India's Bandit Queen

A saga of revenge—and the making of a legend of "the real India"

Early one evening in February of 1983—a bitterly cold evening, as she remembers it now—Phoolan Devi, draped in a brown wool blanket topped by a vibrant red shawl, led a group of men, twelve in all, through the ravines of the Chambal River Valley in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. A .315 Mauser hung from her shoulder, swinging against her hip; a long curved dagger was tucked into her belt; a bandolier covered her chest.

The ravines were so narrow in some places that she could touch the walls on either side. Unmappable, twisting fissures rising as high as 250 feet, they were perfectly suited as dark, hidden passageways. From time to time she glanced back at Rajendra Chaturvedi, the police superintendent of the district of Bhind. He was unarmed, at her insistence, although dressed in his uniform. A man of medium height, in his middle years, he had painstakingly negotiated her surrender over a period of nearly a year. Other than Chaturvedi, only the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh—the state's highest elected official—knew that she would be coming out of the ravines that night. Nearly 300 policemen waited at the other end, some six miles away.

Four years had passed since Phoolan Devi first entered the ravines; she had a price of $10,400 on her head, and a score of murders and more than thirty cases of kidnapping and dacoity, or banditry, to her name. In one incident, two years earlier, that became known as the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre, she was said to have murdered twenty-two men. She was known as the Beautiful Bandit, the Goddess of Flowers, the Bandit Queen. She was not yet twenty-six.

Like dacoits before her, she and the various gangs to which she had been attached had roamed the rough wild country of the northern states of Uttar and Madhya Pradesh, pouncing on wayfarers like highwaymen of old. Villagers admired them as daring buccaneers; movies portrayed them as misunderstood rebels with a cause. For eight centuries India's dacoits have been imbued with roguish romance. But none was more romantic—or roguish—than Phoolan. "For every man this girl has killed, she has slept with two," a police inspector told me at the time. "Sometimes she sleeps with them first, before she bumps them off." The imagination of an entire nation had been captured by Phoolan.

Thus when her impending surrender at a lavish public ceremony was announced, nearly all the foreign journalists based in New Delhi (some seventy of us in all), accompanied by an equal number of Indian journalists, television-crew members, human-rights officials, feminists, and socialites, rushed to the village of Bhind. We chatted and exchanged stories; every bit of incidental lore was taken down. Of course, nobody knew who Phoolan Devi was, and none of us had ever seen the Bandit Queen before. Not even the police had a photograph of her.

The following morning, with her family, the members of her gang, and her lover and gang co-leader, Man Singh, gathered about her, Phoolan climbed the wooden steps of a twenty-three-foot-high dais, shaded by an awning of red, green, and yellow cloth. Hindi film music blasted over a public-address system. She was dressed in a new khaki police superintendent's uniform and a bright-red shawl, and she wore a red bandanna on her head, to hold back her dark-brown shoulder-length hair. The .315 hung from her shoulder, and on her wrist was a silver bangle, a religious symbol of the Sikh faith; in the breast pocket of her police uniform she carried a small silver figurine of Durga, the Hindu goddess of shakti: power and strength. Defiant and truculent, she flashed a cheeky grin. Her red bandanna gave her the appearance of an Apache. After bowing before portraits of Gandhi and Durga (their presence had been a condition of her surrender), she knelt in homage and touched the feet of the beaming chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Arjun Singh. For a moment she hesitated, and then she turned toward the crowd, raising her rifle above her head. Finally, with hands folded in the traditional gesture of greeting, she demurely lowered her eyes to the ground. The crowd of some 8,000 roared its approval; the highly amplified film music seemed to shriek. It appeared to matter little to anyone in the crowd, or to the scores of VIPs seated on the dais, now shaking one another's hands, that the Beautiful Bandit, the Bandit Queen, was really a wisp of a girl: less than five feet tall, with flat high cheekbones, a full flat nose, and slit eyes. She looked like a Nepalese boy. There was little sense in the crowd that day that a legend had come to an end; indeed, there was the feeling that a new one was about to begin.

