Anuja Pande, "Phoolan Power," SUNDAY, 14-20 July 1996, p. 38-40.


Now an MP, the former bandit queen holds up a train and browbeats jail staff to assert herself

It is not clear whether crackers were lit or not. But thanks to the newly-elected MP, Phoolan Devi, the driver of the Kanpur-bound Shatabdi Express, Tulsi Das Ram, got a royal send-off. Not only did the MP ensure the train was stopped at two unscheduled stations -- Tundla and Etawah -- but she also drove with him the engine on his last ride in the train as a driver.

Ram was thrilled, but other passengers and the government were not. Patience in the United Front government is running thin with Phoolan Devi's exploits. Members of those parties supporting the government predict that it is events like this which will do irreparable damage to the coalition's credibility.

If it was one incident, it could have been overlooked. But Phoolan tried to assert her rights as MP again, barely two days after this incident. She claims she visited Gwalior jail (where she was incarcerated for several years) to call on her former inmates with fruits and gifts.

Jail authorities say she came outside visiting hours. In any case, she was denied entry. The jail staff was unmoved when she stamped her foot, abused them and insisted the jail be opened to let her in because she was an MP. She wasn't let in.

Phoolan herself was glib in her defence. She said she had done nothing wrong, broken no rules. "Hum par bade bade julm huye train. Hum nahin mare to mein akhbar mein likhne se kya marenge. Balki aur jor se ladenge (I have suffered so much cruelty. But I refused to die. So I'm not likely to die because of what newspapers write)," she told reporters.

People still quake at Phoolan's name, even those in her own Party.

"No one will talk to you," said a member of the Samajwadi Party which has sent Phoolan to Parliament, when SUNDAY sought the party's account of Phoolan's recent exploits. "We will have to speak the truth and that will go against the party. And in any case, if we speak about her, our mothers, sisters and daughters will be targets of Phoolan's verbal bullets. And I assure you, those are as bad as bullets from a gun."

"She has suffered a lot. After all, there are people who do much worse and get away with it because their crimes are civilised. She doesn't mean to harm anyone: she just wants to enjoy the same kind of power she had when she was the leader of the 'giroh'," said another SP member who refused to be named. The problem seems to be that power has now been restored to Phoolan Devi, but she is greedy for respectability, which is denied to her.

When Phoolan surrendered in 1983 before the images of Mahatma Gandhi and Goddess Durga (those were the conditions on which she gave up arms: she didn't trust the UP Police and insisted that she would only surrender to the Madhya Pradesh Police, and that she would lay down her arms only before Gandhi and God, not to the police), she obviously saw a bigger role for herself.

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She holds the key to a whole community -- the Mallahs whom she tried to avenge when she shot down 20 Thakurs in Behmai village for the way they had treated the Mallahs. Clearly, both Arjun Singh who set up her surrender, and Mulayam Singh Yadav, who guided her into politics, saw her potential.

When she came out of jail, Phoolan Devi launched the Eklavya Sena, a group formed to teach lower caste men and women the art of self-defence. The Eklavya Sena soon acquired a greater purpose. It is no coincidence that the driver of the Shatabdi Express was a member of the Eklavya Sena.

Organisation is a strong point with her: and those who helped her conduct her campaign said she ran a brilliantly organised campaign. But respectability still eluded her. Her marriage to Umaid Singh was part of the need to be reintegrated into society. Umaid Singh was Phoolan's sister's husband whom she 'stole' . She made it clear that she wanted Umaid to be a husband, not a consort, and announced that she'd warned him not to drink because "aadmi sharab pee ke hi auraton ko marte hain aur kya kya bakte hain".

Phoolan Devi's crisis and her need to identify with something is understandable. What defies explanation is the attitude of the rest of the United Front towards the behaviour of a colleague.

Ram Vilas Paswan, railway minister and Phoolan's 'rakhi' brother, tried to play down the train incident. Although that sector of Indian Railways is a 'fast sector' and an unscheduled stop could have resulted in a serious mishap, he laughed away the episode and ordered only a nominal enquiry. Had a BJP MP done the same thing, heads would certainly have rolled.

As for the incident in the Gwalior Jail, a suspension order was issued against the jail officials who had refused to let Phoolan in outside the visiting hours. Why this was done, nobody is prepared to say.

Instead, UF members privately recycle Phoolan Devi's own defence, though the degree of sophistication depends on who you speak to. The bottom line always is: society was unjust to her as member of a lower caste, as a women, as a human being. The principal Opposition party, the BJP, which has also developed a stake in wooing the backward classes, has preferred not to comment on the incident for the same reason.

The United Front and the Janata Dal have always prided themselves on speaking "for the underdog". But what when the slogan of 'ending exploitation' becomes as much a political cliche as exploitation itself?

The Phoolan Devi episode is about the flowering of Phoolan as a different human being, but it also illustrates the limits of power politics in helping to achieve that change.

Anuja Pande/New Delhi

== Captions to the 3 pictures with the article =============
1. Caption to Picture 1: Phoolan Devi with husband Umaid Singh: no looking back
2. Caption to Picture 2: Railway minister Ram Vilas Paswan (centre), Phoolan's 'rakhi' brother, played down the Shatabdi incident, although that sector is a 'fast sector' and an unscheduled stop could have resulted in a serious mishap
3. Caption to picture 3: Phoolan Devi surrenders: farewell to arms

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