When animal instinct left her
Chambal gunfire to House silence
Bullets blow off security cover
House in dark for over an hour
Poll-bound Samajwadi lays blame at Rajnath door
‘Oh, that’s totally wrong. In real life, I swear a lot more'
Alter ego breaks down
Hizb top gun shot dead

As the news broke on television this afternoon, I said over and over again, this cannot be happening to the Phoolan Devi I know. This very, very unique woman had an animal’s sense of self- protection.

I have interacted with Phoolan Devi extensively, over a prolonged period. It was enough to know that this woman has always had a terrific sense of self-preservation.

She had survived the dacoits in Chambal, the worst terrain on earth; a gangrape in Behmai where she later killed 23 people to take revenge; Gwalior Jail; the national and state legal systems. She survives us and Channel 4; she twisted Arundhati Roy around on her little finger. She manages to do all that successfully, leading a charmed existence.

There were so many ways in which she could have died after all that, but not this — gunned down in front of her house in the capital!

I remember the first time she saw Bandit Queen. It was at my house on a large video screen in 1996. I believe she was astounded. She shut up completely, did not say a word after the screening. She was always calculating. We knew it would be all about money and nothing else.

She took 100 cassettes of Bandit Queen from me which she said she would show her voters in Mirzapur. What she did with it, I would not be able to say.

Even when I litigated against her, I used to talk with her. Even then I could see she trusted no one. Not her lawyer, not her husband, not anybody. Ultimately, we settled for £40,000.

When we were shooting Bandit Queen, “Daku” Mansingh, her erstwhile lover, was on the sets. I asked him how has this woman been able to take all that has happened to her. “Because,” Mansingh told me — and I believe he knows her best — “because she has an animal instinct for survival. She would not tell us, even me, where she was going, where she was coming from. She would not tell me where she will be the next day.”

That character extends to her entire personality. But she was always calculating. This is why she could take on all that she did. I will not be surprised if her husband, Umedh Singh, scarcely reveals a sense of personal loss. That is because she did not trust him. To him, she has been a political tool. Phoolan never interacted with anyone closely.

True, those who live by the gun, die by the gun. But not her.

Bobby Bedi is the producer of Bandit Queen


New Delhi, July 25: 
When Phoolan Devi crossed the threshold of Parliament, the portal of Indian democracy, the elite and the middle classes had let out an exclamation of disbelief.

The Bandit Queen, who had avenged her rape by a gang of Thakurs by gunning down 22 in the Behmai village of Uttar Pradesh, was accused of “sullying” the sanctity of the highest institution of Indian democracy. And the well-heeled could not believe their eyes.

They expected abuses to flow freely from her lips to see the queen of the Chambal ravines froth at the mouth every time an upper-caste member rose to speak. But all they got to see was a quiet and subdued MP who hardly, if ever, let her temper fly.

Phoolan, through all her years in Parliament, sat in sepulchral silence. Lost among the backbenchers and members of the Samajwadi Party, which had given her political legitimacy, she gave the impression of one who had sloughed her way through the deepest and slimiest of marshes to reach a safe embankment. And once there, she did only the minimum that was expected of her as a Lok Sabha member.

The only time she spontaneously rose from her seat and shouted was when the government talked about passing the women’s reservation Bill. “What kind of women will you bring in Parliament — upper class, elite women with lipstick,” Phoolan would intervene.

But those outbursts were as rare as her active presence in day-to-day politics, though she did win the Mirzapur Lok Sabha seat against the BJP’s influential Virendra Singh in 1996. She lost it in 1998, only to stage a return the next year. Anyone who had a minimum glimpse into Phoolan’s life could, perhaps, understand her metamorphosis from a fire-spitting, gutsy rebel to a tame parliamentarian who came into the House as silently as she left it.

Born into the community of Mallahs, a backward caste, Phoolan bore on her body and mind the weals of both caste and gender oppression. She hit back first as a member of society and then its outlaw — first through peaceful defiance and then violent retribution.

