Born into a low caste family in rural Uttar Pradesh, Phoolan endured poverty as a child and had an unsuccessful marriage before taking to a life of crime. Having developed major differences with her parents and her husband alike, the teenage Phoolan sought escape by running away and joining a gang of bandits. She was the only woman in that gang, and her relationship with one gang member, coupled with other minor factors, caused a gunfight between gang members. Phoolan's lover was killed in that gunfight. The victorious rival faction, who were upper-caste Rajputs, took Phoolan to their village of Behmai, confined her in a room, and took turns to rape her repeatedly over several days. After escaping (or being let off), Phoolan rejoined the remnants of her dead lover's faction, took another lover from among those men, and continued with banditry. A few months later, her new gang descended upon the village of Behmai to exact revenge for what she had suffered. As many as twenty-two Rajput men belonging to that village were lined up in a row and shot dead by Phoolan's gang. Not a single one of these men had raped or otherwise harmed Phoolan - their crime was that they belonged to Behmai village, were male, and belonged to the Rajput caste to which Phoolan's rapists had belonged.
Since Phoolan was a low-caste woman, and her victims were high-caste men, the press portrayed the Behmai massacre as an act of righteous lower-caste rebellion and Phoolan herself as an oppressed feminist Robin Hood. The respectful sobriquet 'Devi' was conferred upon her by the media and public at this point.
Phoolan evaded capture for two years after the Behmai massacre before she and her few surviving gang-members surrendered to the police in 1983. She was charged with forty-eight major crimes, including multiple murders, plunder, arson and kidnapping for ransom. Phoolan spent the next eleven years in jail, as the various charges against her were tried in court. In 1994, the state government headed by Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party summarily withdrew all charges against her, and Phoolan was released. She then stood for election to parliament as a candidate of the Samajwadi Party and was twice elected to the Lok Sabha as the member for Mirzapur. In 2001, she was shot dead at the gates of her official bungalow (allotted to her as MP) in New Delhi by former rival bandits whose kinsmen had been slaughtered at Behmai by her gang. The 1994 film Bandit Queen (made around the time of her release from jail) is loosely based on her life until that point.
Phoolan was born into the Mallah (boatmen) caste, in the small village of Ghura Ka Purwa (also spelled Gorha ka Purwa) in Jalaun District, Uttar Pradesh. She was the fourth and youngest child of Moola and her husband Devi Din Mallah. Only she and one older sister survived to adulthood.
Phoolan's family were very poor. The major asset owned by them was around one acre (0.4 hectare) of farmland with a large but very old Neem tree on it. When Phoolan was eleven years old, her paternal grandparents passed away in quick succession and her father's elder brother became the head of the family. His son, Maya Din Mallah, proposed to cut down the Neem tree which occupied a largish patch of their one-acre farmland. He wanted to do this because the Neem tree was old and not very productive, and he wished to cultivate that patch of land with more profitable crops. Phoolan's father acknowledged that there was some sense to this act, and agreed to it with mild protest. However, the teenage Phoolan was incensed. She felt that since her father had no sons (only two daughters), her uncle and cousin were asserting sole claim on the family's farmland inherited from the paternal grandfather. She confronted her much older cousin, taunted him publicly, called him a thief and repeatedly and, over a period of several weeks, showered abused and taunts upon him. One of the things attested about Phoolan by nearly every source is the fact that she had a very foul tongue, and routinely used abuses which are never uttered by women in any strata of Indian society. Phoolan also attacked her cousin physically when he berated her for abusing him and making accusations against him. She then gathered a few village girls and staged a Dharna (sit-in) on the land, and did not budge even when the family elders tried to use force to drag them home. She was eventually beaten unconscious with a brick.
A few months after this incident, Phoolan's family arranged for her to marry a man named Puttilal Mallah, who lived several hundred miles away and was three times her age. She suffered continuous beatings and sexual abuse at the hands of her husband and after several attempts at running away was returned to her family in 'disgrace'.
In retailiation for the public and private humiliations heaped on him, and in order to teach her a lesson, Maya Din went to the local cops and accused Phoolan of stealing small items belonging to him, including a gold ring and a wrist-watch. The cops, who belonged to nearby villages, knew Phoolan and her family well, and they did what the family wanted. They kept Phoolan in jail for three days, physically abused her, and then let her off with a warning to behave better in future and live quietly without quarreling with her family or with others. Phoolan never forgave her cousin for this incident.