The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre

Thirteen years have passed since Phoolan Devi—one of only three women dacoit leaders in Indian history—laid down her arms, on her own terms, and was applauded by thousands as a female Robin Hood. Since then, against the odds, she has managed to survive eleven years in prison without trial, an ailment that was suspected of being cancer, and a number of attempts on her life. In February of 1994 she was released from prison after Mulayam Singh Yadav, the newly elected chief minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh, where the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre occurred, directed lawyers for the state to withdraw all charges against her—in effect, to pardon her. The chief minister, like Phoolan, is from one of India's lowest castes, and her release was a vindication for them against an upper-caste system that they abhor. The myth of Phoolan was proceeding apace.

When I returned to New Delhi, last February, the chattering classes were still chattering about her, endlessly. She had just threatened to file her second lawsuit against the producer and director of Bandit Queen, a prizewinning film purportedly based on her life; she had not been consulted on it, and after a limited run the film was banned in India (the ban was later lifted). She then announced that her autobiography would be published in France in May; and next, to the astonishment of many and the sheer irritation of some, the young woman who, when asked at the time of her surrender what she wanted out of life, had replied, "What do I know about, except using a rifle and cutting grass?" made known her intention to run for a seat in the lower house of the Indian Parliament.

And in an election in which India's lowest castes were reaching for national power of their own for the first time, Phoolan became at once both symbol and avenger of atrocities committed against the lower castes—a woman who had taken justice into her own hands and achieved a singular vindication, despite her own bloody, violent trail. It was not the character of Phoolan Devi that mattered but the trend she represents: as a creation of the worst aspects of a monstrous social structure, she could lead a credible challenge against the caste system that has defined India since ancient times.

She was also arriving on the political stage at a time when India's ever- turbulent politics were in even greater confusion than usual. Each day brought new resignations from the government, or indictments by a newly activist Supreme Court, in the biggest kickback scandal ever to occur in modern India. Rarely had an election been called in an atmosphere of such political uncertainty, and Phoolan was said to be delighted by it all.

One of the best-known women in India, with extraordinary crowd appeal, she rode the new low-caste tide in politics with assurance and panache. Sweeping through the remote villages of Uttar Pradesh in a campaign motorcade guarded by heavily armed security men, she styled herself the "Gandhi of Mirzapur" and appealed directly to the frustrations of voters from India's lower castes, who make up some 85 percent of the electorate. Her admirers turned out in record numbers to support her as she vowed to work for the "upliftment of women, the downtrodden, and the poor." Her unerring instinct served her as well as ever, and in May she was elected to Parliament.

It was a watershed election, in which India's 600 million voters clearly wanted to end the domination of politics by the ruling Congress Party which had persisted for nearly half a century. Thus for the first time in independent India the stridently Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, secured a plurality—though not a majority—of parliamentary seats. When it was unable to secure a vote of confidence, the mantle of leadership passed to a little-known politician from a "backward" caste, H. D. Deve Gowda, who had been the chief minister of Karnataka, and whose swearing-in on June 1 represented a significant break with the past: there were no Brahmins, members of the highest caste, in his Cabinet. An era of volatile coalitions seemed about to begin, as did a new era in caste politics. Heading a fractious alliance of moderate-leftist, Communist, regional, and low-caste parties (including Phoolan's Samajwadi Party, which is led by her political mentor, the former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mulayam Singh Yadav, who is now the Indian Minister of Defense), Prime Minister Deve Gowda may have only a tenuous hold on power. He was chosen by his coalition partners partly as a result of his relative obscurity and presumed inoffensiveness—qualities not shared by Phoolan, the most controversial back-bencher of his new governing bloc.

No other parliamentarian has stirred more passion than Phoolan has. Artfully embellishing the melodrama and romance that have gathered around her in the myth, she has since her election regularly commandeered trains at unscheduled stops and swept into prisons unannounced, demanding to see old friends. And despite a score of criminal charges pending against her in the courts, in early September she left India—traveling on her new parliamentary passport—for a one-month tour of Europe, to promote her recently released autobiography.

"Phoolan's two great gifts are rabid cunning and fatal charm—an irresistible combination and a great achievement in a woman who is so brutal," I was told by Sunil Sethi, a syndicated columnist and critic who began writing about Phoolan at the time of her surrender in Bhind. "It would have been impossible for Phoolan to be anything but an Indian, and she is tailor-made for the Indian imagination: since ancient times we have had an inordinate capacity to make a myth out of any story, and to demythicize the most epic into the most mundane. Phoolan is a do-it-yourself goddess who can rapidly demonize."

