Twenty years after she died, former bandit queen and then MP, Phoolan Devi, is all set to make a ‘comeback in the next Uttar Pradesh assembly elections.
Political parties in the state are keen to revive the legacy of Phoolan Devi and win over the Nishad community to which she belonged.
Her family members, meanwhile, are fighting their own battles.
Phoolan Devi had emerged as an icon of the Nishad community when she avenged her exploitation and humiliation with the Behmai massacre where she gunned down 20 Thakurs on February 14, 1981.
After serving jail sentence, she joined the Samajwadi Party when the then chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav withdrew the cases against her in 1994.
She went on to become Member of Parliament twice.
She married Umed Singh but her happiness was short lived and Phoolan was shot dead at her Delhi residence on July 25, 2001. She was only 38.
Now with assembly elections round the corner in Uttar Pradesh, various political outfits are trying to claim Phoolan’s legacy.
The fledgling Nishad Party, led by Sanjay Nishad, is trying to revive Phoolan’s legacy and seek rightful share for the community.
“We want a statue of Phoolan Devi in Gorakhpur. She is an icon and deserves to be respected as one. The Nishad community must be given reservation in the scheduled caste category and all cases against our community members must be withdrawn,” he has demands.
The Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP) of Bihar has gone a step further and is now making a foray in Uttar Pradesh politics, armed with 18 statues of Phoolan Devi that it plans to install in all divisional headquarters of the state.
Chaudhary Lautan Ram Nishad, a senior leader of the community, says, “We are being denied permission for installing statues and the officials say that Phoolan Devi was a criminal. She was not convicted for any crime and was elected to the Lok Sabha twice. We are going to observe July 25 as ‘Martyr’s Day’ in her memory.”
Lautan Ram Nishad, who heads the Rashtriya Nishad Sangh, explains why the Nishad need to fortify their political presence in Uttar Pradesh.
“The Nishad community and its sub castes like Mallah, Kevat, Bind, Manjhi, Ghevar, Raikwar and Kawar constitute almost 1.78 crore of the state’s population. There are 1.5 Lakh members of the community in 160 assembly seats but the community has remained in the wings because we did not have a strong leadership till now,” he says.
Kunwar Singh Nishad, once a BJP leader, has now quit the party and is taking out Nishad Yatras to seek reservation for his community. He also plans to use Phoolan’s death anniversary to put the spotlight on his agitation.
The Nishad vote is about 18 per cent of the total OBC population in Uttar Pradesh.
In this scenario, it is only natural that the Samajwadi Party is also preparing to lay its claim to the Phoolan legacy.
“There is no denying the fact that it was Netaji (Mulayam Singh Yadav) who brought Phoolan out of jail and then made her member of parliament. Had it not been for him, Phoolan would have spent her life in jail. The Samajwadi Party always worked to bring marginalized communities into the social and political mainstream”, said a senior SP functionary.
Meanwhile, in Shekhpura Gadha village in Orai in Jalaun district, about 260 kilometres from Lucknow, two families are also fighting for Phoolan’s legacy-her mother Moola Devi and her cousin Maiyyadin.
Phoolan’s mother Moola Devi lives with her elder daughter Rukmini.
She recalls that her husband Devi Deen owned 16 bighas of land of which had been usurped by his brother Bihari and then his son Maiyyadin.
“When Phoolan was alive, she had got six bighas of land back but those people (cousin) grabbed it back after she died. All I want now is that the land should be given to us and the government can open a school and a hospital in my daughter’s name where the poor get free education and treatment”, she said.
Moola Devi, an octogenarian, said that she had given several representations to the district officials but no action had been taken.