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.
Legend was born
The infamous ‘Bandit Queen’ was born on August 10, 1963, in Ghura Ka Purwa, a little town in Uttar Pradesh. Phoolan in her initial years was not at all like the “run of the mill” Indian ladies. In 1974 her cousin sold their lone resource, a neem tree. She challenged and did not yield when the family older folks attempted to utilize power to send her back home.
Child Marriage: Married off at 11
She was married to a man in his 30s who raped her days after her wedding. Her health deteriorated to such an extent that she was taken back to her home but when she regained health, she was forced to return to marital home. She was finally freed after her husband took to second wife.
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.
As a result of this incident, Phoolan became a gang-leader in her own right and sought revenge. In 1981 Devi and her gang returned to the village where she had been raped. She recognised two men who raped her and sought whereabouts of the others. When they refused to divulgge details, she rounded up 22 Thakur caste villagers, including two of her rapists, and executed them.
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.
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.
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.
Phoolan as Goddess Durga
It was the biggest bloodbath by a hooligan in India’s record, catching the attention of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The upper caste power had actually not just been endangered, it was embarrassed and repelled. While uppers regarded Phoolan as a callous murderer, for countless untouchables, this gun-slinging criminal had become a devi – Phoolan Devi an incarnation of the Goddess Durga. Dolls of Phoolan Devi dressed as the Hindu goddess Durga were sold in market towns in Uttar Pradesh.
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.
In 1983, Phoolan was accused for 48 criminal offenses including murder, plunder, arson as well as kidnapping for ransom. Phoolan was refuted trial for eleven years. Finally in 1994, a low caste preacher of state of Uttar Pradesh freed Devi of all the charges that was filed against her. The state federal government inevitably took out all fees versus her and was finally released in 1994.
Phoolan in the parliament
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.
A woman who believed in standing up for herself, and fighting for her rights, even if it meant shooting from a gun.