The story of India’s Bandit Queen is a tale of abuse, banditry, injustice, and murder. Born into a low-caste family in a remote village in Uttar Pradesh, Phoolan Devi went on to become India’s most notorious outlaw. Accused of 48 major crimes, jailed for 11 years, and released without trial; she later went on to become a Member of Parliament and a prominent leader of India’s lower castes. Phoolan Devi was assassinated outside her home in Delhi in 2001. Read on to find out more about her remarkable life.
The Making of a Bandit Queen: Phoolan Devi’s Early Life
Phoolan Devi was born in 1963 to a poor Mallah family — a low-caste community of traditional fishermen in Gorha Ka Purwa, Uttar Pradesh (UP). Her village was dominated by Thakurs, a wealthy and powerful community of upper-caste landowners.
Phoolan was a special child. Amid an ongoing dispute over her family’s land, she staged her first protest — aged 10. When her mother told her that her uncle and his son Maiyadeen had falsified land records to drive her family from their land, Phoolan marched into her uncle’s field and refused to move. Maiyadeen — a man in his twenties — tried to shoo her away. Phoolan refused, insulted him, and questioned his right to the land. He beat her unconscious with a brick.
At age 11 she was married off by her father to a man three times her age. Child marriage of low-caste girls is not uncommon in India and Phoolan endured particularly brutal treatment.
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After news spread that she was regularly beaten and molested by her husband she returned to her family. Upon her return, she was shunned by the entire village. Phoolan’s remaining time in Gorha Ka Purwa was punctuated by episodes of humiliation and sexual violence at the hands of Thakur men. Yet, despite the hardships she faced, she continued her fight to regain her family’s land.
The final straw for her cousin came with the re-opening of the land dispute by the village council, and its transfer to Allahabad High Court — a consequence of Phoolan’s persistent agitation. Enraged by Phoolan’s determination, Maiyadeen destroyed her family’s crops and chopped down their neem tree. Phoolan threw stones at his head and wounded his face, so Maiyadeen had her beaten, arrested and jailed. Soon after her release, she was kidnapped from her village by a gang of dacoits (bandits). According to Phoolan, her abduction was the doing of Maiyadeen.
Bandit Queen of India
If Maiyadeen believed that he had got rid of his cousin for good, he had been sorely mistaken. Following her kidnap, Phoolan was taken from her village to the Chambal Valley — a region notorious for its numerous gangs, outlaws, and lawlessness.
The Chambal has a special place in Indian folklore. Once upon a time, armed dacoits — or bhagis (rebels) as they are known to the locals — roamed the surreal ravines of UP and neighboring Madhya Pradesh. Phoolan Devi would become the most famous of all.
Phoolan was cruelly treated by her kidnappers until Babu Gujjar, the upper caste Thakur leader of the gang, was dramatically shot by his second in command, Vikram Mallah. With Baba Gujjar out of the picture, Phoolan and Vikram took control. Together, they spent the next year raiding upper-caste homes, robbing trains, and kidnapping for ransom. Their spree came to an end when Vikram was shot by two ex-gang members — a revenge killing against the low-caste villagers that had taken over their gang.
With Vikram dead, Phoolan was taken to Behmai village and locked up in one of the houses for three weeks. She was raped and abused by several Thakur men, before managing to escape. By the time her career in the Chambal came to a close, Pholaan was wanted on 48 counts of major crime. Yet, in the end, one particular event — the “Behmai Massacre” — would announce her story to the world.
Just over seventeen months after escaping from Behmai, on 14 February 1981, Phoolan Devi is said to have returned to the village with her gang and gunned down as many as 22 Thakur men in revenge. Many versions of what happened at Behmai exist. Some eyewitnesses claim that she executed the men in cold blood. Two men that survived say she wasn’t there. Phoolan herself denies being involved in the killings at all. Whatever happened at Behmai earned Phoolan Devi enough notoriety to last a lifetime.
Surrender and jail
In the aftermath of the Behmai massacre, a massive police manhunt was launched to capture Phoolan and her gang. While many of her fellow gang members were eventually shot by the police, Phoolan continued to evade capture and confound the authorities for over two years.
The press ran hysterical stories and state authorities and the police were made to look ridiculous; Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was pressed to impose a crackdown. Yet the lower castes and the poor of the region continued to support her.
