One square kilometre of Delhi that decides the fate of India was going about its business, unaware that the badlands of Uttar Pradesh had crept up to its doorstep.
Twenty years after the massacre of 23 upper-caste men in Behmai, for which she carries the rap in spite of denials, Phoolan fell to the bullets of three masked men who, police said, were waiting at a corner of the gate of her house. A Maruti 800, in which they made the getaway, was parked a few yards away on the same kerb. They opened fire as she stepped out of a Tata Sumo — a Samajwadi Party colleague was dropping her home for lunch — at 44 Ashoka Road.
Phoolan was declared dead when she was brought to Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital. Her personal security guard, Balwinder Singh, who fired back, was shot in the arm and waist and was fighting for his life.
The assailants fled in the dark green Maruti with a fake number plate, CIM 907. The car was found abandoned on Pandit Pant Marg, a kilometre away, the killers having made their escape in an autorickshaw. A bullet-mark was found at the bottom left corner of the rear glass of the car. A mask and two revolvers were also found, one a Webley Scot and the other country-made.
A file containing documents of Eklavya Dalit Sena, a party floated by Phoolan, was also lying in the car. Her sister Uma heads the party in Uttaranchal.
The Uttar Pradesh border has been put on high alert and police do not rule out the role of local gangs avenging the murders of 1981 and political groups. The police also hinted at a family dispute sourced to political rivalry.
In 1994, Mulayam Singh Yadav had withdrawn all cases against her and she was freed from prison, more than 10 years after her surrender, to get married to Umedh Singh and convert to Buddhism. She never had any children because her uterus was removed without her knowledge while she was in prison.
Congress leader Najma Heptullah, who had gone to Phoolan’s residence to convey her condolences to the family, asked the question that the government would have to answer in the coming days. “How can an MP be killed in broad daylight in a high-security area? ”
The Samajwadi Party, for which Phoolan became an MP twice from Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh, is already gunning for home minister L.K. Advani over the murder “right under his nose” as the Centre is in charge of security in the capital.
Umedh and the Samajwadi Party are alleging that Chambal’s dasayu sundari, or the beautiful bandit’s security was downgraded and she was left with only one guard and that too had been sought to be taken away.
“She would have been alive had they not removed the security cover for her,” Umedh said, wailing over her body draped in a white sheet. The home ministry, however, denied the charge. “The present security arrangements were considered commensurate with the threat perception to her security,” it said.
Samajwadi leader Mulayam is expected to kickstart his campaign for the Uttar Pradesh elections at Phoolan’s cremation in Mirzapur tomorrow.
The murder took place in a high-security zone with the Election Commission, All India Radio and Gurdwara Bangla Sahib — apart from Parliament — being close to her house. Uttar Pradesh chief minister Rajnath Singh’s residence is only three houses away. All the houses on Ashoka Road have security guards on duty at the entrance, except Phoolan’s. Uma, Phoolan’s sister, said she rushed out of the house on hearing shots and saw Phoolan lying at the outer gate.
Dr Seema Wasnik, emergency control room officer at the hospital who was present when Phoolan was brought at 1.40, said: “Phoolan’s sister was screaming that her sister had been killed.”
“Phoolan was first attended to by casualty medical officers. Neurosurgeons and a team of cardiothoracic surgeon were also called. Her head had multiple bullet injuries and 11 firearm injuries were found all over her body,” Wasnik said.
Phoolan’s body was kept in a mortuary. Mulayam was the first to visit the hospital.
Home minister L.K. Advani, BSP leader Mayavati, former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar were the others. Another former Prime Minister, V.P. Singh, said: “There were threats to Phoolan Devi in the past. Why was her security cover removed?”
In the end, she died a violent shooting death. It is so sad that her armed bodyguards who shadowed her, a high-security Member of Parliament, failed to protect her.
I am not saying that the Thakurs have killed her, but this is what I suspect. It’s for the police to trace the killers and bring them to justice.
Phoolan was a woman wronged, all her life. She was first abused by the high-caste Thakurs who had made a bandit of her. Later, she was used by politicians who saw in her potential to bag the minority votes because of her closeness to Baba Mustakim.
A volley of bullets brought her life to an abrupt end just when she appeared to have put her horrible past behind her and was enjoying her new-found status as MP.
I really couldn’t believe it when a friend broke the news to me at lunch.
“Are you sure she is dead,” I found myself asking her. She nodded yes. I frantically tried calling her family members in New Delhi in the next couple of hours, but never got through.
I still remember the day I first met her in her prison cell in the late eighties. I was then researching my book I would write on her. She appeared to be cowering, but when you probed you saw the fire smouldering in her. I knew she would be a legend.
As I got to know her, I realised she was a straight person, always speaking her mind, never bothering about the consequences. We became close friends in the course of researching the book that had taken me 11 years to write.
She not just called me “didi”, but regarded me as her sister, someone she could confide in, she could share her feelings with. I became a member of her family over time. She always asserted she was innocent. She swore that she had never killed anybody. She dismissed the accounts that she had killed 23 people during her days as the bandit queen. She claimed to have shot two men only and that too through their knees.