In her book India’s Bandit Queen, Mala Sen penned down Phoolan’s blood-curdling tale of brutality and horror, later made into an award-winning film. By the time the Samajwadi Party loomed on the political horizon of Uttar Pradesh and withdrew 43 cases of criminal offences, including 22 murders, kidnaps for ransom and looting against the bandit queen, she had already been squeezed through the harshest wringers of life. And the famous spirit that kept the light of justice and revenge kindling seemed to fade more and more with each year in Parliament.

As a child, Phoolan bristled with anger against the caste system. Later, she fought for her father’s land rights and then refused to have an arranged marriage. She relentlessly fought from the bottomless pit of a caste-ridden, anti-woman society and was humiliated for her “indiscretions”. As punishment, Phoolan was kidnapped by a dacoit gang and could survive only by spawning her own.

But worse was to come. Gangraped by the Thakurs, Phoolan was stripped and paraded naked in the village — her lover was put to death. The wheels of revenge started spinning when Phoolan shot to death 22 upper-caste men. She was under cover for a whole year before surrendering to the police in 1983.

A page closed over the most gruelling and scathing chapter of her life though another opened to lead her to a world of fame, publicity and then political clout.

In her book, when Sen meets Phoolan in jail, the author writes: “Dressed in a bright yellow sari, she wore a gold ring in her left nostril and my silver chain around her neck — Her small slender frame, the mobile expression on her face — a tribal face with a high cheekbone made her look like a child. It was hard to imagine her with a gun. A rifle like that hung from the male shoulders crowding the room seemed almost too heavy for her to hold, let alone use. Yet it was such a rifle that she had surrendered.”


New Delhi, July 25: 
After the death, the political post-mortem.

Phoolan Devi’s killing in broad daylight once again brought into focus the issue of VIP security with Uttar Pradesh chief minister Rajnath Singh denying that it had been downgraded and Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav accusing him of “lying”.

Barely blinking back his tears, Mulayam said even the guards at Phoolan’s Ashoka Road residence had been removed and her gun licence cancelled. “How can the chief minister say such a thing? I am too shocked and stunned by his remarks,” he said.

Mulayam said during his tenure as chief minister, Phoolan had enjoyed Z-category security. “Why was it downgraded and removed?” he questioned. Samajwadi MP Amar Singh added that she had been allowed a lone personal security officer, that too on a Supreme Court order. “It is part of a deep-rooted conspiracy and an act of political vendetta,” he said.

In Lucknow, Rajnath said Phoolan had been given security in keeping with standard VIP norms and denied it had been reviewed. But Mulayam contested this, saying her gun licence had been cancelled by the Bhadohi district magistrate three months ago.

There were many red faces in the Union home ministry today. While nobody would say anything officially, senior officials conceded that the whole question of VIP security was turning out to be tricky. “According to our assessment, often, VIP security is not (considered) more than a status symbol. But whenever we review it objectively, we face all round criticism,” an officer said, recalling how the government had drawn flak after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination for downgrading his security.

Phoolan’s husband Umedh Singh, too, alleged that security lapses led to her death. “She would have been alive had they (the government) not removed her security cover,” Umedh said.

Umedh, who married Phoolan in 1994, said she had only one personal security officer, Balwinder Singh, who was seriously injured in the shootout. Balwinder is a constable with Delhi Police. Umedh said a letter from the home ministry had said that even Phoolan’s PSO would be removed, but “thanks to the intervention of the Supreme Court, it was not done”.


New Delhi, July 25: 
The government was today caught napping when sitting MP Phoolan Devi was shot dead hardly a km from Parliament House.

Though the incident took place just after 1 pm, the Lok Sabha got to know of it an hour later. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was told 10 minutes after that. Both Houses observed a minute’s silence and adjourned.

