Phoolan Devi, known as 'The Queen of the Dacoits', The Bandit Queen, or 'the female Robin Hood' was born in 1960 in a tiny village in Uttar Pradesh, India, the daughter of a low-caste fisherman. As such, the usual path of her life would have been marriage at 14 or 15 followed by hard labour, many children and subjection to her husband.
Instead she started rebelling at the age of 10, when she staged a sit-in of her family's land, which had been expropriated by her cousin. She was beaten and forcibly married to a much older man from another village, in exchange for a cow. She ran away when she was 12 after some brutal treatment, but her family were horrified, and did not welcome her. She lived alone in the village after that, developing a reputation for promiscuity(what a surprise) and continuing to fight for her family's land. She argued the case in the High Court at 20, but was arrested on some trumped-up charge. Shortly after, she was kidnapped by one of the local dacoit, or bandit gangs. She ended up joining them and becoming the leader's lover.
They robbed and looted, held up trains, ransacked upper-caste villages and homes, dedicating the proceedings to the goddess Durga and helping local families with the money. Finally her gang was captured by a rival gang, and Vikram, her lover, was murdered. She was captured and brutally raped for days. On her escape she vowed vengeance, formed another gang, and massacred 30 men in the village of the rival gang. Some time after she was caught, arrested and spent 11 years in prison without trial.
During her time in prison she became a legend in India. On her release in 1994, a film was made about her life, Bandit Queen, which she attempted to have banned in the country. She has since become a politician and stood for local government in 1997. She is now fighting the return of criminal charges against her.
Phoolan Devi, also known as the Beautiful Bandit, the Goddess of Flowers and the Bandit Queen, was one of only three women dacoit (bandit) leaders in Indian history. When she surrendered (on her own terms1) in Feb 1983 (with a $10,400 price on her head) she stood accused of more than thirty cases of kidnapping and banditry plus at least twenty-two cases of murder (the twenty-two cases were all on the same day: The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre). Despite (or sometimes because of) her crimes, she is widely considered a hero, something of a Robin Hood figure to the lower castes.

She served eleven years in prison for the St. Valentine's Day Massacre but was eventually pardoned and released in Feb 1994. The chief minister who pardoned her is, like Phoolan, a member of one of India's lowest castes, and her release was seen as a triumph of lower castes over the upper-caste system.

The film The Bandit Queen was supposed to have been based on her life, but she was not consulted or involved and has filed several lawsuits against the director.

To the shock of many, in May 1996 she was elected to one of the lower houses of parliament, running on a platform of "upliftment of women, the downtrodden, and the poor." Her party is the Samajwadi Party. Since her election she has continued to make headlines by commandeering trains at unscheduled stops, arriving at prisons unannounced and demanding to see old friends, and despite the many criminal charges still pending against her in the courts, using her new parliamentary passport to leave India for a one-month tour of Europe to promote her new autobiography. She is still an MP and often in the news.

Update: Phoolan Devi was shot and killed July 25, 2001. She was returning from a morning session of the lower house of parliament when three masked men shot her and her bodyguard outside her home in New Delhi. The men sped away in a motorized rickshaw. Devi was pronounced dead on arrival at the local hospital.


1 The terms of Phoolan Devi's surrender:

  1. She and her gang members would not be hanged
  2. They would be released from prison after eight years
  3. They would never be handcuffed
  4. They would be permitted to live in prison together in an A-class jail (an open VIP jail)
  5. They would surrender only in Madhya Pradesh and would never be extradited to Uttar Pradesh (the site of the Valentine's Day Massacre)
  6. All her cases would be tried together in Madhya Pradesh in special courts
  7. Her father's land (which had been stolen) would be returned
  8. Her brother would be given a government job
  9. Her family would be resettled in Madhya Pradesh, on government land, and accompanied by her goat and cow
The terms of her surrender were agreed to, but not necessarily met. For example, she served eleven years in prison, not eight. I don't know about the others.

Sources:

Phoolan Devi wants action on women's rights, not just words The Times of India, Sunday 11 June 2000

Weaver, Mary Ann. India's Bandit Queen. The Atlantic Monthly November 1996

Foolin' Debby - the Bandit Queen

I can always count on National Public Radio (NPR) to provide me with a daily bit of news that I'd be unlikely to hear anywhere else. Wednesday, 25 July 2001 was no exception. The newscaster began talking about the murder in India of a female Member of Parliament who was known as the Bandit Queen. Her given name, as I heard it, was “Foolin' Debby.” Fairly certain that I misheard, I listened further and absorbed a few details.

A sort of female Robin Hood, the woman known as the Bandit Queen was a celebrated bandit among the lower caste people of India because of her refusal to give in to common abuses. At age 11 she was “sold” into marriage to a 33 year old man who regularly beat and raped her. After fleeing her abusive husband and becoming an outcast in her own village, she joined a bandit gang and participated in raids and robberies of upper caste people, often to benefit the poorer masses. At one point in her life of crime she was gang-raped by the same men who killed her lover. It is alleged that she later took her revenge in the form of a bloody massacre of 20 men from the village of her abusers. It is unclear whether the victims of the |massacre| were the same men who raped her or whether she in fact actually took part in the bloodbath.

In 1983, after hiding out in the ravines for several years, the Bandit Queen surrendered ceremoniously in front of the press and a thousands of her low caste supporters. She spent eleven years in prison and was released with no charges against her. Later she was elected to Parliament in Uttar Pradesh.

This is the extent of the information I received from NPR, except for the fact that she'd just been murdered by three masked men. I was curious about her story because I had recalled seeing a film in the foreign section of my local video store, entitled “The Bandit Queen.” I wondered if it was about the same person and whether I'd be able to gain more insight into her situation.

I began by searching the internet, using “bandit queen” as my key words. I came up with several references to a woman called Phoolan Devi. She was indeed the subject of a 1994 Shekhar Kapur film called “The Bandit Queen” and was, of course, the same Phoolan Devi who'd been so recently murdered. I was surprised to find very few references to her murder on the current news, but many crudely-built home pages in her honor - the sort of sites that fans build for their rock-star idols. I read many accounts of the events of her life, but nothing very authoritative.

I decided to rent the movie, despite knowing that it was merely based on her life -- not the “true story” it claimed to be. The subtitled film was graphic and violent. Countless scenes showed Phoolan (portayed by Seema Biswas) being raped, beaten or otherwise abused. I found myself fast-forwarding through an interminable rape scene that could easily have made its point in 30 seconds. In an article I later read, Phoolan was never actually consulted on the making of the film and the offensiveness of the multiple rape scenes and sexual humiliation incited her to take the film-makers to court to block the film's release -- she ultimately failed in that attempt.*

I asked a colleague of mine if he was familiar with Phoolan's plight. Vikram, a highly educated scientist who is certainly among the more privileged classes in his native India, was quite familiar with her life story and her ultimate ascent to the political arena. He expressed sympathy for Phoolan's situation and much pride in the fact that an abused and illiterate woman had the ability to become an M.P. It spoke for an emerging enlightenment and a blurring of the borders.

I continue to read any material I can find that describes Phoolan Devi's life. Unfortunately there is not much available about its violent end last week, though I'm sure that more press (as well as conjecture) will emerge in coming weeks.

*Source: film review by Linda Lopez McAlister, 1995

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