The very surreal stories of caste and crime in UP would be incomplete without the telling of the Bandit Queen story. It’s important to understand how the teenaged Phoolan Devi turned into a dacoit. Born into a very poor, lower-caste Nishad or Mallah family in Jalaun district of Uttar Pradesh, Phoolan Devi had a troubled childhood, often finding herself in situations where she and her parents had to do the bidding of the higher-caste Thakurs in their village. An early incident from her life reflects the great sense of pride Phoolan had even at that young age. Her family was cheated of their inheritance—a portion of land—by Phoolan’s own uncle, and young Phoolan fought a high-spirited battle to reclaim her family’s right from the uncle. During this dispute he repeatedly insulted and abused her. Phoolan Devi’s temper also did not go down well with those who called the shots in the region, and the poor Nishad family was warned and threatened by the dominant Thakurs of the region that Phoolan was a threat to the village system. It was under these circumstances that the eleven-year-old Phoolan was married off to a man three times her age, bringing her childhood days to an abrupt end.
But her ordeals were far from over. She made several attempts to run away; she later said she was fleeing her own husband, who had repeatedly abused her sexually. Even when Phoolan Devi somehow managed to return to her parents’ home, she was accused by a cousin of burgling her home, as a result of which Phoolan Devi ended up being imprisoned for a whole month. There, she claimed, she was physically tortured. The year was 1979, and she was just sixteen years old.
Having spent time in prison and having been sexually abused many times, it was highly unlikely that Phoolan Devi and her family could survive peacefully in their Thakur-dominated village. The only option left to the family was to get Phoolan Devi to return to her husband’s home, but she again ran away from there to avoid sexual exploitation. Left with nowhere to go, Phoolan Devi was forced to look for shelter in the dreaded Chambal ravines, and this proved to be the biggest turning point of her life, eventually leading to her becoming the ‘Bandit Queen’ of the region.
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The main gang operating in the region was led by Babu Gujjar, a dominant upper-caste man. Since Phoolan Devi was the only woman to enter in the gang world of Chambal, it was predictable that the gang leader would eye her, eventually making her his moll. But Phoolan Devi was not ready to accept the supremacy of Babu Gujjar. His attempts to convince Phoolan Devi to submit to him repeatedly failed; Babu Gujjar now decided that he would subdue her through physical assault. It was at this time that another gang member, Vikram Mallah, belonging to the same caste as Phoolan, came into the scene. He murdered Babu Gujjar, declared himself the leader of the gang and took Phoolan Devi as his lover, thereby protecting her from others. One of the important implications of the coming together of Phoolan Devi and Vikram Mallah was that the gang rivalries of the Chambal region took on a clear caste orientation, with the dominant Thakurs on one side and the Nishads on the other.
For the next couple of years, both Phoolan Devi and Vikram Mallah carried out several attacks in the region, the most famous of them being the one on Phoolan Devi’s own husband’s village. It was carried out in broad daylight, and Phoolan Devi herself dragged her husband out of his house and stabbed him in front of the villagers, leaving them numb and terrorized. Though her husband did not die, her gang left him lying on the road in a pool of blood, with a warning note that older men should not marry young girls. This was just the beginning of Phoolan Devi’s reputation as a terror in the heartland of the Chambal region. The dramatic style of Phoolan Devi and her gang members also gained notoriety; they often disguised themselves as policemen and looted trucks and containers on the highways. Landowners, often upper-caste Thakurs, also became targets of the gang. This was hardly surprising, considering Phoolan Devi’s old caste rivalry with the Thakurs.
The decisive challenge to Phoolan Devi and Vikram Mallah came from two Thakur dacoits, Sri Ram Singh and Lala Ram Singh, who were in jail at the time of Babu Gujjar’s murder and who had successfully managed to escape from prison before finally joining the gang led by the two Nishads, Vikram Mallah and Phoolan Devi, only to betray them later. In a rather direct challenge to Vikram Mallah’s authority in the gang, Sri Ram Singh and Lala Ram Singh killed him while he was sleeping and abducted Phoolan Devi. She was taken to the village of Behmai, less than 100 kilometres from Kanpur, where she was reportedly tortured, assaulted and gang-raped by Thakur men for a period of three whole weeks. Phoolan Devi had never before been subjected to such intense violence and torture. In fact, her torture might have gone on but for some of her gang members, who had once been loyal to her lover Vikram Mallah, coming to her rescue.