Phoolan was present in the Lok Sabha during Question Hour and stayed in the House till 12.15 pm. When the House assembled after lunch, it was not aware of the murder. Congress leader Priya Ranjan Das Munshi informed the House at 2.20 pm that he had just heard from “media sources” that Phoolan had been shot.

Parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan urged the Speaker to adjourn the House. Mahajan said he had learnt about a flash on Doordarshan and he wanted to confirm it.

Mahajan then rushed to his office and informed Vajpayee over phone. He then directed L.K. Advani’s secretary to ask the home minister to come to the Lok Sabha at 3 pm to make a statement. Advani confirmed the killing, but did not specify the time.

Das Munshi said it was shocking that “till 2.30 pm the government did not know. The government could not tell the House. Security of MPs is also at stake”.

The Samajwadi Party is likely to create bedlam in Parliament tomorrow to put the BJP-led governments in Delhi and Lucknow on the mat for downgrading Phoolan’s security and to force an adjournment.

Somnath Chatterjee of the CPM, Yerran Naidu of the Telugu Desam and Amar Singh of the Samajwadi Party echoed Das Munshi on the lack of security for MPs.

The Cabinet meeting scheduled for today was postponed.


New Delhi, July 25: 
Even as Phoolan Devi’s body awaits cremation, political parties were quick on the mark to extract mileage from the tragedy, keeping in mind the impending Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. Obviously, the Samajwadi Party — of which Phoolan was a member — took the lead in this political free-for-all.

Samajwadi’s line of offensive had two aspects: First, Phoolan was the first “casualty” of chief minister Rajnath Singh’s endeavour to win over the most backward castes (MBCs) to which she belonged. Second, it was a “conspiracy” to wipe out the Opposition in the run-up to the elections.

Samajwadi general secretary and Rajya Sabha MP Amar Singh’s first reaction was: “If more proof was needed to show how committed Rajnath and the BJP are to the backward castes’ cause, this is it.” Samajwadi’s plans to cremate her in her constituency, Mirzapur, tomorrow indicate that it is determined to make the maximum political capital of the killing.

Phoolan belonged to the more backward caste of Mallahs (fishing community) and though she did not belong to Mirzapur, Samajwadi chief Mulayam Singh Yadav deliberately chose this constituency for her because of the dominance of backward caste and Muslim votes — the electoral axis his party had worked out. The combination worked twice in Phoolan’s favour.

But the deep-rooted antipathy of the upper castes, especially the Thakurs, towards Phoolan forced Mulayam to keep her in the background when he sought to enlarge his following and get rid of his Mandalised image.

The UP chief minister’s recent announcement to create a separate sub-quota for the MBCs from the 27 per cent reservation slot meant for the OBCs in general put a spanner in Mulayam’s Mandal constituency. His dilemma was if he endorsed the move, he stood to alienate his Yadav following because they have skimmed off much of the cream from the Mandal Commission’s recommendation. If he didn’t, he would be left with just the Yadav support with no substantial add-ons. Phoolan’s killing could be used as a handle to drive home the point that at heart Rajnath was a “die-hard” Thakur and his so-called commitment to the MBC cause was “shallow”.

Samajwadi also seems determined to use the episode as another example, and a big one, of Rajnath’s “misgovernance” and his alleged moves to victimise the Opposition before the elections. Of the three “Ms” which generally condition electoral results — money, muscle and manpower — the second and third play a big role in Uttar Pradesh. An expenditure of, say, Rs 25 lakh, which may be considered chicken-feed in states like Andhra Pradesh, would be lavish in Uttar Pradesh, but brawn and manpower command a huge premium.

Bandh call

The Samajwadi Party has called a state-wide bandh tomorrow in protest against Phoolan Devi’s killing even as party workers staged a dharna before Raj Bhavan today.


London, July 25: 
Even without referring to my notes from February 1995, it is easy to remember my conversation with Phoolan Devi at her rented flat in New Delhi.

