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