Can another Phoolan blossom?

Bandit queen-turned-politician Phoolan Devi was born on August 10, 1963 in a Mallah family in Jalaun district of UP. Following a troubled childhood and child marriage, Phoolan joined a gang of dacoits where too she faced abuse, and was raped by a group of dacoits from the higher castes after being held hostage. After she escaped, she collected her gang and killed 22 members of the village where she was raped. Two years later, she surrendered and was shifted to jail. After being in jail for 11 years, she was released on parole in 1994. In 1996, she became an MP from Mirzapur constituency in UP, and was re-elected in 1999. On July26,  2001, Phoolan Devi was shot dead by three gunmen outside her house in Delhi.

phoolan devi

Today is her 57th Birth Anniversary

Born into an extremely backward untouchable clan, the name Phoolan brings wings to the suppressed, and chaos among the feudal. She rendered an alternative to the Indian model of essentialist feminism. Barely literate and without having studied the theories of Simon De Beauvoir and Judith Butler, Phoolan sketched the blueprint of constructive feminism. Giving different meaning to proverbs around gender based assigned duties, dynamic Phoolan broke the taboo of bangles on soft female hands by gripping barrels and parliamentarian political power instead.

A downtrodden untouchable woman, Phoolan’s struggle began inside the home. She then went on to win against the enemies outside the home. One of five girls with only one brother, Phoolan of a poor (Mallah) boatman family had the courage to save resources and claim back her ancestral land from her relatives back to her father. She broke the patriarchal myth about sons only able to save the parental legacy. Speared in cousins and upper caste sarpanch eyes, she was kidnapped and assaulted by a gang of robbers. She was badly molested and forced to fetch water, in the nude, from a well. She was brutally gangraped by more than 22 thakur men at Bahemai village by gang leaders Lala Ram Singh and Shriram Singh. Kalpi police station shamelessly responded to her parentsattempts to file a criminal complaint, saying they need not to panic, as ‘Mallahs dacoits have taken a Mallah girl’.

Beside this,Phoolan at the age of 11 got married to Putti Lal 30, more than twice her age. She was sexually assaulted and harassed before she had reached puberty. Her poor health and husband’s bad intentions compelled her to go back to her mother. Meanwhile her husband married another woman, Phoolan worked as a slave to both after being forced to return.

It was when she was kidnapped by Babu Singh Gujjarthat she fell in love with Vikram Singh Mallah, a member of his gang, who too, was a victim of caste based assault. Being kidnapped only for mercenary purposes, however, it was difficult for Vikram to see his love being victimised through the shameless sexual thirst of BabuGujjar. Vikram finally shot him dead and became the commander of the team providing military and guerilla training to Phoolan. They became gang leaders, changed the modus-operandi and motives of the gang, helping people from lower castes and untouchables. However leaving Phoolan and her mission midway, Vikram fell prey to an upper caste ‘Thakur’ conspiracy (hegemonical and patriarchal), and was murdered. From then on, Phoolan with Vikram’s close friend Mann Singh took an oath to avenge him. She finally shot dead 22 personnel of Bahemai who had earlier gangraped her.

Catherine MacKinnon an American radical feminist analysed US rape laws and called out the inherent patriarchy of the system. In the casteist and patriarchal mill Phoolan was crushed. Her oppressors tried to prevent her from getting justice by defaming and discrediting her. If Phoolan were educated like Catharine perhaps, she too might have been able to call out the Indian legal system as both patriarchal and casteist. Instead of getting justice she was brutally sexually assaulted by the system. The Indian system could stretch out and seek help from aninfamous criminal,Nirbhay Singh in the Archaeological Survey Of India’s quest to locate the 8th century Bateshwar Temple.  It remains myopic and self-limiting in finding prerequisite ways to eradicate all-prevalent and dangerous roots of the evils of patriarchy and casteism. It has no space to listen to the victims of systemic crimes.

In a letter to Roy Maxham, a famous British author of Outlaw, Phoolan expressed that she was cursed to be born in a place like India and she heartily wished to reborn a place where women are given equality. Phoolan expressed that while suicide was an option, that wouldn’t  change the situation as a whole. She ventured to change the pattern at least. Though conspiratorially trapped within a self-defeating system which could not come to her aid, she couldn’t even afford the legal fee to her advocate, Maxham, Dr.Majid and a few others had extended great assistance to Phoolan during imprisonment

The shameful statement of a doctor at the hospital where Phoolan underwent surgery for ovarian cysts and a hysterectomy during her imprisonment, said, “We don’t want Phoolan Devi breeding more Phoolan Devi’s”  says it all. Is such an outlook expected from a doctor who deals with patients, among whom are rape survivors?

