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Wednesday, August 01, 2001



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Don't make Phoolan an icon

Rasheeda Bhagat

PHOOLAN Devi led a most unusual life. At the risk of sounding cruel, one can only conclude about her gruesome death that those who live by the sword must also perish by it. Granted she was an oppressed woman. Married at the age of 11 to a much older man, she faced many a tribulation and was the victim of social injustice which forced her to resort to the gun. But one is a little puzzled at the attempt to transform her, in her death, into the heroine she certainly was not.

Worse, it is distressing to see the half-baked attempt in some quarters to project her as a champion of women's rights. Is this country so woefully lacking in female role models that we are clutching on to the memory of a female bandit of yesteryears?

Her chequered life of 38 years had enough twists and turns, pathos, violence and, above all, steamy love affairs, to make her the ideal subject of films. Shekhar Kapoor was quick to sense this potential, resulting in the making of Bandit Queen. But both the director and the producer had a real-life taste of what their subject could do when she created a row over the `misrepresentation' of her life in the movie, and accused the film-makers of trying to capitalise on her misery in the rape scene. A court case followed and ultimately peace was brokered; at what cost, very few people would know.

Phoolan Devi, who was born in the backward Mallah caste in 1963, first went to jail when she was 16 and was arrested in a feud involving family land. The most famous milestone of her life as a dacoit was the gunning down of 20 thakurs in Behmai village i n 1981 by her gang. The motive was the killing of her paramour, Vikram Mallah, by the thakurs.

There was as much drama as politics in her surrender before the then Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, Mr Arjun Singh, in 1983, and millions of Indians must have watched with some degree of comfort as she went to jail. A prison is the right place for a crim inal. Or so think ordinarily mortals who scrupulously abide by the law of the land.

But the same millions watched with discomfort as the UP Government of Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav granted her pardon in 1994, withdrawing all the criminal cases pending against her in the State. This turned to horror when Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav fielded her as a Samajwadi Party (SP) candidate from the Mirzapur Lok Sabha constituency in 1996. Worse was to follow. She won the election and became an MP. Not only she, but the voters of the constituency had cocked a snook at ordinary values which teach one to shun criminals; leave alone return them to the Lok Sabha.

One might well ask why she was singled out when so many criminals, especially in the cow belt of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, rule the roost and belong to the body of legislators who make laws which you and I have to follow. Perhaps it is bec ause, and thank goodness for that, there are not too many women criminals or ex-criminals who adorn our legislatures.

If Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav was quick to capitalise on Phoolan Devi's two-in-one vote-catching value -- she was able to influence not only the backward classes but also women, as the election results showed -- Phoolan herself was as shrewd as her political mentor. She did not let too many opportunities go by without describing in detail her trials and tribulations because she was a woman from a backward class. There are reports that she was planning to part ways with the Samajwadi Party and launch her own political outfit through the Eklavya Sena in the coming UP elections.

Her violent death, right at her doorstep, certainly evoked a lot of sympathy. That this should happen to an MP, and in a high security zone in Delhi, caused further shock. But in a grotesque kind of way, the woman who would have been shunned by the likes of the Prime Minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and the Congress(I) chief, Ms Sonia Gandhi, when she was alive, got her moment when both of them went to pay homage after her death. To be fair to the leaders, who were not too keen on socialising with her , this would have had to do much less with caste or class than with the kind of person the bandit queen really was -- short-tempered, petulant and power-hungry. She is supposed to have said, when asked what she missed most about her days as a bandit: ``P ower and authority''.

According to an article in India Today, ``she told her biographer, Mala Sen, she often felt like she was still working with crooks and thieves''.

Coming from an MP, this is a telling comment indeed! But it would have been poignant and much more forceful, had she done anything to prove, during her years in politics, that she was different from the ``crooks and thieves'' she kept company with, or th at she had really reformed. But the images we got of the MP through media reports were those of the petulant parliamentarian pulling the chain during a train journey in the middle of nowhere, because that happened to be her destination. Or of a compulsiv e shopper who would go berserk during her foreign jaunts financed through tax-payers' money. The bulky suitcases which formed part of her overweight luggage bore ample testimony to this. Of course, this is true of many other MPs and legislators. They kno w only too well that no Customs officer would dare touch their bulging suitcases.

So there is certainly no case for allowing our imagination to run riot and anointing the late dacoit-turned-MP as one of the greatest women India has produced or a champion of downtrodden and oppressed women. At the most, the image of the woman who had b een abused by a series of men, and continued to be trapped in a loveless marriage because her ``public image'' did not allow her to end it through divorce, can evoke sympathy and pathos. A news feature quoted Phoolan Devi telling a close friend that whil e she had managed to get rid of her stomach pain and some other ailments, she did not know how to deal with the bimari (illness) called Umedh Singh, her husband!

But while Phoolan Devi does not deserve to be elevated as any kind of role model, her memory should not be tossed around like a politicised football. The manner in which Mr Mulayam Singh and Company hijacked her funeral, insisting that the body be taken to her constituency of Mirzapur despite her family wanting the funeral to be held in Delhi, is atrocious. Within minutes of the fatal bullets being fired, the Samajwadi Party bigwigs had all but launched their manifesto for the UP elections. Wild accusat ions were hurled at the Central as well as the UP Governments on her murder, and every accusation was made with an eye on the seat of power in Lucknow.

The BJP, especially the Rajnath Singh Government in UP, did not respond with dignity either. Speaking on the sidelines of the BJP national executive meet in Delhi, the UP Chief Minister made the rather hasty assertion that before the Assembly polls in UP , he has well-thought-out plans in place to `finish' his two main rivals -- the SP and the Bahujan Samaj Party. Criticising the SP's attempt to ``politicise the murder of Phoolan Devi'', he bragged that his Government's trump card in the polls would be i ts intent to provide reservation for the ``most backward castes and the most oppressed among the Dalits''.

Perhaps the saddest thing about Phoolan Devi's memory will be that the woman who was a victim of social injustice and male domination, and yet rose above misery and oppression to become a member of the Lok Sabha, continues to be used as a pawn in the pow er-obsessed world of politics.

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