| Phoolan: Not forgotten
Akbarpur (Uttar Pradesh), Dec. 19: No one knew who she was, but it was obvious the old woman was familiar with their lifestyle.
Or else, the questions couldn't have come so fast.
When had they last repaired their fishing nets' Did they have cycles to take their catch to the nearest market' What was the price they were getting'
A little distance away, Congress flags fluttered from a jeep.
The Nishads listened, their curiosity aroused by the 71-year-old, all skin and bones but quick on her feet unlike other village women her age. Then one of the five young women, who had escorted the septuagenarian widow to the village, stepped forward. 'She is Phoolan Devi's mother,' she said.
As if on cue, Mulla Devi opened an album of old photographs. One of the pictures showed her being hugged by her daughter, the bandit queen-turned-Samajwadi Party MP who was gunned down in front of her Delhi home three years ago. 'Look here. This is my daughter. She worked for your welfare and her life was cut short by those who knew her.' Like the questions earlier, the words came in a rush.
The album was to convince the villagers of Haswar, a settlement of about 70 fishermen families, that she was indeed Phoolan's mother. Some Samajwadi Party workers had spread the rumour that Mulla Devi was masquerading as Phoolan's mother.
She need not have worried. Dusty mats were already spread out in the courtyard and the village women had come out with tea and sweets.
'My daughter was killed by men who were close to the Samajwadi Party, but I have come here for my son-in-law Umedh Nishad, a Congress candidate. See that he wins so that Phoolan could be happy seeing her husband completing her task,' she told the villagers.
The constituency where Mulla Devi has chosen to campaign for her son-in-law is known more for another woman ' Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayavati. After winning three times from here, the Dalit leader had vacated her seat this year for a berth in the Rajya Sabha. The bypoll in Akbarpur, scheduled for tomorrow, has boiled down to a battle between the Samajwadi Party and the BSP.
For Mulla Devi, it is a chance to settle scores with the party that once sheltered her daughter. Her face is cracked like drying mud under the crisp winter sun. She has been relentless in her attack on chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav and his Samajwadi Party.
After Phoolan's murder, her family members had quarrelled over who would inherit her legacy in Mirzapur, from where she had won twice. While Umedh claimed to be an inheritor, her mother and sister demanded a share. Samajwadi leaders were at a loss when all the relatives of Phoolan demanded tickets during the 2002 state polls. Finally, Mulayam Singh dumped all of them.
In a clever move, the Congress, which has been searching for backward-caste leaders, fielded Umedh and roped in Mulla Devi for the campaign. Pushed to the fifth position in the May general elections, the Congress is trying to get a share of the 2.5 lakh Nishad votes and three lakh backward caste votes in Akbarpur.
'Mulla Devi is dogged in her mission. She is rediscovering what kind of love the Nishads had for her daughter,' said Umedh.
The old woman is out to rekindle that love. 'My daughter did everything for the Nishads on behalf of Mulayam Singh Yadav's party. She was killed. I had demanded a CBI inquiry but Samajwadi Party leaders scuttled it. Had the party okayed the CBI probe, the truth behind the killing would have come out,' she said as she campaigned in Jehangirnagar, another village in Akbarpur.
A caste laboratory of Mayavati, Akbarpur is split into caste colonies like Yadonagar, Gossainganj, Majhinagar and Mallarpur. Mulla Devi knows her job is tough. 'I may not be able to ensure a Congress win but I will see to it that the Samajwadi Party loses,' she said.
The BSP has fielded Tribhuban Dutt, a former MP. The Samajwadi candidate is Shankarlal Manjhi.