Published September 5, 2012 | 5:19 pm
By Vidya Bhushan Rawat
Phoolan Devi is synonymous with multiple images. Many feel she was a criminal while for numerous others she was a rebel who avenged the humiliation meted out to her. Howsoever you portray her but the fact was that Phoolan was a very simple yet determined woman who did not accept to live the life of ignominy even after so many violations. Phoolan definitely was not your ordinary woman and needs a fairer appraisal.
Phoolan Devi, the iconic rebel of Chambal’s terrible ravines, fell to the bullets of an arrogant upper caste Thakur who felt that he must avenge what she did to the people of Behmai in district Kanpur Dehat on 14 February 1981 in which 20 people were killed. It needs to be investigated as to how a man got so close to Phoolan Devi and nurtured this persistent hatred towards her when she had embraced peace and served her sentence dutifully in Jail.
In democratic societies, we feel that people make mistake and change too. We do not continue with a perception that a person is guilty for ever. We cannot punish a person for similar crime over and over again. Secondly, democracy also gives us an opportunity to look into our own fault lines which compel people to take law in their own hands and retaliate. Democracy provides us opportunity to introspect and change for better.
It is easier to term her as most ‘dreaded’ dacoit by those who were victim of the gang she belonged to yet people who have seen her and her politics later can verify that she was very naïve and simple woman who definitely enjoyed media presence and political patronage. She was courageous and revolted against the patriarchy and caste oppression physically, yet politically she remained absolutely apolitical.
Her story was greatly packaged to suit the interest of political people who actually exploited her ‘celebrity’ status. The fact was that she was never political but definitely wanted to give something to her village and her community. The extraordinary story of her life ensured that the market forces used that further with more spices so that a perfectly super hit product was launched for business. The books on her life sold in millions abroad. The film made by Shekhar Kapoor fetched him award despite the known fact that Phoolan had aversion to many of the scenes in it including one where she was shown being paraded naked.
After her surrender to the then Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh Mr Arjun Singh, Phoolan thought of living a life in her own terms and conditions. She wanted to enjoy that life of family and womanhood which was denied to her due to various reasons during her youth days. In fact in his memoirs Arjun Singh has mentioned how he was touched by Phoolan’s offer to serve him when he was admitted for heart treatment at Escorts Hospital, Delhi.
Phoolan was released after having served nine years in prison. Mulayam Singh Yadav was keen on using her in the Lok Sabha elections in 1996, particularly by fielding her from Nishad dominated Mirzapur constituency in Uttar Pradeh. Prior to that, Phoolan also came in touch with Ram Vilas Paswan and created an Eklavya Sena to fight for the rights of the backward communities.
Phoolan enjoyed this patronage without understanding that the political parties had their own agenda to exploit her celebrity status. Uttar Pradesh has a powerful Dalit woman as its leader. Yes, Mayawati was hugely popular and known for her no-nonsense approach. There was no chance for political parties to break hold of Mayawati over Dalit and MBC (most backward communities) and hence attempts were made to create a brand of Phoolan Devi among the MBCs so that they broke away from BSP.
In the 1996 general elections, Phoolan was elected on Samajwadi party ticket from Mirzapur. She was again elected in 2001. In between she had married to Ummed Singh, a Delhi-based person whose own political ambitions were too high. While there were reports of some misunderstandings between the two and Phoolan feeling highly uncomfortable with Ummed approaching political parties and trying to bargain on her behalf.
Phoolan wanted to see things herself and was a caring woman as many of her biographers had pointed out but she was also pushed for many unnecessary demands that she used to put with her publishers and film makers. Her close associates had realized that Phoolan was a good product to mint money. Samajwadi Party used her to mobilize the MBCs while at the same point of time courting the Thakurs too with Amar Singh as the chief architect of Party’s new agenda of Yadav-Kshatriya brotherhood. In that din, the original issue of social justice and caste discrimination disappeared.
