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The legend of the Bandit Queen

WHEN she was gunned down in New Delhi on  25 July 2001 , Phoolan Devi was three weeks short of 38 years. Yet she had already moved from dire poverty to lead a gang of cut-throat bandits, spent over a decade in jail and emerged to twice win Parliamentary elections and be nominated for a Nobel prize.

She was born on August 10, 1963, in the Uttar Pradesh village, Gorha Ka Purwa.

That remote cluster of mud huts on the banks of the sacred Yamuna River, so tiny it’s not on any map, is like half-million other villages in which 70 per cent of India live and die. This is called “the real India”.

It is a world of poverty, superstition, illiteracy and the oppressive 2,500-year-old form of apartheid known as the caste system. Here, a low-caste girl child, such as Phoolan was, is a curse to her family but more so to herself.
Her caste will determine what she and her family eat and out of what vessels, how she will be married, the length of her sari, what ornaments she may wear, whether she may draw water from the village well, through which door she may enter a temple, if she may enter at all.

Most of all it will determine whether or not she amounts to anything more than a slave for any passing upper-caste man.

“What you call rape, that kind of thing happens to poor women in the villages every day. It is assumed that the daughters of the poor are for the use of the rich,” Phoolan once explained to a reporter. “They assume that we’re their property. In the villages the poor have no toilets, so we must go to the fields, and the moment we arrive, the rich lay us there; we can’t cut the grass or tend to our crops without being accosted by them. We are the property of the rich.”

That’s the best they can expect. The worst is what happened, for example, to Bhuli Devi, a 30-year-old peasant woman in 1996.

Accused of stealing four potatoes from a landowner’s field, she was stripped and forced to stand naked at the scene of her alleged crime all day. Her accusers surrounded her laughing, led by the farmer on whom her family’s livelihood depended. After dark she was gang-raped and then killed.

Phoolan was the second of five siblings, four girls. To make it worse, her father lost his inheritance, some 15 acres of land, to a scheming elder brother and the brother’s son, Maiyadin.

By ten, Phoolan was precocious and sharp-tongued, and would insult Maiyadin in public. At his insistence she was married off to a middle-aged widower from a distant village in exchange for a cow.

Her husband violated and beat the child. After a year she did the unthinkable; she left him and walked, alone and scared, the 700 miles back to Gorha Ka Purwa.

“You have heaped disgrace upon us all,” wailed her mother. “There is no alternative: you must commit suicide. Go jump in the village well.” She didn’t.

Over the next decade Phoolan cut grass, grazed water buffalo, developed a reputation for promiscuity, and continued her fight with Maiyadin.

In 1979 she was arrested on a charge of robbing Maiyadin’s home, and spent a month in police custody, where she was beaten and raped by Maiyadin’s friends. She was just, by her words, “a whimpering piece of rubbish in the corner of a dirty room with rats staring me in the eye”.

That July Phoolan was dragged away by a dacoit gang—rural bandits—led by the notoriously cruel Babu Gujar. They took her into the wild, lawless lands called the Ravines, where dacoits have flourished for centuries. There Babu Gujar beat and raped her continuously for three days.

On the third day Babu’s lieutenant Vikram Mallah shot Babu dead and made Phoolan his mistress.

Mallah fell in love, bought her a radio (she liked film music), and made her a crackshot. “If you are going to kill, kill 20, not just one,” a popular song has him telling her. “If you kill 20 your fame will spread; if you kill only one, they will hang you.”

And together they led the gang up and down the Chambal River Valley, killing, robbing and maiming in the name of justice and god. Songs celebrated the abused girl who became a dacoit and redeemed her honour.

Phoolan Devi, dacoit beauty,” read a rubber stamp she had made: “Beloved of Vikram Mallah, Emperor of Dacoits”.

Phoolan was astute, her instincts sharp. Once, sitting at a campfire, she felt something slither by her thigh. It was a snake. She held it and threw it aside, and read it as an omen. She had the gang pack up and leave, ten minutes before a large police contingent arrived.

One evening in 1980 she noticed a crow sitting on a dead tree at the edge of their camp. Mallah ignored her warnings, though. That night he was shot and killed by two brothers, new members of the gang, in revenge for Babu Gujar’s death. Babu had been upper-caste and Mallah low-caste, and even in the Ravines caste ruled.

Phoolan was bound and gagged, possibly chloroformed, and taken downriver aboard a boat to the hamlet Behmai. There she was locked in a dark, filthy hut. Every night for three weeks she was gang-raped until unconscious.
On the 23rd day she was dragged out and was beaten, stripped and made to fetch water from the village well. The Thakur (upper) caste men jeered and spat on her.