After Phoolan was released from jail, her parents once again wanted to send her to her husband. They approached Phoolan's in-laws with the plea that she was now sixteen years of age and therefore old enough to begin cohabiting with her husband. They initially refused to take Phoolan back. However, they were themselves very poor, Phoolan's husband was now twenty-eight years old, and it would be very difficult to find another bride for him, especially with one wife still living. Divorce was simply out of the question in that society. After Phoolan's family offered generous gifts, they finally agreed to take her back. Phoolan's parents performed the ceremony of gauna (after which a married woman begins to cohabit with her husband), took Phoolan to her husband's house and left her there.
Sadly, history soon repeated itself. Within a few months, Phoolan, this time no longer a virgin, again returned to her parents. Shortly afterwards, her in-laws returned the gifts that Phoolan's parents had given them and sent word that under no circumstances would they accept Phoolan back again. This was in 1979 and Phoolan was only a few months past her sixteenth birthday. She later claimed in her autobiography that her husband was a man of "very bad character." A wife leaving her husband, or being abandoned by her husband, is a serious taboo in rural India, and Phoolan was marked as a social outcast.
The region where Phoolan lived (Bundelkhand) is even today extremely poor, arid and devoid of industry; most of the able-bodied men migrate to large cities in search of manual work. During the period in question, industry was depressed even in the large cities due to the socialistic policies pursued by Indira Gandhi's government, and daily life was a grim engagement with subsistence farming in a dry region with poor soil. It was not unusual for young men to seek escape from fruitless labour in the fields by running away to the nearby ravines (the main geographical feature of the region), forming groups of bandits, and plundering their more prosperous neighbours in the villages or passing townspeople on the highways.
Shortly after her final sojourn in her husband's house, and in the same year (1979), Phoolan fell in with one such gang of dacoits. How exactly this happened is unclear; some say that she was kidnapped by them because her "spirited temperament," estrangement from her own family and outspoken rejection of her husband had attracted the attention of the bandits, while others say that she "walked away from her life." In her autobiography, she merely says "kismet ko yehi manzoor tha" ("it was the dictate of fate") that she become part of a gang of bandits.
Whether it was kidnapping or her own folly, Phoolan had immediate cause for regret. The gang leader, Babu Gujjar, who was of the Gujjar caste, wanted to have sex with her. He playfully courted her for a few days, but when she would not yield, he attempted to rape her one night. At this juncture, Phoolan was saved from rape by Vikram Mallah, the second-in-command of the gang, who belonged to Phoolan's own Mallah caste. In the altercation connected to the rape attempt, Vikram Mallah killed Babu Gujjar. The next morning, he assumed leadership of the gang.
Undaunted by the fact that Vikram already had a wife and that she likewise had a husband, Phoolan and Vikram began cohabiting together. A few weeks later, the gang attacked the village where Phoolan's husband lived. Phoolan herself dragged him out of his house and stabbed him in front of the villagers. The gang left him lying almost dead by the road, with a note warning older men not to marry young girls. The man survived, but carried a scar running down his abdomen for the rest of his life. Due to this incident, and because he legally remained Phoolan's husband, the man was never able to marry again. He lived his life as a recluse because most people i the village began avoiding his company out of fear of the bandits.
Phoolan learned how to use a rifle from Vikram, and participated in the gang's activities across Bundelkhand, which straddles the border between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. These activities consisted of attacking and looting villages where upper-caste people lived, kidnapping relatively prosperous people for ransom, and committing occasional highway robberies which targeted flashy cars. Phoolan was the only woman member of that gang of dacoits. After every crime, she would visit a Durga temple and thank the Goddess for her protection. The gang's main hideouts were in the ravines of the Chambal River.
Sometime later, Shri Ram and Lalla Ram, two upper-caste Rajput brothers who had been caught by the police, were released from jail and came back to the gang. They were outraged to hear of the murder of Babu Gujjar, their former leader, and held Phoolan responsible for inciting the act. They berated her for being a divisive wanton, and she answered them back with her characteristic foulness of tongue. Shri Ram then held her by the cuff of the neck and slapped her hard, and a scuffle ensued. Phoolan seized this opportunity to allege that Shri Ram had touched her breasts and molested her during the scuffle. As leader of the gang, Vikram Mallah berated Shri Ram for attacking a woman and made him apologise to Phoolan. Shri Ram and his brother smarted under this humiliation, which was exacerbated by the fact that Phoolan and Vikram both belonged to the Mallah caste of boatmen, much lower even that the Gujjar caste of milkmen and peasants to which Babu Gujjar had belonged, and vastly lower than the land-owning Rajput caste to which they themselves belonged.