It is shocking to see that the Samajwadi party which used Phoolan to spread its own agenda has completely forgotten her and ignored her legacy after her death. Today, travelling to Phoolan’s village in Shekhupuragudha, in Kalpi, we come across many realities of life and political ignorance of Phoolan Devi.
It is strange that people do not even talk about Phoolan at any of these places from Kalpi to Devkali where she stayed with her maternal uncle for many years. From Devkali, a beautiful bumpy drive to her village shows that despite her being Member of Parliament nothing changed for this village. Most of the villagers do not even want to remember her as they feel she failed to do anything for the village. There is a general affection for her in the village that she was a wonderful woman, a devotee of ‘Durga ma’ and had planned to build a huge temple in the village but could not do so. Everyone knew that she had earned lot of money, had so many houses in Delhi but they felt that it was her husband who was responsible for everything. They allege that the real story of Phoolan’s murder has never come out and the facts might be different than what is being portrayed.
Was it a mistake on part of Phoolan to join politics? I ask this question to Phoolan Devi’s younger Sister Ramkali who is suffering from fever and is taking care of her mother in their ancestral village. Both Mother and daughter are living in the house which reflects that how people dreamt of having things with the help of Phoolan and how their dream crashed with her death. She still feels that Phoolan was so simple and that Ummed Singh married her for money and property. He was already married and this information was not known to Phoolan. She was not comfortable. In the political manipulations of Samajwadi Party, Phoolan was used and thrown away. Her sister now feels that she would not have done so though like Phoolan she, too, has campaigned for the party and is ready to so again.
It made me sad to see that Phoolan’s mother and sister Ramkali do not have anything and both are suffering in poverty and neglect. Even an ordinary Member of Parliament or assemby, after serving one term, mints money and at least makes life of his family secure but here is a woman, much maligned, who could do nothing for her family despite being a Member of Parliament for two terms as her own family is now languishing in humiliation.
I visited this village twice to meet Phoolan’s mother and sister. My first attempt failed as when I reached their home it was bolted from outside and their neighbor said that they have gone to work. I could never visualize that Phoolan’s family needed to work and then I just unbolted the door, ventured inside to find the condition of her home which looked better as some Indira AwasYojna fund was used for it. I informed my friends that I must visit this place again to meet the family and convey their message. Hence this time, the meeting was planned in advance with a promise that I compensated for their one day work which went into speaking with me.
Phoolan’s mother is not well and had gone to be with her brother Shiv Naraian who works with police in Gwalior. Her younger sister Munni too lives in Delhi. One sister is no more while Ram Kali who has a son, is taking care of her mother. The family property was already grabbed by her cousin Maiyadin as the family property of her father did not come to her because her ‘Tau’ had played fraud with them. Her father by dint of his hard work could construct a semi-pucca house where they used to live.
Ramkali clearly shows how her sister was very brave and could fire at the flying birds. She was so courageous that once in the cross fire she actually threatened the police inspector to provide her safe passage and she succeeded. The family faced a lot of police atrocities as they would always ask them about her whereabouts. The problem with the family was they had to cook for them whenever they would come to the village and police knew it so to save themselves from the police brutalities the family would never deny anything about Phoolan.
I ask her whether Phoolan ever helped the family. Ramkali says that whenever she would come she would pay every member of family some money like one hundred rupees, etc. It was never a big amount but we were happy in those one hundred, five hundred rupees. She loved dry fruits and would distribute in the family, too.
Why didn’t Phoolan help them build their house? And the answer to this was that Phoolan used to talk a lot about her dreams. She was basically a dreamer who wanted to enjoy good things in life. She wanted to do a lot for the village but unfortunately she could not do anything as Ummed Singh exploited her and took away her property.
Ramkali’s son has learnt computers but he met with a serious accident several years back when he was going on the roof of the train. Though he survived the accident, he has developed some psychological problems and the family is not able to go to a doctor for his treatment. Phoolan’s mother was compelled to go to Gwalior to be with her son because of the same reason as she could not afford any medical treatment. Today, Ramkali is suffering from ailments and her mother cannot go to work due to old age and hence entire burden of running the family is on her. Ummed Singh rarely bothered about them and none of them got a single penny from others. Relatives have almost abandoned them and the community is not much interested.