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After managing to escape from Sri Ram Singh and Lala Ram Singh, Phoolan Devi mobilized Vikram Mallah’s loyalists. A key name in this gang was Man Singh Mallah, a Nishad whom Phoolan Devi trusted most after Vikram Mallah’s death. This clearly meant a new wave of Thakur and Nishad rivalry in Chambal, and it was easy to speculate that both would, sooner or later, clash in the region. However, for almost seventeen months Phoolan Devi and her gang members did not have any clue as to where Sri Ram Singh and Lala Ram Singh might be hiding. Finally, on 14 February 1981, Phoolan Devi and her gang members stormed into the same Behmai village where she had been captured. At the time of their strike, the Thakurs were preparing for a wedding. The attack was well planned. Phoolan Devi split her forces into three to cover the entire village. She herself led the force that took the direct path to the village. At the wedding venue, she first of all demanded to have Sri Ram Singh and Lala Ram Singh brought out, but they were not to be found. Nobody would even give her a hint as to where the two Thakurs were. Incensed at the silence, Phoolan Devi ordered her gang members to line up every Thakur man at the venue. They were lined up and shot by her gang members at her command. Twenty-two of them died on the spot.
It was an operation typical of Phoolan Devi’s attacks, except that here the motive was purely revenge. This attack came to be known as the ‘Behmai massacre’. Almost every media report highlighted Phoolan Devi’s role as the undisputed daredevil dacoit queen of the region who had successfully avenged her sexual assault. The incident naturally shook the political circles in the state. It was not only an incident that pointed to the complete failure of law and order in the state but also demonstrated that the deadliest face of crime pivoted on caste in the state. The political fallout of the incident was therefore inevitable. UP chief minister V.P. Singh immediately resigned, taking moral responsibility for the massacre. This was perhaps the first instance in the history of UP politics when caste rivalry resulting in a bloodbath ultimately led a chief minister to resign.
Though the Behmai massacre made Phoolan Devi a legendary figure in the crime world of UP and Madhya Pradesh, which was clearly the climactic point of her criminal career, her influence declined considerably in a span of just two years. This was largely due to her deteriorating health and the massive crackdown by police forces in the interiors of Chambal. Many of Phoolan Devi’s gang members had died in these two years. This was now the right time for Phoolan Devi to seek political patronage, so she planned a backdoor surrender to the authorities in 1983, of course, on terms and conditions set by her.
As part of these terms, she agreed to surrender to the Arjun Singh-led Congress government of Madhya Pradesh, having secured a promise that she would be spared the death penalty. One of the conditions of the surrender was that she would lay down her arms before the pictures of Mahatma Gandhi and goddess Durga. The day of her surrender in Bhind in Madhya Pradesh turned out to be a curious and momentous event witnessed by an audience of almost 10,000, including Arjun Singh. The Bandit Queen of Chambal was charged with as many as forty-eight crimes, including thirty charges of banditry and kidnapping. Her trials in all these matters dragged on for over eleven years, which she spent as an undertrial in the Gwalior and Jabalpur jails.
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Phoolan Devi’s fortunes changed dramatically in 1994. The 1990s were the heyday of Mandal-Kamandal politics in Uttar Pradesh and the Centre. With the rise of the Yadavs under the leadership of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Dalits under the leadership of Mayawati, different caste combinations played out in UP, making and unmaking several governments during this period. One of the interesting and far-reaching implications of the churn in the backward-caste politics of the 1990s was the direct entry of mafia members and gangsters, often allied to rival caste groups, in the active politics of UP. They brought considerable muscle power and influence to the parties they joined and held a tight control on the caste groups they belonged to. It was at the peak of this backward-caste politics that the ground for Phoolan Devi’s entry into UP politics was prepared by then chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav.
As a first move, Phoolan Devi was released on parole in 1994 on the intervention of Vishambhar Prasad Nishad, the leader of the Mallah caste of boatmen to which Phoolan belonged. But Mulayam Singh Yadav went a step further; his government withdrew all charges against her in 1994 and cleared her way to enter politics. After two years of her release from jail, she contested the 1996 Lok Sabha election as a member of Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party from the Nishad-dominated Mirzapur constituency and registered a thumping victory. She served for two years, from 1996 to 1998, as a parliamentarian from Mirzapur and was re-elected from the same seat in the 1999 general election. But she was gunned down midway into her term by a Thakur, Sher Singh Rana, on 25 July 2001 outside her Delhi bungalow.
This excerpt from ‘From Lucknow to Lutyens: The Power and Plight of Uttar Pradesh’ by Abhigyan Prakash has been published with permission from HarperCollins India.