Whenever the gang ransacked a village, Shri Ram and Lalla Ram would make it a point to beat and insult the Mallahs of that village. This displeased the Mallah members of the bandit gang, many of whom left the gang. On the other hand, around a dozen Rajputs joined the gang at the invitation of Shri Ram and Lalla Ram, and the balance of power gradually shifted in favour of the Rajput caste. Vikram Mallah then suggested that the gang be divided into two, one comprising mainly of Rajputs and the other mainly of Mallahs. Shri Ram and Lalla Ram refused this suggestion on the grounds that the gang had always included a mixture of castes during the days of Babu Gujjar and his predecessors, and there was no reason to change. Meanwhile, the other Mallahs were also not happy with Vikram Mallah. The fact that he alone had a woman cohabiting with him incited jealousy; some of the other Mallahs had bonds of kinship with Vikram's actual wife; and Phoolan's tongue did not endear her to anyone who interacted with her. A few days after the proposal for division had been floated, a quarrel ensued between Shri Ram and Vikram Mallah. Apparently, Shri Ram made a disdaining comment about Phoolan's morals, and Vikram responded with comments about Shri Ram's womenfolk. A gunfight ensued. Vikram and Phoolan, with not a single supporter, managed to escape in the dark. However, they were later tracked down and Vikram Mallah was shot dead. Phoolan was taken by the victorious faction to the Rajput-dominated village of Behmai, home to Shri Ram, Lalla Ram and several of the new Rajput recruits.
Phoolan was locked up in a room in one of the houses in Behmai village. She was allegedly beaten and raped by several men over a period of three weeks. She then managed to escape, after three weeks of captivity, with the help of a low-caste villager of Behmai and two Mallah members from Vikram's gang, including Man Singh Mallah.
Phoolan and Man Singh soon became lovers and joint leaders of a gang comprising solely of Mallahs. The gang carried out a series of violent raids and robberies across Bundelkhand, usually (but not always) targeting upper-caste people. Some say that Phoolan targeted only the upper-caste people and shared the loot with the lower-caste people, but the Indian authorities claim this is a myth; there is no evidence of Phoolan or her partners in crime sharing money with anyone, whether low-caste or otherwise.
Seven months after her escape from Behmai, Phoolan returned to the village to seek revenge. On the evening of 14 February 1981, at a time when a wedding was in progress in the village, Phoolan and her gang marched into Behmai dressed as police officers. Phoolan demanded that her tormentors be produced, along with all the valuables in the village. However, most of the able-bodied men had gone to the city in search of manual work, and even after an exhaustive search, only two Rajput members of the former gang of bandits were found. These two men were not among those who had raped Phoolan; they were merely former members of Vikram Mallah's gang who belonged to the Rajput caste. Indeed, they were old comrades-in-arms of Phoolan, Vikram Mallah, Babulal Gujjar, Shri Ram and Lalla Ram.
Phoolan is said to have been frustrated that no actual culprit had been apprehended. Nevertheless, she had by this time developed a deep hatred for the entire caste of Rajputs, a few of whose members had protested the killing of Babulal Gujjar, then challenged the leadership of his murderer Vikram Mallah, deposed and killed Vikram Mallah and raped Phoolan herself over a period of weeks. Phoolan therefore ordered her gang members to line up each and every man belonging to the Rajput caste that they could lay their hands on in Behmai village. This included Rajputs who belonged to other villages and towns who had come to attend the wedding in the village. The Rajput men were lined up and then, at Phoolan's order, they were shot dead by Phoolan and her gang members. Twenty-two Rajput men, all but two of them utterly innocent, were summarily killed. Later, Phoolan would try to absolve herself in court by claiming that she herself had not opened fire or killed a single person.
The Behmai massacre provoked outrage across the country. V. P. Singh, the then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, resigned in the wake of the Behmai killings. A massive police manhunt was launched which however failed to locate Phoolan. It began to be said that the manhunt was not successful because Phoolan had the support of poor people in the region; stories on the Robin Hood model began circulating in the media. None of these stories had much basis in fact and not a single confirmed instance has ever come to light where Phoolan gave money to anyone in charity. Phoolan began to be called the Bandit Queen, and she was glorified by sections of the Indian media as an intrepid and undaunted woman, the underdog struggling to survive in the world. The very flaws in her character and personality were interpreted as being manifestations of the suffering she had supposedly undergone at the hands of a feudal and patriarchal system. It was at this time that Phoolan, known until then by only one name, received the respectful sobriquet "Devi" from a reverent media and came to be known as "Phoolan Devi."
