Phoolan Devi, the Bandit Queen Who Became a Politician
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Phoolan Devi, commonly referred to as “The Bandit Queen,” is an interesting and sometimes polarizing figure in Indian history. She was, at various times in her life, a bandit, a politician, and a women’s rights activist. So, how does one lead such a varied and storied life?
Born Phoolan Mallah in 1963 in the rural area of Uttar Pradesh in India, Phoolan’s family lived in poverty. The youngest of four children, she was at odds with her parents quite often, at one point staging a sit-in protest with other girls from her village when she opposed a decision made by the male members of her family. She stubbornly refused to move until she was finally beaten unconscious with a brick.
To say Phoolan had a rough childhood would be an understatement. At the age of 11, she was forced to endure a child marriage to a man in his 30s. He abused her sexually and physically. As a result, Phoolan repeatedly tried to run away and was eventually returned to her family as a “disgraced” woman. But, when she was 16, her parents reached an agreement with her in-laws and returned her to her husband. The reunion was short-lived, however, and Phoolan was once again returned to her parents’ house, with her in-laws saying they would never accept her back into their home.
As a young woman with minimal education, abandoned by her husband in 1970s India, she was a social outcast with few options available to her. She became estranged from her family. So, it was during this time that she joined a gang of dacoits, or bandits. It is unclear how Phoolan’s association with the bandits began, whether she was kidnapped by them and eventually assimilated, or if she had joined of her own accord. Phoolan herself would only say “kismet ko yehi manzoor tha” on the matter.” (“It was the dictate of fate.”)
Phoolan was the only woman in the gang, and as a result, at first, was the victim of sexual assault by Babu Gujjar, the gang leader. She then began a relationship with Vikram Mallah, the second-in-command of the gang, who killed Babu Gujjar in retaliation for his acts upon Phoolan, and took control.
Phoolan, Vikram, and the gang soon found themselves in the village in which Phoolan’s husband resided. She dragged him out of his house and proceeded to stab him in view of the villagers. She then left him bleeding on the side of the road along with a note warning older men not to marry young girls. He survived but lived the rest of his life as a recluse, with his fellow villagers avoiding him due to lingering fear of the bandits.
As a young woman with minimal education, abandoned by her husband in 1970s India, she was a social outcast with few options available to her. She became estranged from her family. So, it was during this time that she joined a gang of dacoits, or bandits.
Eventually, two former gang members were released from jail and came back to rejoin their fellow dacoits. However, they were furious when they learned of the murder of Babu Gujjar, for which they held Phoolan responsible. That, combined with a dispute over caste (the outdated class system in India), resulted in a gunfight between the members and Vikram was killed. The rival faction then kidnapped Phoolan, held her in a room for three weeks, and assaulted her both physically and sexually. Finally, Phoolan was able to escape with the help of a villager and two members from Vikram’s gang, one of whom was Man Singh Mallah.
Once Phoolan had freed herself, she found the remaining faction members of her former lover’s gang. She rejoined the faction, began a relationship with Man Singh Mallah, and continued her life as a bandit. It is said that Phoolan only targeted the upper class with her banditry and shared the ill-gotten wealth with the poor. However, this has been disputed by Indian authorities, who claim it is only a myth.
During this time, Phoolan hadn’t forgotten the torment that had been inflicted upon her during her imprisonment by the rival gang. Months later, in an act of revenge, her gang took to the village where their rivals were residing. Phoolan demanded that the two men who had tormented her be brought forth, but they could not be located. In retaliation, she rounded up 22 young men from the village and ordered their execution. This massacre angered authorities and made Phoolan a target for law enforcement.
For two years after the attack, Phoolan was able to evade capture by the police. Finding and capturing Phoolan proved harder than they thought due to the support she had garnered with the poor people in the region. The media and the public both perceived Phoolan’s vengeful attack differently than the law had. She had earned herself the reputation for being a modern-day Robin Hood and people began to call her “The Bandit Queen.” They saw her as unshrinking, undaunted, and unafraid, a daring woman struggling to survive in the world against all odds. An underdog worth rooting for.
Then, in 1983, Phoolan was in poor health and many of her gang members had died in altercations with the police and other rival gangs. Phoolan and the surviving gang members agreed to a deal in which they would surrender themselves to law enforcement. She had four conditions: that the death penalty would not be imposed on any member of her gang who surrendered; that her fellow gang members would not receive prison terms of more than eight years; that a plot of land be given to her; and that her family should be escorted by the police to witness her surrendering ceremony. She then surrendered herself before portraits of Mahatma Gandhi and the Hindu Goddess Durga, at her request. This was in front of a crowd of around 10,000 people and 300 policemen.
The media and the public differed from the authorities in that they saw Phoolan’s revenge as a righteous act of rebellion. They dubbed her Phoolan Devi. “Devi” is the Sanskrit word for goddess and means heavenly, divine, and anything of excellence.
Despite turning herself in, Phoolan still faced a harsh punishment. She was charged with 48 crimes, including multiple counts of murder, arson, and plunder, as well as kidnapping for ransom. She would spend the next 11 years of her life in jail as she waited for the multiple charges to be tried in court.
Phoolan fought for women’s rights, including an end to child marriage, as well as the rights of India’s poor. She served in parliament from 1996-1998 and then again from 1999-2001.
While she was in prison awaiting trial, she underwent an operation for ovarian cysts that suspiciously resulted in a hysterectomy without her consent. It is said that the doctor even joked, “We don’t want Phoolan Devi breeding more Phoolan Devis.” The forced sterilization of women is a common abuse that is inflicted upon women who are criminals or social outcasts and is seen as a violation of human rights.
Public perception helped Phoolan’s case. The state government that was at the time lead by Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party summarily withdrew all of the charges against her in 1994 and she was released. Phoolan’s release sent shockwaves throughout India and was seen as quite controversial.
In a shrewd move, Phoolan then used her notoriety to her advantage, running for election to parliament as a Samajwadi Party candidate herself. She was elected two separate times to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India's bicameral Parliament, as a Member of Parliament for Mirzapur, a constituency in Uttar Pradesh. In her position as a Parliamentarian, Phoolan fought for women’s rights, including an end to child marriage, as well as the rights of India’s poor. She served in parliament from 1996-1998 and then again from 1999-2001.
Sadly, in 2001, at the young age of 37, Phoolan Devi was assassinated at the gates of her home. She was a sitting member of parliament when she was killed. Her murderer was Sher Sing Rana, a man who claimed his kinsmen had been killed by Phoolan’s gang during her act of revenge. He was subsequently sentenced to life in prison for the crime, though he was granted bail in 2016.
Phoolan Devi was an extremely complicated woman. She lived a difficult and brutal life and often responded in kind, with brutality, in her early years. While it is never okay to enact violence upon others, especially innocent people, hers ultimately is a story of redemption. No matter how rough your beginnings or how far down a dark path you go, you can always change, to decide to make the world a better place. She was all at once a survivor of abuse, a criminal, a politician, and a champion for women’s rights. She was Phoolan Devi, The Bandit Queen.