Of power and vulnerability

Print edition : August 04, 2001

IT happened around noon on the polling day of the parliamentary elections of 1998. While travelling through Mirzapur constituency, near the small town of Auriyan, news came that polling booths had been captured by goondas at a village about seven kilometres from the main road. The village had about 5,000 voters.

February 1983: Phoolan Devi surrenders before Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Arjun Singh at Bhind.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

As in most such cases, the upper-caste Thakurs prevented Dalits and people from other backward communities such as Chamar, Kurmi and Malha from voting. Beaten up by the Thakurs when they tried to reach the polling booth, the people from the backward communities stood at a distance. Most of them had bleeding injuries, and the tension was palpable. The polling personnel, apparently terrorised into submission by the Thakurs, averred that there was no problem in the booth. The polling process was fair and smooth, they said, and claimed that they had no clue as to why a group of people in the village complained of malpractices.

As I was talking to the officers, a white four-wheel drive entered the premises. As Phoolan Devi emerged from the vehicle, there was a roar of excitement from the group of people who had been prevented from voting. They rushed towards the booth. She entered the booth with folded hands and started speaking to the polling officials: "I have come to beseech you with folded hands that you should carry out your duties freely and fairly and allow everybody to vote. If a group of people are not allowed to vote and if you are not able to prevent that, you would be failing in your duties. Please do not create such a situation." Having said this, she changed her posture. Putting one foot forward and keeping a hand on her hips, she told the officers: "I am telling you all this with great humility, but you must know that I can speak a different language too." For anyone who had heard about Phoolan Devi, the message was clear. The polling officer's face darkened. In her presence, the first batch of Dalits and other backward-caste voters exercised their franchise.

The display of power was not the only aspect of her personality that this writer witnessed that day. Her helplessness while dealing with the system was also evident. After she left the village, one of her supporters suggested that a complaint be filed with the district authorities about the booth-capturing. But there was a problem. None in the group, including Phoolan Devi, knew how to write a complaint. The car was stopped at a couple of wayside villages and local workers of the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) workers were goaded into writing the complaint. Throughout this exercise, Phoolan Devi's face reflected the agony of not being able to handle the situation on her own. She was a Member of Parliament but could not take care of something seemingly as simple as writing out a complaint.

There was an element of vulnerability in Phoolan Devi's personality even when she wielded legitimate power. Despite getting elected twice to the Lok Sabha and being in politics for over five years, she never seemed to be comfortable with the establishment and its rules. The pressures of the legitimised world that Phoolan Devi was trying to fit herself into since 1994 were at times so heavy that she castigated "this world" openly. Speaking to this writer during the 1996 Lok Sabha election campaign at Mirzapur, Phoolan Devi said that the fundamental difference between life in Delhi and other cities and in the Chambal ravines revolved around deceit and duplicity. "In Delhi and Lucknow, people talk sweetly and stab you in the back. In the ravines, love and war were all out in the open. That was much safer."

Her unease with the system increased whenever attempts were made to reopen the cases against her, including the one relating to the Behmai massacre of 1981. These were sought to be reopened several times and Phoolan Devi had to go into hiding a couple of times to evade arrest. When she was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1996, Phoolan Devi hoped that she would get parliamentary immunity. That the hope was belied also intensified her anger against "this world".

However, throughout this struggle she did not forget one aspect of her new life - that she was the most important symbol of her Malha community's fight for social dignity. Many among this fishing community glorified her for everything she did, including the atrocities she allegedly committed against the upper castes, particularly Thakurs. The Malhas thronged Phoolan Devi's public meetings and turned out in large numbers at the polling booths to "give victory to their Phoolan Didi (sister)". This writer has heard many of them say that she was the first person from their community to stand up to upper-caste oppression.

She never lost a chance to praise Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, who gave her "an opportunity to serve her people". Despite her personal limitations and temperament, she exuded warmth while dealing with representatives of these segments. In fact, she was popular among the fishing communities all over the country and had a significant following even in the South, particularly Tamil Nadu.

Could the social awareness that Phoolan inspired be sustained in her absence? The collective consciousness of the Malhas and other backward communities might slip back into the mould of submission, which characterised it for centuries. If this happens, the social progress achieved in States like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the past decade will be reversed. Creative intervention from the forces of social justice alone can prevent such a reversal.

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