In the cop-and-bandit chase between the reality and myth of Phoolan Devi, the latter had always galloped ahead. For some, she was the cold-blooded leader of outlaws who sent 22 unarmed Thakurs in Behmai to their death in 1981, a dacoit carrying out the petty logic of reprisal.
For others, she was the angry young lower-caste woman who spoke the language of her upper-caste, male oppressors, and whose entire life — from her rebellion against her family in Gurha ka Purwa village, Uttar Pradesh, to her becoming a leader of Mallah bandits in Chambal — was a defiant challenge to both caste and patriarchy. A foul-mouthed, gun-wielding woman became one of the most magnetic myths of modern India. A Delhi trial court’s order on Friday, convicting Sher Singh Rana of the murder of Phoolan Devi, reminds us, however, that this was also a real-life story that had, till now, eluded closure.
On July 25, 2001, Phoolan Devi, then a Samajwadi Party MP from Mirzapur, UP, was shot dead by three men outside her Delhi bungalow. She was 37. A few days later, Rana surrendered, proud to have paid off the Behmai massacre. The legends had ceased to be spun long before — Shekhar Kapur’s 1994 film based on her life, Bandit Queen, ends with her surrender to the police in 1983. For a long while after that, it seemed Phoolan had left behind the legacy of the ravines. In 1996, two years after the Mulayam Singh government in UP dropped all charges against her, she contested and won a Lok Sabha election, a symbol of lower-caste political assertion.
When her assassins pumped five bullets into her on an ordinary day in Delhi, the grim adage about those who live by the sword was, no doubt, on many minds. But that neat circularity is the illusion of myth. She might have been rebel, criminal or canny survivor, but justice has come to Phoolan Devi now, 13 years later.
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