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 – 25 July 2001
Personal details
Phoolan Mallah

(1963-08-10)10 August 1963
Jalaun district, Uttar Pradesh, India
Died25 July 2001(2001-07-25) (aged 37)
New Delhi, Delhi, India
Cause of deathAssassination by shooting
Political partySamajwadi Party
  • Umed Singh
  • Vikram Mallah
  • Putti Lal
  • Devi Din (father)
  • Moola Devi (mother)

Phoolan Devi (10 August 1963 – 25 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, Devi 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 Devi 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. Devi's lover, Vikram Mallah, was killed in that gunfight. The victorious rival faction took Devi to their village of Behmai, confined her in a room, and took turns to rape her repeatedly over several weeks. After escaping, Devi rejoined the remnants of her Mallah'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 men belonging to that village were shot dead by Devi's gang.

Devi 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.[3] Phoolan spent the next eleven years in jail, as the various charges against her were tried in court. 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.[4]

In 1994, the state government headed by Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party summarily withdrew all charges against her and Devi was released.[3] 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 of Parliament for Mirzapur. In 2001, she was shot dead at the gates of her official bungalow (allotted to her as MP) in New Delhi by Sher Singh Rana 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]

Devi 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] Besides Phoolan, only one older sister survived to adulthood.[citation needed]

Phoolan's family was 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' death led to her father's elder brother's son, Maya Din Mallah, proposing to cut down the neem tree to cultivate that patch of land with more profitable crops.[9] Phoolan's father agreed to it with mild protest. However, the teenage Phoolan was enraged and protested, publicly taunting and verbally abusing her cousin for several weeks,[8] going on to physically assault 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, her family arranged for her to marry a man named Puttilal Mallah, who lived several miles (kilometers) away and was in his 30s, three times her age.[11] She was physically and sexually abused by her husband and, after several attempts at running away, was returned to her family in 'disgrace'.[citation needed]

In retaliation for being humiliated by Phoolan, Maya Din went to the local police and accused Phoolan of stealing from him. The police kept her locked up for three days, physically abused her, and then let her off with a warning.[9]

After Phoolan was released from jail, at the age of 16, her parents once again wanted to send her to her husband. After Phoolan's family offered generous gifts, her in-laws 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.[citation needed]

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 16th birthday. She later claimed in her autobiography that her husband was a man of "very bad character".[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

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 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 a 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.

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 Puttilal Mallah 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. 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. This included 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. 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]

Sometime later, Shri Ram and Lalla Ram, two upper-caste 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] A scuffle then ensued between Shri Ram and Phoolan. The brothers' resentment was exacerbated by the fact that Phoolan and Vikram both belonged to the Mallaah caste of boatmen, lower than the land-owning caste to which they themselves belonged.

Over a period of time, the brothers recruited more upper caste in the gang and began abusing the Mallahs of the villages they ransacked, leading to the anger and subsequent exit of the Mallahs of the gang. Vikram Mallah then suggested that the gang be divided into two, one comprising mainly upper and the other mainly Mallahs. Shri Ram and Lalla Ram refused this suggestion stating that the gang had always included a mixture of castes. 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 abuses made them dislike her.

A few days after the proposal for division had been floated, a quarrel ensued between Shri Ram and Vikram Mallah, resulting in a gunfight. Vikram and Phoolan escaped in the dark. However, they were tracked down and Vikram Mallah was killed. Phoolan was taken by the victorious faction to the upper caste dominated village of Behmai, home to Shri Ram, Lalla Ram and several of the new recruits.[5]

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 several upper caste Thakur men over a period of three weeks. In a final indignity, they paraded her naked around the village.[4][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, Phoolan marched into Behmai with her gang and demanded that her tormentors be produced before her. The two men could not be found. She then rounded up twenty-two young men from the village and ordered them killed.[4][5]

The Behmai massacre provoked outrage across the country. V. P. Singh, the then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, resigned.[14] A massive police manhunt was launched but soon failed. 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, others at the hands of rival gangs. In February 1983, she agreed to surrender to the authorities. However, she said that she did not 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 travelled 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 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] This statement alone would indicate a disrespect of her reproductive rights.[citation needed] Forced sterilization is a common abuse against socially outcast women or those branded criminals.[citation needed] 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 shocked the country and became a matter of public discussion and controversy.[citation needed]

Marriage with Ummed Singh[edit]

Phoolan later 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]

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
Date25 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 25 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 a 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.[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 alleged Shekhar Kapur of exploiting Phoolan Devi and misrepresenting both her life and its meaning.[10]

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.[27] Phoolan Bai, a 2001 Indian film by V. Menon was also inspired by her life.[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. ^ "Killer of Phoolan Devi, India's 'Bandit Queen', given life sentence". The Guardian. Associated Press. 14 August 2014. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 4 October 2017.
  3. ^ a b "Phoolan Devi". The Daily Telegraph. 26 July 2001.
  4. ^ a b c "The queen is dead". The Guardian. 26 July 2001. Retrieved 18 November 2011.
  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. ^ a b "The Great Indian Rape-Trick". SAWNET -The South Asian Women's NETwork. 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. ^ Moxham, Roy (2010). Outlaw: India's Bandit Queen and Me. Rider. ISBN 978-1-84604-182-2.
  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. ^ Jaiswal, Anuja (21 May 2018). "bandit: Bandit queen's sister claims Sher Singh wrongly convicted for Phoolan's murder". The Times of India.
  18. ^ "Phoolan had embraced Buddhism". The Times of India. Pune. 27 July 2001. Retrieved 24 January 2021.
  19. ^ "Phoolan Devi shot dead". The Hindu. 26 July 2001. Archived from the original on 31 January 2002. 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. ^ "Main accused in Phoolan Devi's killing convicted". News Kannada. IANS. 8 August 2014. Archived from the original on 9 August 2014.
  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. ^ "Phoolan Devi (1985)". IMDb. n.d. Retrieved 13 July 2017.
  28. ^ "PHOOLAN BAI (2001)". BFI.
  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]