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WOMEN’S DAY: 22 Years After Phoolan Devi’s Murder, Bandit Queen Remains A Divisive Figure In Mirzapur

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For some, the slain brigand was a reincarnation of goddess Durga, worshipped as the feminine embodiment of power. For many others, Phoolan remains the epitome of wanton violence. But Phoolan’s life can be seen as a metaphor of caste politics woven into the struggle for power in the state

Mirzapur is the wild east of Uttar Pradesh and Phoolan Devi stands tall among the bandits and brigands who once roamed these badlands. But the dacoit-turned-politician is also a divisive figure in Mirzapur, revered and hated in equal measure. For some, the slain brigand was a reincarnation of goddess Durga, worshipped as the feminine embodiment of power. For many others, Phoolan remains the epitome of wanton violence.  

One common thread that unites opinion on her across the spectrum is that Bandit Queen continues to cast a shadow on Mirzapur district, two decades after her murder. Also, the Nishad solidarity that Phoolan created has grown into a critical non-Yadav OBC vote bank in Uttar Pradesh. 

In some sense, Phoolan’s life can be seen as a metaphor of caste politics woven into the struggle for power in the state. Born on August 10, 1963, in Ghura Ka Purwa, a small village in the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh, Phoolan won the parliamentary elections from Mirzapur in 1996 and 1999 on a Samajwadi Party ticket before she was killed in July 2001. 

Twenty years later, a couple of boatmen at the Ganga river banks in Mirzapur tell Outlook that there is very little hope left for the Mallah community—to which she belonged—after her death. “When Phoolan was elected MP from here, it came as a ray of hope and joy. We had celebrated that night by lighting up the ghat with clay lamps,” says Manoj Nishad. 

The community’s enthusiasm and joy were not because they assumed that economic and social changes would sweep through the region overnight but due to a sense of security she brought. 

“We had heard about the valor of our leader. The Thakurs and other upper caste people used to envy her courage and resilience. They would dare not mess with us during her time as an MP, but it was all short-lived,” Manoj adds. 

The younger ones among the community of Mallahs,  many of them not even born when Phoolan entered politics, romanticize the life of “Durga’s incarceration”. 

“We have only heard about the Goddess….how she would pick her targets, how she walked through the narrow ravines with arms and ammunition and bumped off the oppressors. Long live Phoolan Devi,” says a teenage boy, jumping into the conversation with the boatmen on the riverbank. 

Phoolan’s transition from a baghi (rebel), as dacoits are referred to in Bundelkhand, to a mainstream OBC leader is a story of oppression and mutiny, marred by violent incidents over the years. 

Different accounts were published on her life, such as a long piece in the Atlantic titled India’s Bandit Queen by journalist Mary Anne Weaver and the highly-acclaimed movie Bandit Queen by Shekhar Kapoor. However, Phoolan herself never came to terms with the film and called it Kapoor’s figment of imagination. 

 Phoolan even threatened to immolate if the movie was not banned. She later narrated her own story to French authors Marie-Therese Cuny and Paul Rambali for I, Phoolan Devi – The Autobiography of India’s Bandit Queen

These accounts recall Phoolan as a fiery girl with grit since early childhood. At the tender age of ten, she fought against her cousin Mayadin who had usurped her father’s land. She was married off to a man twenty years older while she was just eleven years old. In her autobiography, she recalls that she did not even understand marriage and got furious when people started calling her the wife of Putti Lal. Finally, she decided to leave the abusive marriage where she was forced into sex every day and returned home. 

 Facing villagers’ taunts for breaking away from her marriage followed by an attempted rape, she left her village for her sister’s home. It was then that her estranged cousin Mayadin got her implicated in a false robbery case. Phoolan and her father were locked up in a cell, where policemen had allegedly raped her. 

 Phoolan, a teen then, ran away from home only to join a group of bandits. It didn’t help her either. Babu Gujjar, the gang’s leader, raped and brutalized her for three days before Vikram Mallah, another gang member, killed him to set her free. Mallah rose to become the gang’s head, and Phoolan became his lover. 

