET -The South Asian Women's NETwork. Retrieved 25 November 2011.
  28. ^ "Phoolan Devi (1985)". IMDb. n.d. Retrieved 13 July 2017.
  29. ^ The Bandit Queen of India: An Indian Woman's Amazing Journey from Peasant to International Legend @ Retrieved 25 November 2011.

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]