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Bandit Queen, MP, feminist: Phoolan Devi could never be put in a box

Eighteen years after her assassination in Delhi, Phoolan Devi still baffles many as a cultural icon, bandit, murderer and lawmaker.

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New Delhi: In an interview, soon after dacoit-turned-politician Phoolan Devi became a legislator, she was asked about the difference between her earlier self and the new one. In a most childlike manner, she reversed the question to the reporter, asking for the latter’s opinion.

Yet, she is also someone who many feared as a re-incarnation of Goddess Durga — one who avenges injustice in a brutal manner.

She knew what it was like to be at the receiving end of caste violence. But took revenge for her gang rape by killing 22 men who belonged to the same caste as her rapists.

A cultural icon, criminal, bandit and lawmaker, it is impossible to put Phoolan Devi in a box even 18 years after her death. Both in life and death, she was a fighter.

On the run

The second daughter and youngest among four children of an illiterate Mallah farmer in Uttar Pradesh, Phoolan Devi was sold off in marriage by her family to a much older man at the age of 11. He abused her physically and sexually. After multiple attempts, she finally managed to run away.

But she developed differences with her parents and villagers — in part because of the ‘shame’ she had brought by escaping an abusive marriage and her own tendency to use foul language. A teenage Phoolan Devi left home, only to join a gang of bandits.

That barely helped her. Gang leader Babu Gujjar raped and brutalised her for three days, before fellow member Vikram Mallah killed him to save her. Mallah soon became a leader of this gang and Phoolan Devi his lover.

The two of them and their band of dacoits looted, kidnapped and killed many after that. They also went back to the village where Phoolan Devi’s husband lived, thrashing and scarring him for life.

Their idyll, however, was short-lived. Two Rajput dacoits and loyalists of Gujjar — Shri Ram and Lalla Ram — were unhappy under Mallah’s leadership because he belonged to a lower caste.

Caste rivalry, jealousy and the desire to avenge Gujjar’s murder soon led to a gunfight in which Mallah was killed.

Phoolan Devi later recalled the incident: “There was a loud noise, the sound of a bullet being fired…Vikram sat up suddenly and I thought the police had surrounded us. I reached for our rifles but they had been removed. Then, Vikram fell forward.”

Bloodbath at Behmai

Phoolan Devi was abducted and taken to the Thakur village of Behmai where she was tied and gang raped by the same high-caste outlaws for two weeks, during which she lost consciousness several times. In a final indignity, the gang members also paraded her naked around the village.

Biographer Mala Sen, whose book India’s Bandit Queen: the True Story of Phoolan Devi formed the basis for Shekhar Kapur’s critically acclaimed film Bandit Queen, said, “There are various versions of what happened to Devi after Mallah’s death. When I spoke to her she was reluctant to talk about her beizzati (dishonour), as she put it, at the hands of the Thakurs. She did not want to dwell on the details and merely said un logo ne mujhse bahut mazak ki (they had a lot of fun at my expense)”.

She escaped Behmai and joined another rival gang, only to return several months later — dressed in a khaki coat, blue jeans and wearing bright lipstick — with a sten gun hanging from her shoulder.

She called all the villagers out and asked them to hand over Shri Ram and Lalla Ram. The two men could not be found. So Phoolan Devi rounded up 22 other Thakur men, ordered them to kneel down and shot all of them dead.

The Behmai massacre earned her the name ‘Bandit Queen’ and led to a massive shakeup of the government establishment. Chief Minister V.P. Singh resigned and the police doubled up on efforts to capture Phoolan Devi.


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A life of contradictions and conditions

In a column for Rediff.com, senior advocate Indira Jaising, who represented Phoolan Devi in her case against the producers of Bandit Queen, wrote: “In many ways, I think she transcended the trauma of what had happened to her.”

For many upper castes, Phoolan Devi was nothing more than a gruesome murderer but for several others from the lower castes, she became a re-incarnation of Goddess Durga — someone who avenged the injustice meted out to her.

Two years after the massacre, Phoolan Devi decided to surrender to the police. She was charged with 48 crimes, including 30 charges of dacoity (banditry) and kidnapping.

When asked about the terms that Phoolan Devi was handed for her arrest, she told journalist Mary Anne Weaver: “There were a lot….(but) First, and most important,…I and my gang members would not be hanged; that we would be released from prison after eight years; that we would never be handcuffed; and that we would be permitted to live in prison together—in an A-class jail” (an open VIP jail). And that we would surrender only in Madhya Pradesh, and would never be extradited to Uttar Pradesh”.

In the same interview she also told Weaver that she was in jail for 11 years against the pronounced eight. Rest of her gang members went to UP while Phoolan Devi refused because she “knew she would be killed” if she returned.

Two years after her release from jail, in 1996, Phoolan Devi contested the Lok Sabha elections on a Samajwadi Party ticket — ironically from UP, the same state where she refused to go to when she was in prison. She won the election and became a Member of Parliament from Mirzapur.

The same year, Bandit Queen also released and Devi threatened to immolate herself if the film was not banned. Even though she was interested in a movie made about her life, she also strongly objected to the final product. Phoolan Devi later withdrew her objections.

When asked what her main objections to the film were, Phoolan Devi had said, “It’s simply not the story of my life, so how can they claim it is? How can they say `This is a true story’ when my cousin Maiyadin, the major nemesis of my life, isn’t even in the film? There’s absolutely no mention of my family’s land dispute. In the film I’m portrayed as a snivelling woman, always in tears, who never took a conscious decision in her life. I’m simply shown as being raped, over and over again.”

When Weaver asked what she missed most about being a dacoit, Phoolan Devi said it was, “The power and authority.”

When people betray me now, like those b*****ds at Channel Four, filmmakers Kapur and Bobby Bedi… if I were still a dacoit, I could have taught them a proper lesson,” she added.

Lamenting about the “people in Delhi”, she had said: “In Chambal, they’ll say things openly, they’ll shout it from the rooftops, and then they’ll follow through. However [here] they promise you things, and then behind your back they do precisely the opposite”

It was in Delhi that she was shot dead outside her house by three masked shooters in revenge for Behmai on 25 July, 2001.


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