How come a diminutive woman with her perceived disadvantages — and I told her I hoped she did not mind I was putting the question so bluntly — of belonging to a low caste and being illiterate had managed to lead a gang of fearsome dacoits in the Chambal Valley?

She told me India had a long history of warrior queens, including notably Jhansi ki Rani whom she admired. If India had found it possible to have a woman Prime Minister, why wasn’t it possible for a gang to be led by a woman?

“Why don’t you ask those Congresswallahs why they made Indira Gandhi Prime Minister?” she responded.

It occurred to me at the time she would go down well in London, especially with the feminist movement, and I told her so. She seemed intrigued and said she didn’t have a passport. Could I help her get one?

I had flown to Delhi to interview her for the London Telegraph. While I was about it, I was asked to help a BBC TV crew which was making a documentary called True Lies, examining whether Shekhar Kapur’s film had taken liberties with the facts of Phoolan’s life.

That I was able to see Phoolan at all was thanks to the intervention of Mala Sen, Phoolan’s biographer.

I spoke to Phoolan’s husband, Umedh Singh, by phone from London and he said it would be fine for me to come to Delhi. There was no hassle whatsoever in getting the newspaper interview.

Phoolan was a little more difficult about the TV interview but she agreed to a fee and in the end I ended up doing it in Hindi. She was quite entertaining. When I asked her about the swearing done by the screen Phoolan, her response was characteristically cocky: “Oh, that’s totally wrong. In real life, I swear a lot more.”

I tried to remind myself that I was talking to a woman who was supposed to have killed 23 Thakurs in Behmai to revenge herself for the gangrape she had suffered. She never did give me a straight reply, but left me to draw the conclusion she could use a gun.

Indian hospitality being what it is, she asked me and the camera crew to stay on for a simple lunch of chapatis, dal and sabji. When she discovered that Umedh had already eaten while she had been busy giving the interview, she laid into her hapless husband. “What kind of a man are you that you couldn’t wait?” she raged.

Poor Umedh was left to grin foolishly. I quickly discovered she was a duplicitous character. She argued that in making a film with explicit rape scenes, Shekhar Kapur, the director, and Bobby Bedi, the producer, had symbolically raped a woman who had already been brutalised. “The biggest hoax on me has been played by Shekhar Kapur and Bobby Bedi,” she declared. “They have made a business out of me.”

This was strong emotional stuff. Supported by writer Arundhati Roy, who had backed her by writing about “The Great Indian Rape Trick” in Sunday magazine, Phoolan went to court to try to stop the film’s distribution.

Behind the scenes, though, she was negotiating for a financial settlement with Channel 4. When she settled her quarrel for $40,000, Arundhati (who was secretly writing The God of Small Things at the time) was left looking decidedly foolish.

In our conversation, Phoolan did make some serious points. She spoke about leadership — “a leader has to be at the front and sacrifice a lot” — she said she wanted to campaign for widow remarriage. “If a woman dies, the man quickly remarries. But even a young widow is barred from remarrying. I say if a man can remarry, why can’t a woman? ”

There was ultimately something childlike about her. She liked receiving telephone calls but being totally illiterate could not dial the numbers herself. She was also delighted with the yellow cotton sari we gave her.

After hearing the news, Shekhar Kapur rang today to add his tribute to my recollections. He had not met her during filming — “she was in prison” — but subsequently he had five or six meetings with her.

“What a life she has had,” he said. “Her life represents the triumph of the human spirit. She was in prison, she lost an election, but her attitude was positive. Anyone else would have ended up in an asylum. She has this ability to fight back. When I met her, I found she was not a hard, mafia type woman. She was almost giggly.”


Guwahati, July 25: 
It was on a chilly January evening in 1995 that the “Bandit Queen” from Assam met the original from Chambal for the first time. The encounter was, as Seema Biswas has said in several interviews, a “motivating experience”.

Today, the actress who became famous playing Phoolan Devi in Shekhar Kapur’s screen epic was at a loss for words when asked what the slain dacoit-turned-politician meant to her.

