Phoolan Devi (10 August 1963 – 25 July 2001), popularly known as “The Bandit Queen”, was an Indian dacoit and later a politician. She was notorious across India during her time as a bandit.
Phoolan was born into the lower mallah caste, in a family of Mallah (boatmen), in the small village of Gorha ka Purwa in Uttar Pradesh, India. She was the second child in a family of four girls and a boy and was sister of Tau a graduate from ISTC. Her family was poor, but they were not the poorest in the village. Her father owned an acre of land near G.B. Road and a huge Neem tree on it. The valuable timber that could be derived from the tree was, effectively, the family’s nest egg.
When Phoolan was ten years old, her cousin, Mayadin, became the head of the family. He sent workers to cut down the Neem tree and sell the wood, intending to keep the proceeds for himself. Although her father saw no use in protest, Phoolan confronted her cousin. She taunted him, publicly called him a thief, and with her older sister staged a sit-in on his land. Even after violence against Phoolan—knocking her out with a brick—she wouldn’t relent. In an effort to rid himself of the little nuisance, Mayadin arranged to have her married to a man named Putti Lal, who lived several hundred miles away. Putti Lal was in his thirties; Phoolan was eleven. Devi claimed in her autobiography that he was a man of “very bad character”.
There are conflicting reports as to the events of Phoolan’s life after this point.
Some accounts say that she feared her husband and refused to live with him. He was already married, so Phoolan was relegated to household labour. Miserable, she ran away to her village, much to the horror of her family. In the day, it was believed a wife simply cannot leave her husband. Phoolan’s mother, Moola, was so ashamed that she told her daughter to go to jump in a well and kill herself.
Other accounts say her husband raped and mistreated her, but that she did not know what was happening. They further claim she became seriously ill and her father came to take her to the hospital. Her parents publicly declared the marriage ended in front of the villagers. She did not see her husband for two years, until she was 13. This account claims he then came and took her back to his house where he was living with his “second wife”, an older woman. The “second wife” beat Phoolan and treated her like a slave, restricted Phoolan’s food, and made her sleep in the cow-shed. Eventually, the husband decided to take Phoolan back to her village and family.
In any respect, it came about that Phoolan’s marriage ended and she was marked as a social outcast; even her family rejected her. Returning to Gorha ka Purwa, Phoolan continued to challenge Mayadin. She took him to court for unlawfully holding her father’s land. During court proceedings, she seldom controlled her emotions. Her dramatic outbursts often left the courtroom stunned.
In 1979, Mayadin accused Phoolan of stealing from his house. She denied the accusation, but the police arrested her anyway. In those three days in jail, she was beaten and raped repeatedly, then left in a rat-infested cell. She knew that her cousin was behind the injustice against her. The experience broke her body but ignited her hatred for men who routinely denigrated women. When released from prison, she was further shunned by her village and her family.
As a Dacoit
In 1979, a gang of dacoits abducted Phoolan. The gang leader, Baboo, who was an upper-caste Thakur, wanted to rape her. However, she was protected by Vikram, the deputy leader of the gang who belonged to Phoolan’s caste, Mallah. One night when Baboo attempted to rape Phoolan, Vikram killed him and assumed the gang leadership. Phoolan became Vikram’s second wife. The gang ransacked the village where Phoolan’s husband lived. Phoolan stabbed her estranged husband, and dragged him in front of the villagers. The gang left him lying almost dead by the road, with a note as a warning for older men who marry young girls.
Phoolan Devi learned how to use a rifle from Vikram, and participated in the gang’s activities, which consisted of ransacking high-caste villages and kidnapping upper-caste landowners for ransom. After every crime, Phoolan Devi would visit a Durga temple and thank the goddess for her protection. The gang hid out in the Chambal ravine.
Later, Shri Ram got out of jail and claimed the leadership of the gang. He belonged to the Thakur caste, and would make sexual advances towards Phoolan. This led to tensions between Shri Ram and Vikram, who made him apologize to Phoolan. When the gang would ransack a village, Shri Ram would beat and insult the Mallahs. This displeased the Mallahs in the gang, many of whom left the gang. When Shri Ram got a dozen Thakurs to join the gang, Vikram suggested the gang be divided into two, but Shri Ram refused. Shortly afterwards, Shri Ram and other Thakur members in the gang attempted to kill Phoolan and Vikram, who managed to escape. However, later they successfully killed Vikram Mallah, abducted Phoolan and locked her up in the Behmai village. Phoolan Devi was raped by many men in Behmai. After three weeks, she managed to escape with two other Mallahs from Vikram’s gang, helped by a lower-caste villager. She gathered a gang of Mallahs, that she led with Man Singh, a member of Vikram’s former gang. The gang carried out a series of violent robberies in north and central India, mainly 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 insist this is a myth.
Seventeen months after her escape from Behmai, Phoolan returned to the village, to take her revenge. On 14 February 1981, Phoolan and her gang marched into the Behmai village, dressed as police officers. The Thakurs in the village were preparing for a wedding. The gang demanded that her kidnappers be produced, along with all the valuables in the village. Details of what exactly happened are not available, but Phoolan is said to have recognized two men who earlier had sexually assaulted her and murdered her lover. When Phoolan’s gang failed to find all the kidnappers after an exhaustive search, she ordered her gang members to line up all the Thakur men in the village and shoot them. The dacoits opened fire and killed twenty-two Thakur men, most of whom were not involved in her kidnapping or rape. Later, Phoolan Devi claimed that she herself didn’t kill anybody in Behmai – all the killings were carried out by her gang members.