Following the incident, the two of them and their gang of dacoits looted, abducted, and killed many people. They also went back to her husband’s village, thrashing and scarring him for the rest of his life. 

Their euphoria, though, was fleeting. Shri Ram and Lalla Ram, two Rajput dacoits and Gujjar followers, were dissatisfied with Mallah’s leadership because he was from a lesser caste. The rivalry between castes, jealousy and a desire to avenge Gujjar’s murder quickly escalated into a firefight where Mallah was killed. 

Phoolan was taken to Behmai village dominated by Thakurs and was gang-raped by outlaws of the community before being paraded naked in the village by the same men. She finally managed to escape Bahmai and form another gang consisting only of Nishad community members. She was to return to the village several months later to avenge her rape and humiliation. 

In her piece for The Atlantic, journalist Mary Anne Weaver writes, “One of her lawyers told me that in her view the most extraordinary thing about Phoolan was ‘her endless, boundless ways of reinventing herself’. Sunil Sethi said, ‘I don’t think her past can ever be corroborated now. So many of her close associates are dead, killed in sticky encounters; her family changes its story every day, as she does; so much of her past has been deliberately obscured.” 

Nonetheless, the facts surrounding the 1981 Behmai Massacre are widely accepted. She called all the villagers out and asked them to hand over Shri Ram and Lalla Ram. As the two men could not be found, Phoolan rounded up 22 other Thakur men near a village well, ordered them to kneel, and shot them dead. 

The massacre earned her the moniker ‘Bandit Queen’ but also caused a storm in the government. V.P. Singh, the then chief minister, resigned, and the police had to intensify efforts to apprehend Phoolan. 

She finally surrendered to the authorities in February 1983 and spent eleven years in jail before being elected as an MP and with the support of the OBC community. 

When asked about the terms for her surrender, she told Mary Anne Weaver that there was a lot. Among them were that her gang members would not be hanged; that she would be released from prison after eight years, she would never be handcuffed. 

In 2022, the Nishad unity that Devi aided has grown into a significant non-Yadav OBC vote bank in Uttar Pradesh. Even as the SP tried to exploit anti-incumbency to dismantle the BJP’s social coalition, the ruling party is hoping that its alliance with Sanjay Nishad of the Nishad Party, which contested 16 seats, would keep the Nishad vote base intact.  

In Mirzapur and adjoining constituencies, Phoolan Devi is a household name. The Dalit OBCs remember her as their messiah and recount how she had been able to win their hearts in a short period. However, the urban upper caste doesn’t see her as a hero. 

In the backdrop of the assembly elections, Outlook visited the villages which Phoolan often visited as an MP. “Her tenure was the best for us, whatever little development that took place in Johar village, it took place under her regime. She also instilled a sense of pride in us,” says Shakuntala Devi, 65, a Dalit. 

People in other villages echoed similar sentiments—most of the backward castes look at her as the epitome of justice and generosity. Contrary to this, the urban population, mostly upper caste, see her as a mass murderer who ‘massacred’ innocents to satisfy her lust for revenge. 

“For us, she will remain a dacoit and a killer of innocents who had no faith in law and order,” says Anuj Kumar Gupta. 

In 2021, after the administration refused to grant the Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP) permission to construct statues of Phoolan Devi in 18 districts of Uttar Pradesh, supporters headed by Bihar animal husbandry minister Mukesh Sahni staged protests in several districts of the state. 

The party’s state president Lautan Ram Nishad called the police conduct “disrespectful” to Phoolan Devi and claimed the party had planned to hold a statewide protest. 

Nishad Party president Dr Sanjay Nishad, a BJP ally, claimed the party’s members held events across the state to commemorate her 20th death anniversary. He also promised that when the Nishad party comes to power in Uttar Pradesh, it will establish a Phoolan Devi women’s self-defense centre. Asad Ashraf

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