Influential Women #16: Phoolan Devi

Ahh, the story of Phoolan Devi: from low cast girl in northern India to being infamously known as the “Bandit Queen” and having multiple counts of murder on her name, to a member of Parliament in Uttar Pradesh, to being assassinated by gunshots at her own home. Quite the ride, isn’t it? Today, I’ll tell you all about it.

Phoolan Devi was born in 1963 in Uttar Pradesh, a region in northern India. She was born into the Malla caste, one of the lower castes in the Indian system. When she was young she lived with her family on a small patch of land, which had an ancient tree on it. They were struggling to survive.  One of her elder cousins wanted to cut the tree down to cultivate the land despite Phoolan’s protests, and she did everything she could to stop him. She set up neighbouring girls against him, attacked him verbally whenever he was around, and eventually even physically fought him and did not let go. Nearby people had to beat Phoolan unconscious with a brick in order to stop the fight. This particular fight instigated many more acts of violent resistance in the years to come, and from then onwards Phoolan was becoming more and more known, first in her village, but soon in the areas around it too.

Not long after the incident, Phoolan’s family married her off to a man three times her age who continuously abused her both physically and sexually. One day she left him to join a gang of bandits in an attempt to escape the abuse (or so is assumed), but it did not do her any good: the leader of the gang attempted to rape her only  a few days later. Luckily, he was stopped (and killed) by the second in command, Vikram Mallah, who then took leadership upon himself. Despite the fact that this man was married, and so was Phoolan, they started a relationship. Only a few weeks later they raided Phoolan’s native village, and she herself dragged her husband out of their house and stabbed him to death in front of  everyone.

Vikram Mallah and Phoolan were in power, but not for long – when members of the gang, and of the higher Rajput caste, returned from prison to find the former leader dead, the balance of power began to shift and Vikram and Phoolan were forced to flee. The Rajput-bandits did not leave it at that, however, and tracked them down. Vikram was shot dead and Phoolan was taken by the remaining gang-members. She was beaten up severely and raped several times by many of the gang members. Eventually Phoolan managed to escape with the help of some of the gang-members who were from her own Malla caste, and they started a new gang, with only one goal: revenge.

Insert the Behmai Massacre. Phoolan and her new gang had gone to the village Behmai in order to avenge Vikram and take revenge on the Rajput members of the gang who had captured and raped Phoolan. When they arrived, however, none of them were there. Phoolan was by then so filled with hatred towards Rajput caste, that she demanded all the Rajput men that were in the village to be lined up. It was the 14th of February and there was a wedding going on, so many of the Rajputs present were only visiting and had nothing to do with the gang war. But Phoolan showed no mercy, and had her bandits shoot them all dead.

After the massacre, police were unable to capture Phoolan. She disappeared along with most of her gang members, and converted to Hinduism. Eventually, Phoolan agreed to surrender, but only on her terms. She demanded that the death penalty would not be imposed on any of her gang members, and that they would not get a punishment longer than 8 years. More interestingly, she demanded to surrender only to a picture of Mahatma Ghandi and Durga, the Hindu warrior godess, whose mythology focuses on the battle against evil. (Durga is, by the way, also known under the name “Devi”.)

Now, you might think, why on earth are you discussing a mass murderer who apparently wasn’t even sorry in the end as an influential woman. Well, what makes Phoolan specifically interesting, is the massive turn-around she made after she sat her jailtime for the Behmai Massacre. Phoolan Devi, Queen of Bandits, ran for parliament and was actually elected. YES, PEOPLE. SHE MURDERED 23 PEOPLE, SAT HER TIME IN PRISON, RAN FOR PARLIAMENT, AND WON.

There’s no happy ending to Phoolan’s story, however. She was assassinated 5 years after she was elected as MP, she was shot dead right outside her home in New Dehli, as an act of revenge for the Behmai Massacre. The person who shot her was sentenced for life in prison in 2014.

Don’t get me wrong – I am aware that Phoolan is a little bit different from the other women I’ve discussed in this series. I’d not instantly classify her as an inspiration at all. But hell, say what you  want: Phoolan was attacked, and she didn’t just let it happen. She fought back, and she fought back hard. And for that alone she deserves a long as blogpost and a place in this series.

  • L. Parole

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