Two years after the Behmai massacre, the police had still not captured Phoolan. The Indira Gandhi Government decided to negotiate a surrender. By this time, Phoolan was in poor health and most of her gang members were dead, some having died at the hands of the police, some others at the hands of rival gangs. In February 1983, she agreed to surrender to the authorities. However, she said that she didn't trust the Uttar Pradesh Police and insisted that she would only surrender to the Madhya Pradesh Police. She also insisted that she would lay down her arms only before the pictures of Mahatma Gandhi and the Hindu goddess Durga, not to the police. She laid down four further conditions:
- A promise that the death penalty would not be imposed on any member of her gang who surrenders
- The term for the other members of the gang should not exceed eight years.
- A plot of land to be given to her
- Her entire family should be escorted by the police to witness her surrender ceremony
An unarmed police chief met her at a rendezvous in the Chambal ravines. They traveled to Bhind in Madhya Pradesh, where she laid down her rifle before the portraits of Gandhi and Goddess Durga. The onlookers included a crowd of around 10,000 people and 300 policemen, apart from the then chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Arjun Singh. Other members of her gang also surrendered at the same time with her.
Phoolan was charged with as many as forty-eight crimes, including thirty charges of dacoity (banditry) and kidnapping. Her trial was delayed for eleven years, during which time she remained in prison as an undertrial. During this period, she was operated on for ovarian cysts and underwent a hysterectomy. The doctor of the hospital reportedly joked that "We don't want Phoolan Devi breeding more Phoolan Devis". She was finally released on parole in 1994 after intercession by Vishambhar Prasad Nishad, the leader of the Nishadha community (another name for the Mallah community of boatmen and fisherfolk). The Government of Uttar Pradesh, led by Mulayam Singh Yadav, withdrew all cases against her. This move sent shock-waves across India and became a matter of public discussion and controversy.
On 15 february 1995, Phoolan Devi and her husband ummed singh had embraced Buddhism at the famous Buddhist site Deekshabhoomi.
In 1996, two years after her release, Phoolan stood for election to the 11th Lok Sabha from the Mirzapur constituency in Uttar Pradesh. She contested the election as a member of the Samajwadi Party of Mulayam Singh Yadav, whose government had withdrawn all cases against her and summarily released her from prison. She won the election and served as an MP during the term of the 11th Lok Sabha (1996–98). She lost her seat in the 1998 election but was reelected in the 1999 election and was the sitting member of parliament for Mirzapur when she was assassinated.
On 25 July 2001, Devi was shot dead by three masked gunmen outside of her Delhi bungalow. She was hit five times: three shots to her head and two to her body. The gunmen fled the scene in a Maruti car. She was taken to a nearby hospital but was declared dead. The prime suspect, Sher Singh Rana (alias Pankaj Singh), later surrendered to the police. Rana allegedly claimed to have murdered Phoolan Devi in revenge for the men she gunned down in the Behmai massacre. In the latest ruling, on August 14, 2014, the court sentenced Sher Singh Rana to a life in prison and a fine.
In the immediate aftermath of the murder, the police were accused of incompetence in their handling of the case. It was alleged that a party worker picked up revolvers that had been dumped by the killers and hid them. Three other people staying in her house were accused of knowing about the revolvers. The revolvers then disappeared before the police could conduct forensic tests on them.
Sher Singh Rana, the main accused, was convicted by Delhi court on August 8, 2014. However, the other ten accused were acquitted. Sher Singh Rana was convicted for the offences under Sections 302 (murder), 307 (attempt to murder) and 34 (common intention) under the IPC. The judge had fixed August 12, 2014 as the date for arguments and pronouncement of sentence. On August 14, 2014 Sher Sing Rana was given life term for killing Phoolan Devi by a Delhi court.
Shekhar Kapur made a movie Bandit Queen (1994) about Phoolan Devi's life up to her 1983 surrender, based on Mala Sen's 1993 book India's Bandit Queen: The True Story of Phoolan Devi. Although Phoolan Devi is a heroine in the film, she fiercely disputed its accuracy and fought to get it banned in India. She even threatened to immolate herself outside a theater if the film were not withdrawn. Eventually, she withdrew her objections after the producer Channel 4 paid her £40,000. The film brought her international recognition. Author-activist Arundhati Roy in her film review entitled, "The Great Indian Rape Trick", questioned the right to "restage the rape of a living woman without her permission", and charged Shekhar Kapur with exploiting Phoolan Devi and misrepresenting both her life and its meaning.
In 1985 another low budget Bengali movie Phoolan Devi (1985 film) was released loosely based on Phoolan's life. This film was directed by Ashok Roy and starred by Suresh Oberoi, Rita Bhaduri and Joy Banerjee.
Although she was illiterate, Phoolan composed her autobiography entitled The Bandit Queen of India: An Indian Woman's Amazing Journey From Peasant to International Legend, with the help of international authors Marie-Therese Cuny and Paul Rambali.