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, Uttar Pradesh, 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 Member of Parliament. Born to a low caste family in rural Uttar Pradesh, Phoolan endured poverty as a child, had an unsuccessful marriage, and took to a life of crime.

While yet a teenager, Phoolan ran away from her husband and joined a gang of bandits. She was the only woman in that gang, and her relationship with one gang member, coupled with other minor factors, caused a gunfight between gang members. Phoolan's lover was killed in that gunfight and Phoolan was gang-raped by the victorious rival faction. She then rallied the remnants of her dead lover's faction, took another lover from among those men, and wrecked revenge upon Behmai, the village where she had been raped.[2] As many as twenty-two Rajput men belonging to that village were lined up and shot dead. Not a single one of these men had raped or otherwise harmed Phoolan - their crime was that they belonged to Behmai village, were male, and belonged to the Rajput caste to which Phoolan's rapists had belonged.[citation needed]

The press portrayed the Behmai massacre as an act of righteous lower-caste rebellion and Phoolan herself as an oppressed feminist Robin Hood. The respectful sobriquet 'Devi' was conferred upon her by the media at this point. However, Indian police authorities state unequivocally that there is no recorded instance of Phoolan ever having helped a single person who was poor or needy, and that the feminist Robin Hood image is a media-created myth.[3][4] Her only motivation, they say, was revenge and hatred towards an entire caste of people.

Phoolan evaded capture for two years after the massacre before she and her few surviving gang-members surrendered in 1983. She was charged with forty-eight major crimes, including multiple murders, plunder, arson and kidnapping for ransom.[5] After eleven years pending trial, the state government headed by Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party withdrew all charges against her, and Phoolan was released in 1994.[5] 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 is loosely based on her life.

Early life[edit]

Phoolan was born into the mallah (boatmen) caste,[6] in the small village of Ghura Ka Purwa (also spelled Gorha ka Purwa) in Jalaun District, Uttar Pradesh.[7] She was the fourth and youngest child of Devi Din and his wife Moola.[8] 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 but very old Neem tree on it.[9] 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 cousin, Maya Din, 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.[10] when Phoolan's father agreed to the proposal with mild protest, 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, over a period of several weeks, showered abused and taunts upon him. Phoolan also attacked her cousin physically when he rose to the bait and berated her for abusing him and making accusations against him.[9] Phoolan 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.

A few months after this incident, Phoolan's family arranged for her to marry a man named Putti Lal, who lived several hundred miles away and was twelve years older than her.[3] Putti Lal was an abusive spouse and the marriage (illegal under Indian law) was unsuccessful, which motivated Phoolan to return to her parents.

During her stay in her parents' house, Phoolan continued to bait and taunt her cousin Maya Din. With the help of a local social worker who was a women's rights activist, Phoolan even took her cousin to court for unlawfully holding her father's land. She 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.[citation needed] Further, the produce and income 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.[10]

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 they did what the family wanted. They kept Phoolan, then a minor, 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 with others.[10] Phoolan never forgave her cousin for this incident.[citation needed]

After Phoolan was released from jail, her parents once again wanted to send her to her abusive husband. While she cohabited with him for a while, now as a social outcast, unwanted by her parents and abused by her husband, she either escaped or was kidnapped which paved her way to banditry.

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, 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 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 by them because her "spirited temperament," estrangement from her own family and outspoken rejection of her 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."[10] 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 playfully 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. In the altercation connected to the rape attempt, 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, by 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.[citation needed] He lived his life as a recluse because most people in the village began avoiding his company out of fear.

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 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.[6] The gang's main hideouts were in the ravines of the Chambal River.

Sometime later, Shri Ram and Lalaa Ram, two upper-caste brothers belonging to the Rajput 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.[10] 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 Rajput 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 Lala 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 of Rajputs 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 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 to the Rajput-dominated village of Behmai, home to Shri Ram, Lala Ram and several of the new Thakur recruits.[6]

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.[10] 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 claim this is a myth; there is no evidence of Phoolan or her partners sharing money with anyone.[3]

Seven 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 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 Rajput members of the former gang of bandits were found. These two men were not among those who had gang-raped Phoolan; they were merely former members of Vikram Mallah's gang who belonged to the Rajput caste. Indeed, they were old comrades-in-arms of Phoolan, Vikram Mallah, Babulal Gujjar, Shri Ram and Lalla Ram.

