Phoolan Devi (The Bandit Queen of India)
Phoolan Devi known as the "Bandit Queen" - was one of India's most famous outlaws, implicated in one of the largest gang massacres in modern Indian history. Phoolan Devi was born in the village of Gorha Ka Purwa in Uttar Pradesh, the second child in a family of four sisters and a younger brother. Her father, Devidin, worked as a sharecropper and was considered cursed for having had so many daughters. Although they were very poor, Phoolan's family was not the poorest in the village because her father owned about an acre of land and the huge Neem tree that grew on it.
In her autobiography, I, Phoolan Devi, she recalls that the Neem tree's trunk was so large; she and two of her sisters together could barely encircle it with their arms. The valuable timber that could be derived from the tree was, in effect, the family's nest egg. Phoolan came to love that tree for its beauty and majesty and would often rest under its shade. Her father should have been richer, but his crafty older brother Bihari had seized his inheritance of 15 acres with the empty promise that he would care for Devidin and his family. When Bihari died, his estate was left to his oldest son, Phoolan's cousin Mayadin. Though just a child at the time, Phoolan distrusted Mayadin. "He had the face of a lizard: a flat nose with big wide nostrils and lying eyes," she wrote. After his father's funeral, Mayadin went to his uncle Devidin and told him that he was now the elder of the family and would be accorded all the respect that position deserved. But it wasn't long before Mayadin showed his true colors.
While Phoolan's parents were away for a night, Mayadin sent a crew of workers to cut down Devidin's prized Neem tree and sell the wood, taking the proceeds for himself. When Devidin returned to find his tree gone, he did not protest. After living so many years under his brother's subjugation, he knew the futility of trying to fight back. Phoolan was stunned and appalled by her father's passivity. In Indian society, a woman would never dare challenge a man, no matter how offensive his behavior, but Phoolan Devi was fearless, headstrong, and provocative. Though only ten years old, she already had a reputation for promiscuity and was known to bathe naked in the river in broad daylight, unconcerned with who might be watching. She confronted her cousin and demanded that he compensate her father for the Neem tree. He tried to ignore her, but she taunted him in public, called him a thief, and staged a sit-in on his land with her older sister. Mayadin finally lost his patience and struck the impertinent girl with a brick, knocking her out cold.
The beating did not silence her. She continued to harangue Mayadin, demanding justice. To get rid of the little nuisance, Mayadin arranged to have her married to a man named Putti Lal who lived several hundred miles away. Putti Lal was in his thirties; Phoolan was eleven. Her reputation for promiscuity was totally unfounded, and after she was married, she had no idea what was expected of a wife. Fearing his "snake," as she called his penis, she refused to have sex with him. Since he already had another wife, he accepted Phoolan's refusal and relegated her to household labor. She was so miserable she ran away from her husband's house and walked home. When she arrived in her village, her family was horrified. A wife simply did not abandon her husband, they believed. It was unheard of. Phoolan's mother, Moola, was so ashamed, she told her daughter to go to the well and jump in to kill herself. Phoolan was so confused and distraught she contemplated it.
Phoolan Devi's life story fit neatly into the millennia-old stories of caste conflict of India. Whatever she did, it became more notorious because, as a low-caste woman, she had dared to do anything at all. She was born into the Mallah caste, and her father was an impoverished fishermen. She was given in marriage at the age of eleven to a man from a distant village, for a dowry of a single cow. Her husband forced himself upon her and mistreated her. None of this is unusual in India, but what was unusual was that she resisted and ran away. In her somewhat disjointed biography, the next we hear of her is her arrest in a family land dispute. In the mythical version of her story the dispute was between her father and rapacious upper-caste landlords, although it appears that it was her father's cousin who ended up with the land in question.
In time, Phoolan recovered her sense of self and rejected her family's condemnations. She continued to challenge Mayadin, taking him to court for unlawfully holding land that should have been her father's. In court she seldom contained her emotions, and her dramatic outbursts often left the courtroom stunned. In 1979 Mayadin accused Phoolan of stealing from his house. She denied the accusation, but the police arrested her anyway. While in custody, she was beaten and raped repeatedly, then left to rot in a rat-infested cell. She knew that her cousin was behind this injustice. The experience broke her body but ignited her hatred for men who routinely denigrated women.
