New Delhi: Chauhan ki asthi laaye the, na kaboo kisi ke aaye the, taale tod bhagaye the… kya jail, kya thana ke… Suno kaam Sher Singh Rana ke. (He brought back the ashes of Prithviraj Chauhan, he doesn’t come under anyone’s control, he broke the locks of even jails and police stations… These are the deeds of Sher Singh Rana.)
These are the lyrics of a song eulogising Sher Singh Rana, the lone convict in the 2001 murder of dacoit-turned-politician Phoolan Devi.
The song has 6 lakh views on YouTube and tries to make a hero out of Rana, a man who made headlines not only for the plot to murder Devi — who was a member of Parliament at the time of her killing — but also for his infamous jailbreak from the high-security Tihar prison in 2004.
Rana’s life is now being turned into a movie starring actor Vidyut Jammwal, and helmed by Toilet: Ek Prem Katha director Shree Narayan Singh. ThePrint takes detailed a look at just who Rana is.
Also read: How Phoolan Devi’s fortune changed during the prime of Mandal-Kamandal politics in UP
Phoolan Devi’s murder
Sher Singh Rana was born as Pankaj Singh Pundir in Roorkee, Uttarakhand. The 45-year-old Rana spent most of his early years in the state and attended DAV College, Dehradun. There he became involved in student politics, contesting his first student election in 1998. He became an office-bearer of the Uttaranchal Eklavya Sena in 2001. It was there that he was introduced to Phoolan Devi, who was an invitee at the function.
Devi, then a Samajwadi Party MP from Mirzapur constituency in Uttar Pradesh, and long hailed as a champion of the lower castes, was shot dead outside her South Delhi bungalow on 25 July 2001, by three masked gunmen, including Rana. In his confession in a press conference, Rana claimed the murder was an act of revenge for the 1981 Behmai massacre — the killing of 20 Thakur men in Uttar Pradesh’s Kanpur Dehat that Devi had been involved in to avenge her own abduction and rape. The incident, like Phoolan Devi’s subsequent killing, was seen as one of caste conflict.
Rana was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2014, but the court acquitted 10 of his fellow accused in the case for want of evidence. Rana appealed his sentence in the Delhi High Court in 2016, and was released on bail. There has been no further movement in the case since then.
Escape from Tihar
Rana turned himself in two days after Phoolan Devi’s murder in July 2001. He was taken to the high-security Tihar jail in Delhi, but broke out on 17 February 2004.
Rana’s escape caused a sensation — he calmly walked out of the jail with an accomplice who had previously pretended to be his lawyer and had now dressed himself up as a jail guard who was taking him to a court hearing. Once outside, they both got into a waiting autorickshaw that took them to the Kashmere Gate inter-state bus terminal (ISBT).
He is then believed to have made his way to Ranchi, Jharkhand, to pick up a fake passport with which he escaped to Bangladesh via Kolkata, and then on to Dubai and later Afghanistan, from where he claims to have brought back ashes of the celebrated Rajput king Prithviraj Chauhan.
Rana was re-arrested at a guesthouse in Kolkata in 2006 — two years after Sandeep Thakur, the man who helped Rana escape prison, was arrested in the jailbreak case. In a video he posted on YouTube in 2019, Rana claims to have handed over the “ashes” to Rajput organisations in Mainpuri, Uttar Pradesh.
Rana’s own website describes his prison break as heroic.
“Sher Singh Rana ji escaped from Tihar to bring that samadhi, reached Afghanistan via Kolkata, Bangladesh, Dubai and defeated the Taliban from Deyak village of Ghazni and brought it to his country and dedicated at the feet of Bharat Mata,” it states.
It was in prison that Rana forayed into mainstream politics for the first time: He contested the 2012 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections unsuccessfully as an independent candidate from Jewar, and also wrote a memoir ‘Jail Dairy: Tihar se Kabul-Kandahar Tak‘ around that time. The book chronicles his childhood, his years in student politics, including his term at the Eklavya Sena when he was introduced to Phoolan Devi, and his escape from prison.
He launched his own political party, the Rashtrawadi Janlok Party (Satya), in 2019. His party unsuccessfully contested the Haryana assembly elections that year. Rana held a 50-day state tour called ‘Rashtrawadi Janlok Parivartan Yatra’, with capital punishment for rape of a girl under 12, a farmers’ commission, and a law to ensure jobs to at least one person in every family as the party’s poll plank.
Reports said Samanya Pichda Alpsankhyak Kalyan Samaj was planning to field him from Indore in the 2019 general elections, but the plans never materialised.
In 2020, his party forged an alliance with Kashi Singh Airy’s Uttarakhand Kranti Dal for the 2020 Delhi elections and 2022 Uttarakhand assembly elections. The UKD is a regional party that Airy founded in 1979 to help the struggle for an independent hill state.
Phoolan Devi’s sister Munni Devi joined Rana’s party in October 2021.
(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)
Also read: Bandit Queen, MP, feminist: Phoolan Devi could never be put in a box