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 Rajpiuts, a few of whose members had protested the killing of Babulal Gujjar, then challenged the leadership of his murderer Vikram Mallah, deposed and killed Vikram Mallah and gang-raped Phoolan herself. Phoolan therefore ordered her gang members to line up each and every man belonging to the Rajput caste that they could lay their hands on in Behmai village.[citation needed] This included Rajputs who belonged to other villages and towns who had come to attend the wedding in the village. The Rajput men were lined up and then, at Phoolan's order, they were shot dead by Phoolan and her gang members. Twenty-two Rajput 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.[6]

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.[11]

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 segments of the Indian media[3] as an intrepid and undaunted woman, the underdog struggling to survive.

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 the pictures of Mahatma Gandhi and the Hindu goddess Durga, not to the police.[12] 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 as many as 48 crimes, including 30 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".[13] 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.[14] 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.[14] 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.[15]

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.[16]


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[17]
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.[17] 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.[18] Rana allegedly claimed to have murdered Phoolan Devi in revenge for the upper-caste men she gunned down in the Behmai massacre.[19] In the latest ruling, on August 14, 2014, the court sentenced Sher Singh Rana to a life in prison and a fine.[20]


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.[21] On August 14, 2014 Sher Sing Rana was given life term for killing Phoolan Devi by a Delhi court.[22]


  1. ^ Manju Jain (2009). Narratives of Indian cinema. Primus Books. p. 164. ISBN 978-81-908918-4-4. 
  2. ^ Devi, Phoolan (1996). I, Phoolan Devi. Warner Books. pp. 384–388. ISBN 0-7515-1964-2. 
  3. ^ a b c d "Phoolan Devi: Champion of the poor". BBC News. 2001-07-25. Retrieved 2006-12-11.  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "bbc_champion" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  4. ^ "The queen is dead". The Guardian. 2001-07-26. Retrieved 2011-11-18. 
  5. ^ a b "Phoolan Devi". The Daily Telegraph. July 26, 2001. 
  6. ^ a b c d "Phoolan Devi, India's Bandit Queen". Retrieved 2006-12-11.  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "goodbyemag_queen" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  7. ^ Henry Scholberg (1994). A Hindi movie. Indus (HarperCollins India). p. 24. ISBN 978-81-7223-097-5. 
  8. ^ India today, Volume 26. Thomson Living Media India Ltd., 2001
  9. ^ 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. 
  10. ^ a b c d e f John Arquilla (2011). Insurgents, Raiders, and Bandits. 9781566638326. pp. 245–251. 
  11. ^ "Kshatriya Samaj to honour Phoolan's killer". The Tribune. Chandigarh. 2006-05-21. Retrieved 2006-12-11. 
  12. ^ Anuja Pande. "Phoolan Power". Retrieved 2006-12-11. 
  13. ^ "Phoolan Devi". The Telegraph. 26 July 2001. Retrieved 9 August 2012. 
  14. ^ a b "Obituaries: Mala Sen". The Telegraph. 2011-05-30. Retrieved 2011-11-28. 
  15. ^ The Great Indian Rape-Trick @ SAWNET -The South Asian Women's NETwork , Retrieved 25 November 2011.
  16. ^ The Bandit Queen of India: An Indian Woman's Amazing Journey from Peasant to International Legend @, Retrieved 25 November 2011.
  17. ^ a b "The queen is dead". The Guardian. 26 July 2001. Retrieved 9 August 2012. 
  18. ^ "Profile of Sher Singh Rana". Times of India. 27 July 2001. Retrieved 9 August 2012. 
  19. ^ "Man arrested for murder of 'Bandit Queen'". The Telegraph. 27 July 2001. Retrieved 9 August 2012. 
  20. ^ "Profile of life sentences". Times of India. 14 August 2014. Retrieved 14 August 2014. 
  21. ^ "Mystery surrounds Bandit Queen murder". The Guardian. 30 July 2001. Retrieved 10 August 2012. 
  22. ^ 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]