Revenge of the BANDIT QUEEN~a \ ^^ r
An outlaw who kicked against the oppression of women, Phoolan Devi was implicated in one of the largest gang massacres in modern Indian history. But, in 1996 after 11 years in prison, the "Bandit Queen" found a new way to champion women's rights - as an MP
The peace of the Indian village of Behmai was shattered by shots and screams. When the uproar died down, 22 men lay dead on the riverbank. It was February 14, 1981, and Phoolan Devi had taken bloody revenge for her rape and for the murder of her lover, Vikram Mallah. She was now at the top of the Indian police's Most Wanted list. But among the poor and oppressed, the 'Bandit Queen' enjoyed an almost mythical reputation as a modern day Robin Hood.
BORN AN 'UNTOUCHABLE'
Phoolan Devi was born in August 1963 in Ghura Ka Purwa, a village of mud huts on the Yamuna river in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. She faced a bleak future as both a female and an 'untouchable'. In Indian society, anyone born into a low caste and Phoolan's, a sub-caste of boatmen called mallahs, was the lowest - had virtually no chance of escape. The women were there to satisfy the sexual demands of their masters and worked in the fields for a meal and the equivalent of a few pennies a day. They remained illiterate and their best hope was to marry at 14 and bear sons. Villagers gossiped that Phoolan's father, who worked for a landowning family of the thakur caste, must be cursed - his wife had borne only one son but four daughters.
Even as a young girl, Phoolan had a sense of pride and justice; she railed against the traditional role of Indian women. She stood up in public against her bullying cousin Mayadin on several occasions - who took his revenge by arranging the 11-year-old's marriage to a man three times her age, who then moved her miles from her village and her family. Child marriages had been illegal in India since 1927 but were still widespread among rural communities. Phoolan was beaten, abused and treated as a slave by her husband. He eventually abandoned her and sent her home, where she was now considered tainted. The shame was so great that her mother wanted Phoolan to commit suicide, suggesting that her daughter jump down the village well.
Ignoring her mother's advice, Phoolan quickly earned a reputation for being a troublemaker. She wrote in her autobiography, "I was discovering piece by piece how my world was put together: the power of men, the power of privileged castes, the power of might. I didn't think of what I was doing as rebellion; it was the only means I had of getting justice." Whether sticking up for herself or for her family, Phoolan was always punished by the thakurs. In a legal dispute over a piece of land, she represented her father's interests to the village council and found herself confronting her wealthy uncle and, once again, her cousin Mayadin. Mayadin not only spread slanderous rumours about her but also, in 1979, accused her of theft. The 16-year-old girl was arrested, gang-raped and beaten by the police - but there was no evidence against her and after a month of sexual abuse and torture she was released. Phoolan now harboured an obsessive hatred for any man who abused women.
(Phoolan Devi had never known love or respect until she met Vikram Mallah. She swore never to rest until she had avenged his murder)
A CAREER AS A BANDIT
Shortly after her release, Phoolan vanished from the village - possibly having been abducted by dacoits - armed gangs that still exist in remote areas of northern India. They survive by looting entire villages, kidnapping and hijacking. Buses still travel in armed caravans to fight off likely raids. Considered to be criminals by the police and upper castes, dacoits are often regarded as heroes by the lower castes, who comprise most of their members. Phoolan moved with her new companions to the labyrinthine Chambal ravines, home for centuries to India's most notorious dacoits. There were two factions in the 30-strong gang - the thakurs, led by the oafish Babu Gujar and the mallahs, led by a man named Vikram. Phoolan, against her wishes, was taken by Babu Gujar as his mistress. But deep tension between Gujar and Vikram, his deputy, led Vikram to shoot the leader and assume his role. In Vikram, Phoolan encountered something she had never found in a man before - respect for others, including women. He taught her his tricks of the trade and the two became partners in crime and lovers. Soon Phoolan was a crack shot and a gang leader herself and the duo had become a sort of Indian Bonnie and Clyde. But unlike many bandits, Phoolan Devi did not steal purely for her own benefit.
Like a latter day Robin Hood, she stole from the rich and gave to the poor, particularly poor women. Her inspiration were Durga, the Hindu goddess of strength and power, and Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian statesman who had fought for equality. After each crime - whether the ransacking of a high-caste village or the hijack of a bus - Phoolan would insist on the gang giving thanks to Durga for protecting them.