The Behmai massacre was followed by a massive police manhunt that failed to locate Phoolan Devi. V. P. Singh, the then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, resigned in the wake of the Behmai killings. Phoolan Devi began to be called the Bandit Queen. Dolls of Phoolan Devi dressed as Hindu goddess Durga were sold in market towns in Uttar Pradesh. She was glorified by much of the Indian media.
Surrender and Jail Term
Even two years after the Behmai massacre, the police weren’t able to capture Phoolan Devi. The Indira Gandhi Government decided to negotiate a surrender. By this time, Phoolan Devi 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 Mahatma Gandhi and Goddess Durga, and not to the police. She also required the following conditions:
- She would not get the death penalty.
- Her gang members should not get more than eight years in jail.
- Her brother should be given a government job.
- Her father should receive a plot of land.
- Her entire family should be escorted by the police to her surrender ceremony.
An unarmed police chief met her at a hiding place in the Chambal ravines. They walked their way to Bhind, where she laid her rifle before the portraits of Gandhi and Goddess Durga. The onlookers included a crowd of around 10,000 people and 300 police officer and the then chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Mr. Arjun Singh. Three hundred police were waiting to arrest her and other members of her gang who surrendered at the same time.
Phoolan Devi was charged with 48 crimes, including thirty charges of dacoity (banditry) and kidnapping. Her trial was delayed for eleven years, which she served in the prison. During this period, she was operated on for ovarian cysts and ended up with an involuntary hysterectomy. She was finally released on parole in 1994. Then she launched Eklavya Sena, a group that was aimed at teaching lower-caste people the art of self-defense. She married Umaid Singh, her sister’s husband and a New Delhi business contractor.
Shekhar Kapur made a movie Bandit Queen (1994) about Phoolan Devi’s life up through her 1983 surrender. 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 settled a suit against the filmmakers for about $60,000. The film brought her international recognition. At this time, she was re-indicted for murder and other charges.
Though she was illiterate, Phoolan composed her autobiography titled The Bandit Queen of India: An Indian Woman’s Amazing Journey From Peasant to International Legend, with help of two international authors, Marie-Therese Cuny and Paul Rambali.
Star Shakur has referred to herself as being a “Bandit Queen” once in a Youth Rebel Movement inspired and acknowledged by the movie and story of Phoolan Devi. Star Shakur’s alias and first EP Album entitled “The Bandit Queen” was named after this movie.
Phoolan Devi is the subject of the Boxcar Satan song Shoot Down The Sun from their 2003 album Upstanding and Indigent.
In 1996, Phoolan Devi ran for a seat in the Lok Sabha as a Samajwadi Party candidate and was elected. She was re-elected in 1999. In a 1999 interview, she explained her political objectives, stating, “My main goal is that things that only the rich and privileged have enjoyed until now should also be given to the poor: for example, drinking water, electricity, schools and hospitals… I’d like there to be seats reserved for women in government posts. Women should be educated in schools. And people should not be forcing them to get married at a very young age…the most important thing is equality. So that people can get employment, they can get proper food and drink, and also to be educated. And especially women – now they are really treated very lowly, like shoes! They should be treated on an equal basis. And like other countries that have progressed and have comforts, I also want my country and people to progress that way.” During her election campaign, she was criticized by the women widowed in the Behmai massacre. Kshatriya Swabhimaan Andolan Samanvay Committee (KSASC), a Kshatriya organization, held a statewide campaign to protest against her.
Some people thought she proved ineffective as an MP. She got a train stopped at unscheduled stops to meet her acquaintances in Uttar Pradesh. The railway minister, Ram Vilas Paswan played down the train incident and ordered only a nominal enquiry. Once, she visited the Gwalior jail (where she was imprisoned) to meet her former inmates. When the jail officers didn’t let her in due to the visiting hours rules, she abused them. Later, a suspension order was issued against the jail officials involved in the incident, without any explanation.
In 1998, Phoolan Devi claimed she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by some members of the British Parliament. She lost a bid for reelection in 1998, but was returned to office the following year.
On 25 July 2001, Phoolan Devi was fatally shot as she got out of her car at the gate of her New Delhi residence. The assailants also wounded her bodyguard and escaped in an auto rickshaw.
Sher Singh Rana, Dheeraj Rana, and Rajbir were accused of the crime. Sher Singh Rana allegedly surrendered in Dehradun. He confessed to the murder, saying he was avenging the deaths of 22 Kshatriyas at Behmai. He escaped from Tihar Jail in 2004, but was captured in April 2006 from Kolkata and sent to Rohini Jail, Delhi. The same year, the KSASC decided to honor Rana for “upholding the dignity of the Kshatriya community” and “drying the tears of the widows of Behmai”.
On 19 January 2007, Balender Singh, Phoolan’s bodyguard who had been witness to the shooting, identified Dheeraj and Sher Singh as the people who had fired on him and Phoolan respectively. Balender Singh was cross-examined on 2 February 2007.