In July of that year a gang of dacoits led by a notorious bandit leader named Babu Gujar set up camp outside Phoolan's village. The people of the village naturally feared for their lives and their property. Babu Gujar was apparently told of Phoolan Devi's stubborn impertinence because he sent her a letter in which he threatened to kidnap her or cut off her nose, a traditional punishment for women who got out of line.
What happened next is the matter of some debate. Phoolan herself has given conflicting accounts of the event. The dacoits took her from her village and brought her into the rugged ravines. As Mary Anne Weaver writes in her article "India's Bandit Queen," "Perhaps she had indeed been kidnapped. Perhaps Mayadin had paid the dacoits to take her away. Perhaps she was trying to protect her young brother, whom she adored. Or perhaps she simply walked away..." She was brought to Babu Gujar who "brutalized" her for seventy-two hours. Gujar's lieutenant, Vikram Mallah, could no longer stand the young girl's torment, so he shot and killed the dacoit leader.
Tall and unusually thin with a pale complexion and long black hair; Vikram Mallah admired Phoolan since he first set eyes on her. In her autobiography she recounts her feelings about her rescuer: "I felt strange-happy but still frightened. A man had touched me softly; he had stroked my hair and touched my cheeks... I felt I could trust him, something I had never felt about a stranger or a man before. Gradually I stopped sobbing, and my tears dried. If I stayed with him, perhaps I would be happy: no more beatings, no more pain, and no more humiliation."
In a remarkable transformation, after spending more than 10 years in prison, in 1996 she was elected to the Indian parliament. There she tried to establish a reputation as a champion of the oppressed in India: she said that she represented people who like herself were exploited and abused by their social betters. Devi's criminal record and subsequent rehabilitation was made into a successful feature film, Bandit Queen (1994) in India (under the title Phoolan Devi) and the West.
She was born in the north of India into a poor and low-caste family. She married at 11 to a man three times her age but was abandoned by her husband and her family after the marriage broke down. By the time she was around 20 years old; she had been subjected to numerous sexual assaults and turned to a life of crime. She led a gang of robbers - or dacoits - that carried out a series of violent robberies in rural areas of north and central India in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Her supporters say that she targeted high-caste families and shared the spoils with the lower castes, but the Indian authorities insisted this was a myth.
Nevertheless she acquired a Robin Hood reputation as a robber of the rich to help the poor. At the height of Phoolan Devi's fame she was glorified by much of the Indian media which wrote tirelessly of her exploits. A doll was even manufactured in her honour, clad in police uniform with a bandoleer of bullets strapped across her chest.
Perhaps the most notorious incident in Devi's life took place in 1981 when her gang stormed an isolated village with the intention of carrying out a robbery. Details of what exactly happened are unclear, but during the course of the raid, she is reputed to have recognised two men who earlier had sexually assaulted her and murdered her lover. In retribution she ordered around 20 high-caste men to be dragged from their homes and shot them dead in what became known as the Saint Valentine's Day massacre. The press described it as the largest mass killing by bandits in Indian history.
Afterwards police launched a huge manhunt using helicopters and thousands of men, but Devi's high reputation among the poor was enhanced as she frequently out-witted them and evaded capture. Sightings of her were few and far between. She surrendered to the authorities in 1983 in poor health - after most of her gang members had died - in a deal with the Indian government which allowed her to escape being hanged.
After serving her sentence she insisted that she was a reformed character and that she had escaped from her past: but it looks as if the circumstances of her death meant her past had not escaped her - she was shot by masked gunmen outside her home in New Delhi. The manner of her death will no doubt provide further material to build the mythical status of a woman who captured the Indian public's imagination over two decades. No-one yet knows the motive for the attack, but during her time as an outlaw Phoolan Devi had made plenty of enemies, not least among influential high-caste Indians.
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