DISSENT IN THE RANKS
But not everyone was happy with the new leadership. The gang included several higher caste members who loathed being ordered about a couple whom they regarded as social climbers. Two brothers from the thakur caste, Sri Ram and Lala Ram, shunned Phoolan and Vikram and formed their own gang. Then during a robbery in spring 1980, a rich relation of the Ram brothers was murdered by Phoolan and Vikram's gang. Sri Ram had had enough. It was time to wipe out the mallahs.
One night Phoolan was woken by a deafening explosion. Next to her, she heard Vikram muttering something about a 'bastard' shooting at him. When she opened her eyes she saw Sri Ram holding a gun - there was no mistaking his distinctive red hair and beard. Vikram was dead. Sri Ram's accomplices dragged Phoolan from her tent and carried her down to the river. She was bundled into a boat and taken to Behmai, the Ram's home village, where she was locked up, beaten, tortured and repeatedly raped, night after night, by Sri Ram and his men.
After three weeks she was helped to escape and she set about forming her own gang. She took to wearing a red bandana around her forehead - the sign of revenge - and focused on pursuing the Ram brothers.
The attacks launched by her gang were targeted mainly at thakurs - the Ram's caste. At the same time, she appointed herself avenger for all women. Whenever she heard of a rape, a forced abortion or a woman being made to commit suicide for bringing shame on her family, she exacted bloody vengeance against the perpetrators. She wrote, "I would crush them. Otherwise there was no justice for girls like me. The only thing to do with men like that was to crush their serpents, so that they could never use them again."
FROM PRISONER TO POLITICIAN
Seventeen months after escaping from Behmai, she returned to take her revenge. Although she could not find the Ram brothers, she is said to have recognised two of their gang. She ordered 22 thakur men to be dragged from their homes and shot. She was 18. The press described it as the largest massacre by bandits in Indian history. A huge manhunt was launched, but Phoolan Devi's legendary reputation among the poor was only enhanced as she evaded capture. She was mobbed wherever she went and flowers were placed in the bandits rifle muzzles.
After months on the run, Phoolan Devi learned that her parents had been arrested, so she agreed to negotiate terms of surrender with the police chief of the Bhind district of Madhya Pradesh. Several demands would have to be met before she would turn herself in. She was not to be extradited to Uttar Pradesh, where Behmai is located; no-one from her gang was to be hanged, or locked up for more than eight years; she was to be held in a First-class jail; and at her arrest, pictures of the goddess Durga and Mahatma Gandhi were to be displayed. On February 13, 1983, the Bandit Queen laid down her weapons in Bhind. A crowd of 10,000 cheered as music blasted from
(Phoolan Devi and Vikram were something of an Indian 'Bonnie and Clyde'. Her gang of dacoit bandits, equipped with cash and jewels to use as bribes, had excellent intelligence. As they made their way through the countryside, they sang, 'Shall we kill you or let you go?', a line from a popular Indian film that glamorised the dacoit lifestyle)
loudspeakers and the slight khaki-clad figure bowed to the portraits of Durga and Gandhi.
The authorities did not keep their side of the bargain. Phoolan Devi was detained for 11 years without trial. On her release in February 1994, illiterate and devoid of formal schooling, she decided to enter politics, as a mouthpiece for women and the poor. She entered parliament in 1996 as a member of the socialist Samajwadi Party, and won re-election in 1999. The former Bandit Queen, whose main concern was now women's rights, became a media star and a much sought-after interviewee.
(A Devi doll was even manufactured, clad in khaki with a bandolier of bullets strapped across its chest)
Phoolan Devi's past eventually caught up with her. On July 25, 2001, she was shot dead in front of her house in New Delhi. When asked why she hadn't been given adequate protection, a policeman said, 'We spent years chasing Phoolan Devi through the Ravines. Now she's a candidate and we're supposed to give her protection?' Speculation about her murderers' motives ranged from conspiracy theories in the run-up to the regional elections to the involvement of Phoolan's last husband, whom she married in July 1994 and who allegedly feared that she was about to disinherit him. But the man arrested for Phoolan's murder had a personal rather than political motive: he said he had killed her to avenge the massacre of thakurs at Behmai 20 years earlier.
The Indian caste system
Hinduism originally specified four castes: priests, warriors, peasants and artisans, and farm labourers. The distinctions have become far more detailed overtime and today there are around 3000 castes.
A career defined by birth
Membership of a caste is hereditary and linked to the job that a person may be permitted to do.
The caste system in modern India
The modern Indian constitution does not permit people to enjoy any privilege or to be discriminated against on the basis of the caste to which they belong.
The caste system in rural areas
In rural areas the caste system is still intact. Hindu fundamentalists are still calling for it to be revived.