Phoolan Devi: A Dacoit, a Rape Survivor, a Politician, a Legend
The Quint traces the story of the extraordinary woman, Phoolan Devi.
(This story was originally published on 25 July 2016. It has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark the day the legendary rebel Phoolan Devi was assassinated in 2001.)
How do you describe Phoolan Devi?
Do you decide to tell her story as a fearsome dacoit, one who had a price on her head, evaded police capture for two years, and terrorised police forces in Uttar Pradesh?
Or do you describe her as a rape survivor, one who, as the legend has it, decided to take revenge for her gangrape by allegedly shooting 22 Thakur caste villagers in Behmai?
Or do you tell the story of Phoolan Devi, the politician? The politically shrewd two-time MP who, after spending 11 years in a jail, won elections with aplomb?
A fiery symbol against caste oppression, a criminal in the eyes of the law, a saviour in the eyes of some. A subject of a highly controversial biopic yet a woman who believed in writing her own story, and writing it on her own terms.
Seventeen years ago, Phoolan Devi was shot dead in front of her residence in Delhi. On the occasion of her death anniversary, The Quint tries to trace the story of this extraordinary woman.
A Rebel is Born
Phoolan Devi was born on 10 August 1963 in Ghura Ka Purwa, a small village in Uttar Pradesh. Even as a child, she was a firebrand.
When she was 11, she staged a dharna when her cousin sold the family’s land. Only when she was dragged by the elders in the family did she budge.
To keep her out of trouble, she was married at the age of 11 to a man in his thirties. From this point onwards, there are conflicting accounts.
According to Mala Sen’s book India’s Bandit Queen: the True Story of Phoolan Devi, she fought with her relatives over a property dispute and was thrown in jail as a consequence. Upon her release on bail, she was kidnapped by the dacoits. Other accounts say that she was raped by her husband within the first few days of her marriage, and she left her husband to join the dacoits.
Tales of a Gangrape, And of Surviving
Behmai is a village in Uttar Pradesh, around 100 km from Kanpur. The village would become the stage for the violence which would make Phoolan Devi a feared dacoit, and also a name which would haunt her until the very end of her life.
Although it has been widely reported and documented that it was in Behmai village where Phoolan Devi was kept in a room and gangraped by a group of Thakurs repeatedly for three weeks, she herself never admitted to it.
The abiding narrative we have of Phoolan Devi is that of a brave rape survivor, but interestingly enough, she never spoke about the gangrape herself. Her biographer Mala Sen says:
There are various versions of what happened to Phoolan Devi after Vikram Mallah’s death. When I spoke to her she was reluctant to speak of her bezathi (dishonour) as she put it, at the hands on the Thakurs. She did not want to dwell on the details and merely said “Un logo ne mujhse bahut mazak ki”
The quote is illuminating because it shows that even a fearsome lady like Phoolan Devi was bound by the stigma attached to a rape survivor.
Of course, unlike other rape survivors, she chose revenge. Which resulted in the bloodiest massacre that India had seen in a while.
The Massacre of Behmai
In a column for Rediff.com, Indira Jaisingh, a lawyer who represented Phoolan Devi in her case against the producers of Bandit Queen wrote:
There are so many women in India who are raped every day of their lives. We have no idea if they kill their aggressors or whether they are being killed in caste panchayats. In many ways, I think she transcended the trauma of what had happened to her.
Phoolan Devi transcended the trauma of her gangrape in 1981, when she returned to Behmai village and recognised two men who took part in that gangrape. They refused to reveal the identity of others involved in the gangrape and Phoolan Devi lined 22 Thakur caste villagers and killed all of them.
India was rattled, especially the political establishment. And Phoolan Devi earned the moniker of ‘Bandit Queen’ apart from a price on her head and a dedicated police force on her tail. After being hunted for two years, Phoolan Devi negotiated terms of her surrender with Rajendra Chaturvedi, the SP of Bhind.
She was charged with 48 crimes, including 30 charges of dacoity (banditry) and kidnapping and remained in prison in 11 years. The most feared dacoit in recent memory in India was in jail, but her story was far from over.
Bandit Queen Enters Politics; And Writes Her Final Chapter
In 1996, two years after she was released, Phoolan Devi contested elections on a Samajwadi Party (SP) ticket and won. The rifles were exchanged for the ballot, and the jungles of Madhya Pradesh were replaced by a house on Ashoka Road.
Life had changed, but the ghosts of Phoolan Devi’s past continued to haunt her. Something which she was aware of. As Indira Jaisingh wrote of her impressions of Phoolan:
At some level, Phoolan believed her past would catch up with her, particularly since she was a woman. She knew she had challenged their masculinity. That is why she always demanded police security.
On 25 July 2001, Phoolan Devi was returning from the Parliament when Sher Singh Rana shot her at the gate of her 44, Ashoka Road residence. She was brought to the hospital, and was declared dead.
Rana said that he had killed Phoolan Devi to avenge the 1981 Behmai massacre. Phooolan’s Devi life, filled with violence and injustice, had come full circle.
Writing 15 years after her death, one still grapples with how to view Phoolan Devi. For many from the oppressed classes, she was a pioneer, a hero to look up to with her defiant violence against systems of oppression. On the other hand, for many, she was a law-breaker who got what she deserved.
Phoolan Devi was a paradox, defined by courage and a defiant roar at the powers that be. This was a woman who was a rebel, and knew what it meant to live like one.
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