The energy and strength of The Bandit Queen Of India, Phoolan Devi, are particularly powerful in the context of today’s awakening awareness of brutality towards women.
Born into poverty, sold as a child bride, abducted by bandits, looted upper caste people, imprisoned, elected to India’s Parliament, assassinated in the streets of New Delhi in 2001.
The life and agony of the dacoit-turned-politician have been described in the following timeline:
A brave fighter since childhood
The notorious ‘Bandit Queen’ was born on August 10, 1963, in Ghura Ka Purwa, a small village in Uttar Pradesh. Phoolan in her early years was unlike the “typical” Indian women In 1974 her cousin sold their only asset, a neem tree. She protested and did not relent when the family elders tried to use force to send her back home.
Child Marriage: Married off at 11
Phoolan, a ‘troublemaker’, was married off to an old man who was in his 30’s. Her husband used to repeatedly rape her and mistreated her. Apparently, after being brutalized, she was returned back to her family for failing to fulfill ‘wifely duties’. A wife being returned to her husband was a serious taboo in India back then and she was marked as a social outcast.
Raped in prison
During her three days in prison (for stealing small things) in 1979 she was beaten and raped by the authorities. It was around this time that she started to develop a deep hatred for men who abused and insulted women. When released from prison she was shunned even more from society. And it was during this time she decided to join a gang of dacoits.
Mistress of Vikram Mallah, a dacoit leader
After abducting Phoolan, the gang leader, a member of the Gujjar caste, wanted to rape her. But his second-in-command Vikram Mallah, who belonged to Devi’s own Mallah caste stopped him and eventually killed the leader. He became the gang leader himself and married Phoolan, who joined the gang of bandits.
Killed her ex-husband
Phoolan’s gang ransacked her ex-husband’s village and she took her revenge. After stabbing him to death, she dragged his body out onto the streets with a note tied around his neck, warning other men who married young girls.
Robin Hood-like activities to aid the lower castes
Soon, she became trained in shooting and fighting. Her gang started ransacking high-caste villages, kidnapping upper caste landowners for ransom and started helping the poor with the money. She became the ‘Robin Hood’ of India. After every crime, she would visit a local Durga temple and thank the Goddess for protecting her.
Old gang members murdered Vikram and raped her again
Some time later, two old gang members, Shri Ram and Lala Ram, took revenge by killing Vikram Mallah. Phoolan was locked up in a room in one of the houses in Behmai village. She was beaten and raped by several men over a period of three weeks.
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St. Valentine’s Day Massacre – The largest dacoit massacre in the history of modern India
On 14th February 1981 Phoolan and her gang marched into Behmai village to seek revenge, dressed as police officers. Shri Ram and Lala Ram were lined up along with all the upper caste villagers and shot in retribution for her gang rape. 22 people were killed. This act intensified both her status in modern folklore and the police search for her.
Glorified in the Indian media
The massacre provoked outrage across the country catching the attention of political leaders of that time. She came to be known as The Bandit Queen and female ‘Robin Hood’. A large-scale police hunt was launched but failed to locate Phoolan Devi. Dolls of Phoolan Devi dressed as the Hindu goddess Durga were sold in market towns in Uttar Pradesh.
Surrendering to the Madhya Pradesh Police in 1983
She went absconding for two years compelling the Indira Gandhi government to negotiate a surrender. In February 1983, she agreed to surrender with a list of conditions to the Madhya Pradesh Police because she did not trust the U.P. Police. Charged with 48 crimes, her trial was delayed and spent 11 years in prison waiting for a trial date.
Member of Parliament from 1996 to 1998
The government of Uttar Pradesh led by Mulayam Singh Yadav withdrew all cases against her and she was released on parole in 1994. The ‘Bandit Queen’ took advantage of her cult status and, as a member of the Samajwadi Party, from the Mirzapur area in Uttar Pradesh, served as a MP from 1996 till 1998 (11th Lok Sabha).
July 25, 2001 – Assassinated by three masked gunmen in Delhi
The masked assassins opened fire on her outside her home in Delhi. She was hit five times – three shots to her head and two to her body. The prime suspect, Sher Singh Rana, claimed to have murdered Phoolan Devi in revenge for Behmai massacre.
At a time when India’s lower castes are reaching for national power, Phoolan is a symbol and an avenger of atrocities committed against the lower castes – a woman who took justice into her own hand.