I wrote what she told me in my book and that’s what Shekhar Kapur portrayed in his film on her. Phoolan told me she had tried to seek out the two men she felt were responsible for her plight, but could never trace them.
She would never say what she would have done to them if she had tracked them down.
Though I always had a sympathy for Phoolan the woman, I never agreed with Phoolan the politician. We had a row over her politics the last time we met in 1997.
A Japanese filmmaker, a friend of mine, was planning a documentary on Phoolan Devi as a parliamentarian, and he had roped me in. So, in 1997, Phoolan and I travelled together through the length and breadth of her constituency in eastern Uttar Pradesh for more than two weeks as I tried to find out her politics.
I was shocked when I found small children working in carpet factories in her constituency in gross violation of the law. The children, much sought after because of their nimble fingers, were slowly losing their eyesight because of the delicate work.
I couldn’t take it, but Phoolan wouldn’t listen. We had an argument. “You have no idea what poverty or hunger is, so are raising this child labour issue,” she kept telling me. If these kids did not work, she said, they would go hungry. “What do you prefer, hunger or work,” she argued loudly, refusing to make a stand.
I refused to buy this specious argument most politicians make in support of child labour. I
told her so and pulled out of the documentary. The project fell through.
Though the meeting had ended on a sour note, it had never spoiled our relationship. In the last three years, she kept phoning me up and we talked about many things. We also wrote letters. They were often intimate, in fact, too intimate to reveal. I surely cannot talk about the ups and downs in her marriage or emotional relationship.
Phoolan never asked me before she joined politics. But I figured she needed a job once she was out of jail and politics provided her with one. In any case, she needed to make a living, so I don’t want to go into the rights or wrongs of it. She didn’t have much choice either.
After she became a politician, she told me she often felt like she was still working with the crooks and thieves. When I asked her to be careful, she said: “Don’t worry didi. I am a baaghi too.”
Mala Sen is the author of India’s Bandit Queen: The True Story of Phoolan Devi
(As told to Debashis Bhattacharyya)
Police said Parthapratim Ray Burman, co-owner of Khadim’s, was abducted around 11:30 am from C.N. Roy road by four men who had been waiting for him for over two hours in a Maruti car. Ray Burman was shot, probably on the arm, while trying to stop the gunmen from forcing their way into his Tata Safari.
Alarmed that the incident would be viewed as a damning statement on law and order in Bengal, the government has entrusted the CID with the task of tracking down the magnate. The South 24 Parganas district police will assist in investigations.
“Our main objective is to rescue him unharmed. At this point, we are concentrating on the local gangs known to have carried out this kind of operation before,” said V.V. Thambi, deputy inspector general, CID. Ray Burman’s driver was arrested late tonight.
Witnesses said the gunmen pulled up in front of Ray Burman’s vehicle as it was slowly making its way through the narrow, slushy potholed road and executed the kidnap in four minutes. Police said the motive for the kidnap could be ransom.
The incident occurred while the shoe magnate was making his visit to the Tiljala warehouse as is his routine on Wednesdays. Earlier, he had dropped in at the company’s new factory at Kasba.
As Ray Burman’s car, coming in from the direction of Chowbhaga Road off Science City, slowed down about a hundred yards from the warehouse, three of the men jumped out of the Maruti and fired two shots in quick succession. One smashed the Tata Safari’s windscreen.
Maqbool Ahmed, a witness, said Ray Burman’s driver made a last-gasp attempt to swerve and speed off. But Naba Kumar Mondal lost control and the car rammed into a lamppost.
The gunmen then smashed the driver’s windowpane and forced open the doors.
At this point, a panic-stricken Ray Burman tried to beat back the men with bare hands, provoking the abductors to open fire. Mondal ducked and crouched by the seat in terror as the bullets whizzed past.
Ray Burman, who was profusely bleeding, was then dragged out of the car and shoved into the back of the Maruti between two armed men. After the third one jumped into the front seat, the car sped off in the direction of Eastern Bypass.
For almost an hour after the abduction, the blood-stained Tata Safari was stationed on the spot. Shards of glass, a hot case containing Ray Burman’s lunch and his brief case lay strewn on the road. An acrid smell of cordite overhung the car.
But the Tiljala area was abuzz with activity as the kidnap drama was being staged. There were queues snaking up to the 42A bus-stand nearby. Many people were headed for a place of worship.
Ray Burman’s driver first reported the incident at Parama investigating centre. Later Mondal informed his family in Salt Lake. Mondal lives in Dum Dum and drove Ray Burman’s car for the first time today though he was appointed five months ago.
Senior police officers, including DIG, Presidency range, Gautam Chakraborty, went to the spot. A red alert has been sounded and all passing vehicles are being checked.
The Ray Burmans have of late ventured into exports and real estate under the Khadim’s banner. Police have begun to probe reports that the shoe magnate got extortion threats in his Tiljala warehouse last week, which employees passed off as a crank call.