Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Phoolan Devi the Bandit Queen of India

The Bandit Queen Surrenders

The massacre at Behmai was the most heinous crime ever committed by a dacoit gang in the history of modern India.   The nation was shocked.  A low-caste woman leading a killing rampage on a group of high-caste men was unthinkable.  A crime of this magnitude demanded the authorities full attention as Phoolan Devi suddenly became the most wanted criminal in India

Phoolan and her gang went into hiding, but when she learned that the authorities had arrested and imprisoned her parentsin effect holding them hostageshe decided to negotiate for her surrender.   Over a period of nearly a year, she haggled over the terms of her surrender with Rajendra Chaturvedi, the police superintendent of the district of Bhind.  With the cunning of a criminal defense attorney, she hammered out a deal that guaranteed that she and her gang would surrender in Madhya Pradesh and would never be extradited to Uttar Pradesh where Behmai was located.  Her other demands included that she would be tried for all of her crimes at once and in Madhya Pradesh; that she and her gang would not be handcuffed; that if convicted, they would not be hanged; that they would spend no more than eight years in prison; and that the prison would be an A-class jail.  She also wanted portraits of Durga and Ghandi displayed when she surrendered.  Furthermore, she insisted that the authorities force her cousin Mayadin to give back the land he had taken from her father; that they resettle her parents in Madhya Pradesh on government land; and that they guarantee a government job for her little brother.  The government agreed to it all.

On a February evening in 1983, almost two years to the day from the massacre at Behmai, Phoolan Devi emerged from the ravines with her gang and finally turned herself in.   It was a spectacle worthy of a movie.  A crowd of 8,000 cheered for their Robin Hood, the Bandit Queen of India.  Festive music blared from loudspeakers.  Legions of uniformed police stood by in formation, waiting to escort her into custody.  All this ceremony for a five-foot-tall, illiterate woman barely out of her teens.

Phoolan Devi in her bandits garb at her surrender
Phoolan Devi in her bandits garb at her surrender

She was wearing a khaki uniform and a red shawl.   A wide red bandana was tied around her head, covering her brows.  She carried a .315 Mauser rifle on her shoulder, a curved dagger in her belt, a full bandolier across her chest, and a small silver statue of the goddess Durga in her breast pocket.  She bowed before portraits of Durga and Ghandi and gave herself over to the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh.  Before they led her away, she turned to the crowd and raised her rifle over her head.  Finally, according to Mary Anne Weaver, with hands folded in the traditional gesture of greeting, she demurely lowered her eyes to the ground.  The crowd went wild, vociferously showing their support. 

Phoolan Devi in jail after her surrender
Phoolan Devi in jail after her surrender

Ultimately the authorities disregarded the terms of the agreement, and Phoolan Devi spent more than eleven years in prison without trial, more than any of her gang members.   Some of them, including Man Singh, agreed to be tried in Uttar Pradesh against her wishes but were acquitted because no witness dared come forward to identify the bloodthirsty crew.  While she was rotting in prison, as she put it, a feature film based on her life called Bandit Queen was released.  She disliked it so intensely she sued the films producer and director.

Phoolan Devi after her release
Phoolan Devi after her release
  

An ambitious lower-caste politician took up her case and secured her release from prison in February 1994.   To the astonishment of the country, the skinny girl who had terrorized two states and committed multiple criminal acts announced that she would be running for office.  Heavier and rounder than she had been when she was known as the Bandit Beauty, Phoolan Devi announced that she would run for a seat in the Indian Parliaments lower house, promising to be a strong voice for women and for the poor.  Running her campaign with the same shrewdness, ruthlessness, and passion that she had used to run her gang, she won   the election in May 1996.

Phoolan Devi with husband Ummed Singh
Phoolan Devi with husband Ummed Singh
 

On July 25, 2001, three assassins in front of her New Delhi home gunned down Phoolan Devi in broad daylight. She had walked home from Parliament after the morning session, intending to have lunch there.  The leader of the assassinsa man named Pankaj, a.k.a. Sher Singh Ranaadmitted to the murder. He said he was seeking retribution for the Behmai massacre.  But the police were suspicious of his connections to Phoolans last husband, Ummed Singh, who was reportedly upset with Phoolans threats to cut him out of her will.

As for Sri Ram, the red devil whose merciless torture of Phoolan had caused the massacre of the thakurs at Behmai, Phoolan had the satisfaction of receiving a note before her surrender from Lala Ram, Sris brother.   Lala had informed her that her archenemy was dead.  Lala himself had killed Sri in a dispute over a woman.

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