The end of Phoolan Devi

Print edition : August 04, 2001

Bullets silence a dacoit-turned political fighter.

WHEN she was alive, Phoolan Devi had a larger-than-life image - of a victim of caste oppression and gender exploitation who fought back first by resorting to acts of gory revenge and later by moving on to the political plain. After her death, this image is sought to be metamorphosed into that of a phenomenal leader who waged a persistent struggle in the cause of the weak and the downtrodden, with a never-say-die spirit. The uncanny closeness of her sudden and gory death to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections and Chief Minister Rajnath Singh's announcement of a system of "quota within quota" (story on page 39) for the most backward castes (MBCs) will ensure that her image is kept alive for long in the political arena of Uttar Pradesh. Her life and the manner of her death have the makings of a myth.

Phoolan Devi arrives at Parliament House on July 23, the first day of the monsoon session.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Interestingly, as a member of the Lok Sabha Phoolan always jumped to the defence of her mentor Mulayam Singh Yadav whenever he was attacked by his rivals, mainly Bharatiya Janata Party members. She would try to shout them down. In death too, Phoolan seemed to have come to the rescue of the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) leader at a time when he was finding it difficult to counter Rajnath Singh's MBC "brahmastra". Phoolan belonged to the Malha community, one of the most backward castes among the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), which constitutes 7 per cent of the OBC population. Now Mulayam Singh can turn around and say that while Rajnath Singh talked about the welfare of the MBCs, in reality he was getting them killed. S.P. leaders have been making this allegation.

It is certain the S.P. will ensure that Phoolan's killing in broad daylight in the high-security area in the national capital on July 25 will continue to haunt U.P. politics at least until the Assembly elections are over. The fact that the killing took place a few yards from Rajnath Singh's residence on Ashoka Road and that his guards looked away when the shots were fired would only help the S.P.'s efforts. Thus, even before the details of her murder were known, the S.P. started attacking the BJP governments at the Centre and in Uttar Pradesh, accusing them of having withdrawn her security out of "caste bias". There is, however, little evidence to show either that her security had been scaled down or that she had ever asked for more security.

Party general secretary Amar Singh blamed Home Minister L.K. Advani and Rajnath Singh for the murder. S.P. workers in New Delhi and Lucknow raised slogans like "Rajnath hatyara hai, ati pichhdon ko maara hai" (Rajnath is a killer, he has killed one from the most backward castes). Mulayam Singh Yadav forced Phoolan's family members to conduct her cremation in Mirzapur, the Lok Sabha constituency in eastern Uttar Pradesh that she represented. Her body was taken by road from Varanasi to Mirzapur, although the plane that carried it to Varanasi could have landed in Mirzapur. The BJP draws its strength from eastern Uttar Pradesh, and Rajnath Singh and State BJP president Kalraj Mishra belong to this part of the State.

From the Chambal ravines, Phoolan had indeed come a long way, fighting every inch of it. The images of a diminutive woman in trousers, with a shawl thrown carelessly around her shoulders, a red bandana on her head, and an oversized gun in her hands at the time of her surrender to the Madhya Pradesh government in 1983 leave one wondering how she rose to become a people's representative, fight for the rights of the oppressed, and create a niche for herself in the world of politics dominated by men. But she did it. She got elected to the Lok Sabha twice in the face of adversity. Her physical presence may not have created ripples in the caste politics of U.P. as the elections approach, but her death will certainly do that.

The S.P.'s attempt to draw political mileage from Phoolan's death only serves to highlight the course U.P. politics has taken since the V.P. Singh government at the Centre decided to implement the Mandal Commission's recommendations on reservations. Mulayam Singh Yadav's decision to field Phoolan in Mirzapur in 1996 was primarily driven by considerations of caste arithmetic. The constituency has a significant population of Thakurs, besides Malhas and Julahas (weavers). His calculation was that if the Malhas and the Julahas got together, it was not difficult to beat the Thakurs. He was right. Phoolan, despite her background as a bandit, won the election with a convincing margin. After all, who could have symbolised the oppression unleashed by Thakurs in rural U.P. better than Phoolan, who was driven into the Chambal ravines by her traumatic experiences? She won despite the "vidhwa rath" (widow chariot) taken out by the widows of 20 Thakurs killed by her at Behmai in February 1981 and the propaganda by the BJP candidate who highlighted Phoolan's lack of education, her violent past and the fact that she faced 48 criminal cases, including for 22 murder charges.

Phoolan lost the next round of parliamentary elections in 1998. But she bounced back to win in 1999, owing mainly to her rapport with her constituents and the hard work that she had put in as an MP. She came to be viewed as a saviour by many in her constituency, which was evident from the almost perpetual throng of supporters at her Ashoka Road residence. Her grieving supporters said after her death that nobody ever went back empty-handed from her house.

During the winter session of Parliament she was seen leading a group of supporters to Parliament House. She said: "They should see the proceedings. Then only would they understand how hard we fight for them. Then only would they understand the meaning of democracy."

The scanty details revealed by Pankaj alias Sher Singh Rana, the prime suspect in the case, indicated that the motive for the murder was personal rather than political. Pankaj, who was arrested at Dehra Dun on July 27, said that he killed Phoolan to avenge the 1981 massacre of Thakurs at Behmai. The Delhi Police, however, was looking at the possible involvement of her husband Ummed Singh, owing to property disputes and her threat to leave him out of her will. Besides, the police were also examining whether Phoolan's turbulent marriage with Ummed and the involvement of Uma Kashyap, an associate of Phoolan, in the matter had something to do with the murder. On the day of the murder, Uma Kashyap was said to have reached Delhi in a car that Pankaj drove from Roorkee. She was reportedly in Phoolan's house at the time of the murder.

The murder has put the Centre in the dock as far as the question of security of VIPs is concerned. VIP security has been a topic of discussion ever since the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The killers pumped bullets into Phoolan from a point-blank range, drove away in a car, abandoned it a little distance away, took an autorickshaw to the Inter State Bus Terminus, and allegedly boarded a bus to Dehra Dun. In short, they literally got away with murder in a high-security region. The spot of the crime is barely a kilometre from Parliament House and the Parliament Street Police Station.

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