There is a dire need for a quota within the quota of reservation for women in parliament and other institutions. A low caste woman is thrice oppressed, for being Dalit, economically marginalised and a woman. The Indian feminist movement needs to break out of its selective feminism, which blindly ignores subaltern low caste women.

Listen to SushmaSwaraj’s statement regarding SadhviPragyaand her allegedly explicit role in the Malegaon terror attack case (besides her pro-Godse views). Swaraj said in an interview that every saint has a past and every communal person a future.After being given a ticket by the Samajwadi Party, Phoolan’s claims in a rally were prophetic, “Are mere bhaiyon, jinhone mere kolutaunko jab maine loot liya…aurwodakaitnahin to main dakaitkaise” (My brothers,men who robbed me,I robbed them..If they aren’t dacoits how can I be?)

Citing the likeness to the character, Jhuniya inPremchand’sGodaan, a pretty beautiful gwalan (shepherd) as a subject of sexual thirst of all upper caste men. However JhuniyaYadav was in love with Gobar (dung). Every low caste woman has been seen as the sexual birth-right (property)of upper caste men. The women who accept their birthright are ideal even culturised, those who resist are partly blossoming flowers; but the one who rejected this and tried to reform this was ultimately the Phoolan, a fully blossomed flower. Phoolan was the rebellious Jhuniya, who was determined to teach lesson to casteist and patriarchal men. In a speech at Dubai, Phoolan said, she had just attempted to teach the ignorant upper caste men that the inhumanly treated low caste, backward, Dalits are also human like them and could respond. They were not mere insects.

For the first time in Asian history, a woman “surrendered” amidst such ceremony. A crowd of around 15,000 watched as Phoolan handed over her weapons by waving them around the crowd putting her rifle at the chief minister’s feet with Gandhi in the background on stage, on condition of security, health, education and land for her people. Before this she had been tortured and also kept among mentally challenged women in prison.

Finally, all cases against her were quashed and she was provided some relief from by then socialist leader, ex-chief minister, UP, Mulayam Singh. She even started campaigning with Lalu Prasad, RamvilasPaswanon social justice issues. Mulayam Singh offered her a seat to contest from the parliamentary seat of Mirzapur. She reached parliament in 1996 and again in 1999 on theSamajwadi Party ticket. Phoolanalways maintained that it was because of the support and courage of Mulayam Singh that such an exploited woman like her was able to stand for elections. From the start she leaned towards socialist principles, and she remained a staunch supporter of Mulayam in Parliament.

Being badly exploited and almost killed by the casteism prevailing in Hindu religion, once she wrote from prison to Maxham about changing religion. However Maxham working at Canterbury Cathedral himself was not too religious and could suggest nothing. She with her husband Ummed Singh reached Deekshabhoomi, where after noting discrepancies in Hinduism Dr.Ambedkar too had accepted Buddhism with vows. She believed that Buddhism could get her salvation.

But Phoolan’s blossoming fragrance was celebrated only among the subjugated backwards, lower castes and untouchables.This fragrance still stung the patriarchal, casteistmindset. She was the first parliamentarian lady to be paradoxically shot dead in an extra high security zone while returning for lunch during the Parliamentary session.

Similar to Rosalind C Morris and GayatriSpivak’s notion “Can Subaltern Speak?” another question lies “Can another Phoolan blossom?” Are we tolerant enough to allow a Phoolanto bloom? Does a Phoolantoday have the potential to bloom by herself? The Unnao rape case, the Nirbhaya incident and increasing targeted violence against women inside and outside the home are real impediments from Phoolans blossoming today.


-The subaltern, the text and the critic: Reading PhoolanDevi;Anuradha  Ramanujan
-Bhavisyakistree vimarsh;Vyawastha;page139 to187;Mamta Kaaliya
-The true story of Bandit Queen;MalaSen
-Gender trouble:Gender Trouble and subversion of identity;Judith
-The life and legend of India’s Bandit Queen;MichaelSynder November 13,2017.
-Outlaw: India’s Bandit Queen and Me;RoyMaxham

(The author is a scholar at University Of Delhi)




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