Phoolan Devi's controversial legacy alive in UP polls

Phoolan Devi's controversial legacy alive in UP polls

A huge coloured photograph of Phoolan Devi, the bandit queen-turned-MP who was shot dead 11 years ago in New Delhi, adorns the wall of the first floor office of a shoe showroom.

"She was my 'Behenji' (sister). I will always remember and respect her," said Mohammed Asim, 44, owner of the showroom in Harjinder Nagar locality, who is also an independent candidate from Maharajpur constituency of Kanpur district in the Uttar Pradesh assembly polls that will see voting Thursday.

Asim came into contact with Phoolan soon after she entered politics and joined the Samajwadi Party (SP) in the mid-1990s. "I always felt she was a person from the lower caste who was severely wronged and persecuted. Her violent actions may have been a reaction," said Asim.

A number of other politicians and former colleagues of Phoolan still praise her.
Phoolan's dacoit gang earned notoriety for shooting dead 22 men, mostly upper caste Thakurs, in Behmai village, about 60 km from Kanpur, in 1981. Phoolan, belonging to the low caste Mallah community - of fishermen and boatmen - was barely 18 years old then.

Her supporters claim that Phoolan ordered her gang members to go on the shooting spree to take revenge on upper caste members in the village who had humiliated and gangraped her after being kidnapped by a rival gang.

Not all agree.

Local lawyer Vijay Narain Singh Sengar has been pleading the cases for the Behmai widows and victims for several years.

"There is a halo built around Phoolan by the media and some politicians. That is not the truth," Sengar said.

Though Phoolan is dead - she was killed in 2001 at the age of 38 - Sengar said he was still pursuing the cases against her other gang members. And the Supreme Court had given him permission to pursue the cases, he added.

However, in adjoining Mirzapur, from where Phoolan was elected as a Lok Sabha member twice in the 1990s, and in other districts of central Uttar Pradesh, many politicians still have words of praise for her. She herself hailed from the Chambal region close to Kanpur.

Deepak Kumar, the sitting legislator in Unnao consitutency, who is seeking a re-election on an SP ticket, had worked with Phoolan closely.  

"During her political tenure, we found her trying to bury her violent past. She was keen to help the poor," Kumar told IANS over phone from Unnao.

Kumar is the son of Manohar Lal, a veteran socialist leader and a former MP from Kanpur, who also played a key role in bringing Phoolan into mainstream politics. Kailash Chaurasiya, the SP canddiate from Mirzapur constituency, had also worked with Phoolan.

Pintoo Sengar, currently with the ruling Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), also spoke highly of her political career. But those opposed to her also have a presence in the current polls.

From behind the bars of Delhi's Tihar Jail, Sher Singh Rana - the key accused in the murder of Phoolan - is contesting the elections. Rana, who hails from Uttarakhand, is a candidate from Jewar constituency in Gautam Budh Nagar district adjoining Delhi as a Rastravadi Pratap Sena candidate.

The debate - on whether Phoolan was a dreaded dacoit or a victim of social injustice who took revenge - continues in the political and social circles of Kanpur.
Sengar said filmmakers and the media have exaggerated several elements of the Phoolan saga.

But Asim is steadfast in his respect and loyalty to Phoolan, who lived and died by the gun.  "Even her killing was planned and executed by vested interests and casteist forces at high levels," Asim alleged.