Slow, steady reimagining of Phoolan as a caste icon

Ashwini Bhatnagar writes: Phoolan Devi's gruesome story of exploitation and retaliation may now well have become a fairy tale of grit, determination and rare courage in the face of formidable odds

Phoolan Devi with former prime minister V P Singh in New Delhi in 1995. She became an MP from Mirzapur a year later. (Express Archives/Naveen Jora)

Written by Ashwini Bhatnagar

On July 25, 2001, Member of Parliament from Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh, Phoolan Devi returned to her Ashoka Marg residence in Delhi for lunch. As she reached her home, three men emerged from a green Maruti car and fired five shots at her. Two bullets smashed her head, while the other three hit her body. She fell on the floor as blood gushed out. The Dasyu Sundari, Vikram Mallah ki Preyasi (Bandit Beauty, Beloved of Vikram Mallah) had died — much as others had died at her hands two decades ago.

Noted columnist, the late Khushwant Singh, had dubbed her as the ‘Flower Child of India’, taking a cue from her first name Phoolan. But, she was no flower; rather she was as hard as nails. “Phoolan’s two great gifts are rabid cunning and fatal charm,” Sunil Sethi, a noted critic, once wrote, “An irresistible combination and a great achievement in a woman who is so brutal.” Former prime minister Mrs Indira Gandhi commented that she was nothing to look at when she was shown Phoolan’s picture a couple of weeks before her surrender.

But during her days as a ‘dreaded dacoit’ who massacred 22 persons in Behmai in 1981, the hype around Phoolan fascinated Khushwant Singh so much that he travelled to the badlands of UP to speak to people associated with her and told them that he was researching for an article for Playboy.

In fact, within days of the killing of 22 Thakur men in retaliation for her repeated rape for 23 days in Behmai, Phoolan had become a poster girl for various people for various reasons. For one, it was for the first time in the history of the Chambal ravines that a woman dacoit had indulged in a large-scale shootout. Second, it was also the first time that a dacoit from the lowly Mallah (boatmen) community had taken on the upper caste Thakurs. It was a watershed moment for the Mallahs — one of their own had stood up against caste hierarchy. It was unthinkable, but Phoolan did it with a cruel flourish. Third, a woman had sought revenge not only for her gangrape but also for the killing of her lover Vikram Mallah.

Interestingly, as the notoriety of Phoolan grew after Behmai, two Thakur chief ministers, Arjun Singh of Madhya Pradesh and V P Singh of Uttar Pradesh, vied to eliminate her through anti-dacoity operations. Chambal ravines form the border between UP and MP.

Phoolan evaded their massive dragnet for two years. It was no mean feat. She finally accepted the olive branch offered by Arjun Singh and surrendered before the CM on terms dictated by her. It was seen as yet another victory for lower castes.

But it was UP CM Mulayam Singh Yadav who politically exploited the caste angle of the surrendered dacoit. On the suggestion of Vishambhar Prasad Nishad, a leader of the Mallah community, Mulayam Singh had Phoolan released on parole in 1994. As many as 48 cases of dacoity and kidnapping lodged against her were withdrawn by the UP government. Phoolan was then prepped for the 1996 parliamentary elections in which over 13 per cent Mallah votes spread over 18 districts of the state, chiefly in eastern UP, were at stake. Phoolan won the Mirzapur seat easily. In 1999, she won from the seat again, but midway between her term, Sher Singh Rana gunned her down. The Thakurs have taken revenge for the Behmai killings, he said to police while surrendering.

Phoolan Devi remained a largely trumped-up personality throughout her life, and more so after her death. She was first dubbed as a rebel, a crusader for rights of the lower castes among the OBCs, and then as a messiah who deserved a place in the pantheon of women achievers.

Phoolan’s persona of a “dacoit-achiever” spread quietly over the years, aided and abetted by political leadership of the Mallah community. In April 2019, her picture was painted on a boundary wall of Indore railway station along with 35 other women achievers, including Mother Teresa and Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi. When the railway administration removed the painting, the local Mallah community protested. Rajput leaders, on the other hand, objected to the painting.

In March 2021, Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi’s Nadi Adhikar Yatra included Mirzapur, which was seen as a bid to woo the riverside community. Though she made no reference to Phoolan, her 2019 boat yatra was also aimed at wooing the fishing community, among other objectives, in the run-up to the Lok Sabha election.

The recent instance of Varanasi police refusing entry to Bihar minister Mukesh Sahani in the city for the installation of a statue of Phoolan Devi marks the importance of the Mallahs as a solid vote bank which can help swing the 2022 UP Assembly elections. Sahani’s move would have resurrected the Mallah vs Thakur ghost and driven the former away from the BJP. CM Yogi Adityanath is a Thakur.

It is clear that 20 years after her death, Phoolan Devi still has heft when a socio-political push comes to a shove. Her gruesome story of exploitation and retaliation may now well have become a fairy tale of grit, determination and rare courage in the face of formidable odds. It lives up to the Dasyu Sundari, Mallah baghi hype even after her death.

An author, documentary filmmaker and former journalist, the writer covered Phoolan Devi’s time in the ravines and her surrender for The Pioneer, Lucknow

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