And if it is a paradox that an illiterate, low-caste fisherman's daughter has become a parable about India itself, then Phoolan Devi fails to recognize it. It is just one of the anomalies of her life. She is a child of the Chambal River Valley who took justice into her own hands. She is part Dostoevskian and part Nietzschean. She is a Hindu fatalist by birth, yet she often reflects on God, and she told me that as a dacoit she feared for her afterlife should her dead body fall into police hands. She is an introverted loner who craves attention like a child. She has frequently professed to hate men, yet she has always surrounded herself with them. She has taken on the most astonishingly difficult roles while often acting on intuition, instinct, and whim. It is quite hard to say who Phoolan Devi really is.

One of her lawyers told me that in her view the most extraordinary thing about Phoolan was "her endless, boundless ways of reinventing herself." Sunil Sethi said, "I don't think her past can ever be absolutely corroborated now. So many of her close associates are dead, killed in sticky encounters; her family changes its story every day, as she does; so much of her past has been deliberately obscured."

Nevertheless, the facts about the 1981 Saint Valentine's Day Massacre are generally not in dispute. It took place in the hamlet of Behmai, which is set on the banks of the sacred Yamuna River and is home to about fifty families, nearly all of whom belong to the landowning and warrior Thakur caste (the second highest in the Brahmanical order), which for all intents and purposes controls the politics of Uttar Pradesh. No major road connected Behmai to any other town, and to reach it one had to cross the river or trek through narrow ravines and open fields. No one in Behmai paid any special attention to a group of about twenty people, dressed in police uniforms, as they crossed the Yamuna River that afternoon.

The party was led by a young girl—unusual, the villagers thought. She was dressed in the khaki coat with three silver stars of a deputy superintendent of police, blue jeans, and boots with zippers, they later recalled. She wore bright lipstick, her nails were painted red, and her hair was cut in an unusual bob. A Sten gun hung from her shoulder, and bands of ammunition swept across her chest. In her hand she carried a battery-powered megaphone, and as the villagers began to assemble and watch, she led her men to the village shrine: a trident emblem of Shiva, the god of destruction. The group of outsiders sat down and prayed. Then, as the men dispersed, some sealing the village off, the girl jumped onto the parapet of the village well, switched on her megaphone, and, according to testimony given to the police, began to shout, "Listen, you guys! If you love your lives, hand over all of the cash, silver, and gold you have. And listen again! I know that Lala Ram Singh and Sri Ram Singh"—rival dacoits—"are hiding in this village. If you don't hand them over to me, I will stick my gun into your butts and tear them apart. This is Phoolan Devi speaking. Jai Durga Mata!" ("Victory to Durga the Mother Goddess!")

As the men searched and looted the Thakur homes, the young girl remained at the well, pacing back and forth. Her eyes studied the village; she appeared to know it well.

After a search of nearly an hour, her men returned to the well. They had found no trace of the Ram brothers. All the villagers denied ever having seen the two men.

"You are lying!" the girl screamed through her megaphone. "I will teach you to tell the truth!"

She ordered that all the young men in the village be rounded up, and some thirty were dragged to the well. She spat on them and warned them again: "Unless you tell me where those bastards are, I will roast you alive." The men pleaded with her and swore that they had never seen the brothers. Her captives stood in a line before the well and she walked slowly, deliberately, down it, tearing off their turbans in a rage, and hitting many of them in the genitals with her rifle butt.

Who actually gave the order to march the men out of Behmai remains a matter of dispute, but they were marched in single file to the river. At a green embankment they were ordered to kneel, their faces turned to the earth. Bursts of gunfire followed. The bodies of the thirty men crumpled and fell. Twenty-two were dead.

It was the largest dacoit massacre since the founding of modern India. And it was triply shocking: because of its scale, because it was led by a woman, and because a woman of lower caste murdered men of a vastly higher one.

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Mary Anne Weaver has written extensively about South Asia and the Middle East. She lived in New Delhi from 1982 through 1985.

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