August 2, 2001


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Dilip D'Souza

Death of a Conundrum

At a workshop I attended some years ago, somebody brought up Phoolan Devi -- who had just won a parliamentary election -- and laughed theatrically. The absurdity of it, he exclaimed. Look at us, on the one hand we sit here discussing things so seriously; on the other we elect murderers like Phoolan Devi! Almost everyone at the table laughed in ironic solidarity. If it wasn't so serious, they agreed, it would be funny. What a disgrace for India that this woman is a MP!

One woman, an ex-MP herself, wasn't laughing. When the titters died down, she spoke up. Look, she said, it's true Phoolan committed all those murders. But the fact is, she gave up crime years ago. She is a murderer, but she is really kind of harmless today. You like to laugh at her, but there are far more active and deadly criminals who have become powerful men. All over the country. They should worry you, not the election of Phoolan.

The lady's short speech was greeted with snorts of disbelieving disdain. As if she had not spoken, the panellists went back to wringing their collective hands over Phoolan. The shame she has brought to India by getting elected, the shame!

But I found myself thinking about what the lady ex-MP had said that day. Over the years since, I've come to believe she spoke a serious truth.

In some ways, Phoolan came to personify to the great Indian middle class their worst fears about politics in India -- that it is being taken over by vicious gangsters with enormous moustaches from the dark recesses of the country. Leave out the moustache and Phoolan -- scourge of the Chambal, murderer of upper caste men in Behmai, gun in her hand as she surrendered to Arjun Singh -- was precisely that gangster. So she became the butt of a thousand jokes, was the focus of our revulsion for politics, made regular appearances on Bombay's Talk Of The Town posters that offer always-weak commentary on our political situation. Hers was invariably the name mentioned first when party conversations turned, as they often do, to moaning over the kind of leaders we are saddled with.

Yet there was always something just slightly unsettling about all this and that's what the ex-MP was getting at. Unsettling, what's more, on two counts.

First, indeed: if you bemoan Phoolan as MP, consider many others who do hold or have held the reins of power. In Bombay, there's Bal Thackeray, named in the Srikrishna report for his cheerleading feats during the 1992-93 riots, but remote-controller of the state between 1995 and 1999. In Madras, there's J Jayalalithaa, whose recent moves on her predecessor only remind us of what she is capable of. In Bihar, there's Laloo Yadav. In Parliament and in state assembly after assembly, there are dozens of elected men who run for office from or belong in jail. The crimes they are accused of range from taking bribes to assault to murder: Why, the last CM of my state of Maharashtra, one Narayan Rane, was himself an accused in a murder case that was still on appeal when he became CM.

Why is it, you think, that the Talk Of The Town posters never once mentioned Rane using the sarcasm that marked their mention of Phoolan? That Thackeray, far from being a reviled figure like Phoolan always was, is hailed as a 'Hindu Hriday Samrat' and a patriot by the very people who love to scorn Phoolan?

Second, the stark differences in the way people looked at Phoolan. If our educated set, the upper castes, the MTV generation, saw her as a symbol of the worst in India, the lower castes saw her as nothing less than a heroine. As Sankarshan Thakur writes in The Indian Express, they speak of Phoolan as a fighter, a helpless wronged girl who had the guts to fight. Call her a daaku to them and they will respond with a fireburst of rhetoric on why she became a dacoit and who forced her into that life. If they were aware of Joan of Arc, they would have called her that.

What's more, as Thakur observes, if the upper castes upbraid the lower castes for turning gangsters like Phoolan into MPs, the lower castes say the upper castes have done the same for ages, only nobody complained because it was a one-way war.

And that is really the dilemma Phoolan Devi -- MP or gangster, dead or alive -- erects for us 21st century Indians. If we like to scorn Phoolan for her murderous past -- as we should -- why do we make our peace with a man who instigated some of the most murderous carnage Bombay has ever known? If we can rationalise away that carnage, why should Phoolan's supporters in the Chambal not rationalise away her murders?

In fact, how do we reconcile these two diametrically opposite views of Phoolan? Was she a mass-murderer? Or was she a heroic battler against centuries of caste oppression?

It's a reconciliation we will have to attempt some day. Because the same dilemma -- albeit with utterly differing perceptions -- stares at us from elsewhere in the country too. Are the militants in Kashmir, or the north-east, terrorists, as some say they are? Or are they, as others believe, freedom fighters? Have years of economic "reforms" helped the country, as so many in the middle-class think they have? Or have they dangerously widened wealth disparities, as so many among the poor believe? Is Sukh Ram a bare-faced thief, as the tens of millions of rupees found in his bedsheets indicated? Or is he the man who brought telephones to Himachal Pradesh, as several people in that state, brushing aside the bedsheet cache, gratefully described him to me? Was the Mandal Report, as its bitter critics claim, a vehicle that perpetuated casteism? Or was it a "symbol of lower caste aspirations," as a Hindi teacher from UP called it as we sat in his dingy chawl in Worli? ("By ridiculing Mandal," he told me, "they have ridiculed all our aspirations.")

To me, Phoolan has always been a stand-in for conundrums like these: she was one herself. And I wonder, too: how do we reconcile strong opinions about her -- whatever yours are -- with the somewhat ineffective nonentity she really was by the time she became a MP?

If you try to answer these questions, you come inevitably to the simple conclusion I've alluded to in this column. To us in the seminar and in the MTV circles, Phoolan serves a very important purpose. We use her to express our horror over the dreadful condition of politics in India; having expressed it, we can sit back and carry on with all we do that actually brings that dreadful condition about.

So we live with instigators of riots in Bombay. We avidly read stock market columns by the personification of the huge stock scam of the early 1990s. We elevate to home minister of the land -- thus responsible for law and order -- a man who rode a Toyota around the country rousing Indians to a raging fervour by telling them an old mosque was their most urgent problem. We tolerate for five years a prime minister who actually faced trial for masterminding an incompetent forgery to implicate a political rival. We pay for watertight security to political leaders named in inquiry after inquiry for their nauseating roles in the massacre of Sikhs in 1984.

Phoolan, then, was the inevitable offspring of all this.

So wherever you are, Phoolan Devi, rest in peace. In a hundred ways, you live on.

Dilip D'Souza

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