Nonetheless, after years on the run, as her health deteriorated and the net began to close in, Phoolan Devi decided to negotiate her surrender. After long negotiations with Rajendra Chaturvedi, a police inspector from Madhya Pradesh, Indira Gandhi sent delegates with an offer. Phoolan negotiated better terms.
She would serve no longer than 8 years in jail; would only surrender to the Madhya Pradesh police (as she didn’t trust the UP police), and agreed only to lay down her arms in front of portraits of Mahatma Gandhi and the Hindu goddess Durga, not the police.
Dressed in police khakis and carrying her rifle, on 12th February 1983, in front of a crowd of 8,000 people and 300 police, Phoolan Devi bowed before Durga and Gandhi and surrendered. Despite the deal that was struck, Devi was jailed for 11 years. Worse still, as Arundhati Roy has written, while in jail, Phoolan was rushed to hospital, bleeding heavily from an ovarian cyst. Her womb was removed without her consent.
Asked by her biographer why this had been necessary, the prison doctor joked that the decision was made to “stop her breeding any more Phoolan Devis.” Phoolan Devi was released on parole without facing trial in 1994.
Member of Parliament and Assassination
One year after her release from jail, Phoolan became involved in the politics of the Samajwadi Party, a socialist political party of the lower castes based in UP. In the wake of the Behmai Massacre, Phoolan Devi was immortalized as India’s bandit queen. Inevitably, her cult status and mythology as a reincarnation of the goddess Durga sharpened her electoral prospects.
In 1996, Phoolan Devi was elected and served as the Member of Parliament for Mirzapur (UP). She lost her seat in 1998 but was re-elected to the same seat the following year. Outside of parliament, she became a powerful voice within the emerging backward caste movement (OBC) in Uttar Pradesh. Yet her cult hero status also stirred resentment among her enemies.
On 25th July 2001, she was shot three times in the body and twice in the head by masked gunmen outside her home in New Delhi. Her killers fled the scene. Phoolan Devi died aged 37 before reaching the hospital. Delhi Police concluded that her killing was an upper-caste revenge attack. However, despite eyewitness accounts describing two gunmen and a getaway driver, only one man was charged.
A 38-year-old Thakur man, Sher Singh Rana, was sentenced to life in prison. He told police that the murder was revenge for the Behmai Massacre. Rana has since risen to become a Thakur idol. After a spectacular jailbreak in 2004, he fled India for Afghanistan. He then spuriously claimed to have repatriated the remains of a 12th-century Thakur king. Rana was re-arrested in 2006. In 2016 he was released on bail and continues to fan the flames of inter-caste violence in UP.
The Life and Legacy of India’s Bandit Queen
Phoolan Devi’s transition from outlaw to lawmaker is nothing short of remarkable. In the eyes of her admirers, she was a revolutionary. A survivor of several brutal episodes of sexual violence, that fought valiantly for social justice. To her detractors, she was a cold-blooded killer, prone to fits of rage and wanton violence, with no regard for law and order.
In other quarters she is framed more crudely as a vengeful woman. Take for instance the narrative of Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (1994). While Kapur’s film claims to be the “true story” of Devi’s life, Phoolan herself begged to differ.
Talking to Mary Ann Weaver of The Atlantic, Devi expressed outrage that she was depicted “as a snivelling woman, always in tears, who never took a conscious decision in her life.” As for her exploits, she was “simply shown as being raped over and over again.” Bandit Queen transfigures Phoolan Devi’s story into a tale of rape and revenge.
However, in reality, definitive claims of who Phoolan Devi was — cult hero, killer, or victim — do little else but flatten the complexity of her character. On the one hand, Phoolan Devi was a strong advocate for the rights of the poor and a vociferous campaigner against upper-caste oppression. On the other, she engaged in a contradictory embrace of the symbolism of the Ayodhya movement and the conservative politics of Hindu identity.
Whatever the truth of Phoolan Devi may be, she is, without doubt, a rare example of a poor, low-caste woman that rose from the bottom of Indian society to the heights of political office.
Yet, while her greatest crime was murder, her cardinal sin was to challenge the hierarchy of the Indian caste system. In the end, it cost her her life.