That evening a friend from a nearby village crept into her hut and spirited her away in a bullock cart.
Back in the Ravines she formed a new dacoit gang and, 17 months after her capture, on Saint Valentine’s Day, 1981, Phoolan Devi returned to Behmai.

Leading her heavily-armed men, she wore a khaki coat with three silver stars, blue jeans, boots with zippers, bright red lipstick and nails. A Sten gun hung from her shoulder, ammunition crossed her chest, and she held a megaphone.
She ordered the villagers to hand over their cash, jewellery, and the two men who had killed Mallah and kidnapped her. While her men searched fruitlessly, she waited by the well. Trembling, the villagers denied any knowledge of the brothers.

Phoolan lined up the village’s 30 Thakur men. She spat on them, clubbed them with her rifle. She marched them to the river embankment, ordered them to kneel, and had them shot. Twenty-two died—the largest dacoit massacre in modern India, committed by a low-caste woman.

Thus a 25-year-old woman became the low-caste folk hero known as the Beautiful Bandit, the Goddess of Flowers, the Avenging Angel, the Rebel of the Ravines or, most often, the Bandit Queen. Legends mushroomed about her spiritual powers, her sexual appetite, her ferocious temper, her beauty.

[caption id="attachment_4208" align="aligncenter" width="558"]Phoolan Devi  - Bandit Queen She had a US$10,400 price on her head, and dozens of charges of banditry, although not even the police had a photograph of her. And she led them a merry dance in the Ravines in the state of Madhya Pradesh.[/caption]

After near two years, Phoolan, exhausted, negotiated her surrender: the gang wouldn’t be hanged, but would serve eight years; they’d never be handcuffed nor extradited to Uttar Pradesh; her father’s land would be returned, her brother given a government job, and her family resettled in Madhya Pradesh with her goat and cow.

And on a cold night in February, 1983, police superintendent Rajendra Chaturvedi and chief minister Madhya Pradesh, both unarmed, met Phoolan and 12 men in the Ravines. She was draped in a brown wool blanket and a red shawl. A .315 Mauser hung from her shoulder, a bandolier crossed her chest, and a scimitar was tucked into her belt.

The next morning Phoolan, her gang and her family were taken to the village of Bhind. A 23-foot dais was ready. Around was a crowd of thousands, including over a hundred foreign and local journalists, and scores of VIPs. Film music blared.

Her hair was tied with a red bandanna. She ascended, grinned at the crowd, bowed before portraits of Gandhi and Durga (goddess of power and destruction), and knelt in homage to the chief minister. She faced the crowd and raised the .315. The crowd roared.

After that she rotted in prison for 11 lonely, painful years. Indira Gandhi, who had agreed to her terms, was dead; the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh was in another state, Phoolan had no money.

But the 1990s saw the political rise of the lower castes throughout India, and Madhya Pradesh elected a low-caste chief minister. He dropped all charges against Phoolan in 1994.

She got married. A biography was written and a prize-winning movie produced of the life of the Bandit Queen. She criticised its explicit rape scenes.

Phoolan was a classic avenging social bandit such as were found all over the world, from the13th-century Robin Hood in England to Lampao in Brazil in the 1860s, Diego Corrientes in Spain, Salvatore Giuliano in Sicily, or Jesse James in the US.

As historian Eric Hobsbawm analysed, social bandits were impoverished peasants who fell afoul of the landlords or the authorities. They all launched their career as victims of an injustice, and the first wrong they right is the one done them. Rarely, however, did they carry their convictions into the political arena. But Phoolan, like Pancho Villa in Mexico, did.

She joined a leftist agrarian party and in 1996 was swept to power in the general elections which ended the half-century rule of the Congress party.

She campaigned to abolish child labour in the factories, and launched the Eklavya Sena organisation to teach lower-caste men and women self-defence.

Phoolan was re-elected and lived a comfortable middle-class life in Delhi. But her past pulled her. Her health had been shattered by the years on the run and in prison. Probably frustrated with her illiteracy, she became renowned for the coarseness of her profanity. “I even yell and curse the god (Durga) when I get angry,” she said.
And on 25th July 2001 three masked gunmen cornered her outside her home and sprayed her with bullets. She died in a pool of blood under the neem tree in her yard.

“With this act,” declared one of her killers, who was captured on Friday, “the stigma on the name of the (Thakur) Rajputs has been cleared.”

As if the death of a five-foot-tall woman could reduce the towering stature of her legend in the eyes of the millions she inspired.

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