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A meeting with Phoolan Devi

Heading the HR function of the Railways, I had public representatives of different political persuasions make routine visits to my office. But nothing had prepared me for the announcement one day by my secretary that Phoolan Devi, MP, had sought time to meet me. I must confess that the instinctive, gut reaction was one of panic. After all it is not every day that you come face to face with a former dacoit.

Surely, she must be wanting to meet me to espouse someone’s cause or some issue concerning her constituency. I need not have worried. When she did drop in, it was with a male colleague. It was difficult to believe that this woman of less than average build, with a round, pock-marked face and dusky complexion, wearing a loose-fitting blouse and a plain sari was once the face of terror and lawlessness in the heart of North India. She was obviously ill at ease with her new role in the “civilised” society as a representative of the people. That perhaps explained the presence of her companion: to help her put forth her case. The issue was about a railway employee of her constituency seeking a transfer to a place of his preference. After politely requesting me to look into the case, she and her companion left. No fuss.

I felt foolish and ashamed for having rushed to prejudge. Here was a woman who by the age of 20 had experienced more than a lifetime of misery, oppression and violence: early marriage to a much older man, domestic discord and violence, caste oppression and a nomadic life of violent crime interspersed with repeated violations of her body and spirit. Yet she had the spunk to reorder her life and emerge out of the dusty ravines of Chambal to finally arrive in Lutyens Delhi.

Cut back to another meeting a few months earlier, again with an honourable public representative, but this time with a “respectable” background. He walked in with a swagger accompanied by a chamcha and without much preamble wanted to know peremptorily why a certain recruitment for the Railways in his constituency was done without giving preference to the locals. On my explaining to him that his demand was against the rules, and after a little back and forth, he roundly abused me, got up and moved towards me as though to physically assault me. Luckily, good sense prevailed and he backed off at the last moment and left my chamber in a huff threatening me with dire consequences.

Both were “honourable” MPs. But while the criminal history of one was an open book and she carried the burden of her past till the very end (Phoolan Devi was shot dead a few months later outside her official residence in New Delhi, perhaps a retribution for the infamous Behmai massacre of the 1980s), the other moved around as a respectable leader, his inherent criminality and corruption concealed from the public by the veneer of his official position. Who was more “honourable”?

Since every “honourable” is not necessarily honourable, it is perhaps time to consign this meaningless symbolism to the dustbin of history, like its close cousin “Rt. honourable” and that valediction of servility “your most obedient servant”. Unless, of course, the honourables themselves need a constant reminder that they had better behave honourably, always.

balakesari_k@hotmail.com

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Printable version | May 11, 2021 11:39:03 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/a-meeting-with-phoolan-devi/article34289454.ece

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