I visited the temple of ‘Durga Ma’ in Kalpi where Phoolan would often come for prayer and offerings. Phoolan had immense faith in Ma Durga as she believed that her strength lied there. At the Kalpi temple, I went up on the hillock to see where Phoolan used to visit.
An old saint (not in saffron, but in white cloths) was sitting at the temple called ‘Vyas’ temple. After much probing, I came to know that the priest was not a Brahmin but from the Nishad community that Phoolan Devi belonged to. He displayeded his knowledge of English and Sanskrit to me and claimed that it was the land of Gods and that Vyasji wrote Mahabharat there only. I felt that a priest from Phoolan’s community means the impact of Phoolan Devi in the social lives of people but then after visiting the village many things came to my mind which needs to be explained here.
As Phoolan’s family languishes to ignominy in her native village, it is important to understand that the movement cannot be built around hypes and romanticizing an individual trait. Phoolan’s life is an example of a woman from backward community taking up arm against her humiliation and living a life of honor rather than suffering inside the four walls of one’s house.
That story captured the imagination of women and men world over who respect human liberty and freedom. It is an example that women who are wronged in this society should fight out the battle with courage and dignity and that anyone who has violated should be shamed and not the other way round. Phoolan that way is a role model for girls who suffer life-time humiliation and helplessness after being violated.
But when we package Phoolan into a political model then it is bound to fail. Phoolan’s personal traits did not compensate her lack of political understanding and ideological moorings. Her community, the Mallah and Nishads, are hard working as well as strong in many fronts but definitely the victims of overdose of rituals and traditions. The community suffers in hunger and malnutrition in many places as its rivers are grabbed by the sand mafia and chemical ingredients of various sugar and liquor factories are being dumped into the river therefore killing the livelihood of many.
The Mallah and Nishads have become politically assertive but no social movement of social change could take place within the community unlike Chamars and other Dalit communities who embraced Ambedkar as their liberator and shifted to Buddhism and other non-Brahminical traditions; it is still caged to religious rituals and superstitions. Phoolan lived in that identity as a proud Nishad yet could not use her celebrity status to fight against caste oppression in our society which organisations like Arjak Sangh had done tremendously (and the way later late Kanshiram mobilized politically to strengthen the Bahujan movement in Uttar-Pradesh).
Phoolan’s lack of political ideology became the biggest constraint in her understanding of right or wrong. She was too naïve to understand the intricacies of today’s political world of manipulations and would have served a bigger purpose for the identity and mobilization of social movements against caste and gender oppression. The war in Uttar Pradesh is not just replacing one caste from other but complete annihilation of the caste-based hierarchical system which has exploited the Dalit Bahujan masses for years.
It was sad that her celebrity status was exploited by the status-quoist parties that have later abandoned her completely after her death leaving her family in deep helplessness. It speaks volumes of her naivety to see her mother and younger sister struggling to feed themselves. It also suggests that Phoolan was not just naïve but honest too and never favored her family.
Ramkali does not have a BPL card as the officers would not give to her saying she is younger sister of Phoolan and do not lack money. It is painful to ask the Samajwadi Party and its government to provide a ‘BPL’ card or old-age pension to Phoolan’s mother and sister in her village Shekhpurgudha.
Can there be any other example of political opportunism where the family of an iconic personality languishes for basic meals too? The SP has a lot to explain as to why it never cared for the family of its former Member of Parliament who it used for the mobilization of Nishad votes?
I am just passing Ramkali’s request to Mulayam Singh Yadav, to have a look at them and their sufferings. Hopefully, Netaji will listen and ask the Uttar Pradesh government to help the family of their former colleague who always considered him as her father.
(VB Rawat is a full time Human Rights activist working on the issues of Dalits, Muslims, tribal and other marginalized and their democratic rights including access to land and other natural resources. He also runs an organisation Social Development Foundation. He can be followed at : email@example.com)