“She was a symbol of the Indian woman’s courage. I can say that I am sad at her demise, but it will not be enough to describe my feelings,” award-winning actress Seema Biswas told The Telegraph over the phone from her Mumbai residence.

Her sentences punctuated by sobs, Biswas said playing Phoolan Devi on screen was like sharing her trauma. “She was a very strong woman. This I can say with conviction because I know how much she suffered...I have walked as Phoolan Devi, thought as Phoolan Devi and suffered as Phoolan Devi. Only a very strong and courageous woman can survive the ordeal she was put through,” she said.

Biswas read scores of write-ups and perused photographs of Phoolan Devi before acting in Kapur’s award-winning film. However, she met the former dacoit only after the film was complete.

It was on the day of the film’s premiere at Siri Fort in New Delhi that Phoolan Devi met her reel-life alter ego.

“Shekhar Kapur called me to his room (at Hotel Ashoka) and said, ‘I am going to give you a surprise’. I was shocked, for Phoolan Devi was sitting in his room,” Biswas recalled.

An alumnus of the National School of Drama, the actress said she repeatedly asked Phoolan Devi if she was satisfied with her performance in the film. “I asked her if I had made any mistake. Pat came her reply, ‘It is 100 per cent right,” she said.

Much to Biswas’ surprise, Phoolan Devi said there was no difference between her and the person in the film. “I had goose pimples on my body when Phoolan Devi said she thought it was she who was acting in the film. It remains the best compliment I have received. Bahut hosla mili unse (she gave me a lot of encouragement),” said the actress, who was born in the Lower Assam town of Nalbari.

Biswas, who played Phoolan Devi on stage as well — for Hengul Theatre in 1999 — said the slain dacoit turned a new leaf after laying down arms. “She left her past behind and began life anew. Whoever killed her is a coward,” she said.


Srinagar, July 25: 
Hizb-ul Mujahideen deputy chief commander Abdul Hamid Tantray alias Masood was gunned down by police in Pulwama district in south Kashmir on Tuesday.

A police spokesman said here Masood was killed in an encounter with the special operations group of the state police after the task force raided Pahoo village in Pulwama. “Masood opened fire on the task force during the raid, which was returned, resulting in his death on the spot,” a senior police officer said. He said a pistol and ammunition were recovered from the site of the encounter.

The spokesman described the killing of Masood as a major success for the task force. The Hizb, on its part, said Masood’s killing was not a setback and it would inspire others fighting “Indian rule” in the region. “We pay our tributes to Commander Masood,” Hizb chief commander Syed Salahuddin said in Islamabad.

“I think it will escalate the spirit of sacrifice and the spirit of dedication,” Salahuddin said, referring to the killing of his second-in-command, whom he called a “martyr”. “Masood was a prominent and a formidable commander in the ranks of Hizb. He contributed very much in working out strategy and target-oriented actions against Indian forces,” he added.

Salahuddin said his group was shocked and saddened by Masood’s death but it was not a setback for the outfit, which is one of a dozen rebel organisations battling “Indian rule” in the Himalayan region.

“We are not worried by the martyrdom of Commander Masood. There are 100 such commanders among the rank and file of Hizb who are ready to come forward and sacrifice their lives for the holy cause of freedom,” Salahuddin said. “This martyrdom will contribute and add to their spirit of sacrifice and devotion to the cause,” he said.

Masood, who has been writing a column in a local weekly Urdu newspaper, had surfaced during a press conference addressed by Hizb chief commander operations Abdul Majid Dar on July 21 last year. At the conference, Dar had announced unilateral ceasefire in the state. Dar, along with top Hizb leaders, had met the Union home secretary at the Nehru guest house for talks on the ceasefire. However, the attempt failed after Hizb demanded inclusion of Pakistan in the dialogue. The ceasefire was later withdrawn by Salahuddin.


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