India's Bandit Queen

A saga of revenge—and the making of a legend of "the real India"
"I Rotted In Jail"

On a morning late in February, I met Phoolan at her modest three-floor brick-and-stucco bungalow in New Delhi. After being searched perfunctorily by one of her security guards outside, my interpreter and I entered the living room.

I had the feeling that I was in a temple, and I wondered if that was what the room was meant to be. Portraits of Durga and the Buddha hung on one of the walls, draped with tinsel and garlanded with marigolds; beneath them was a small altar of sorts, where sticks of incense burned. Just above the television set was a picture of Jesus, and across from it, on a wall of its own, was an oversized portrait of Bhimrao Ambedkar, a writer of the Indian constitution and the single most important leader of the people known as untouchables, whom Gandhi called Harijans, or Children of God, and who now call themselves Dalits. Born into a caste predestined to carry human waste and deal with dead bodies at cremation grounds, they are so low in the Brahmanical order that technically they are not even a part of it. I had been told that a photograph of Ambedkar—who escaped his station by converting to Buddhism, as tens of thousands of other Dalits have done—hangs in every lower-caste home.

There was a bit of a stir as Phoolan entered the living room, accompanied by her present husband, Umed Singh, a short, plump realtor of thirty, a high Jat by caste and a low-level politician who dabbles in Dalit politics. He had a large white bandage on his arm. A leash hung from Phoolan's wrist; at its other end a Great Dane snarled. Both dog and husband were recent acquisitions, and the bandage concealed tooth marks from the dog.

Phoolan greeted me with folded hands, and her smile was shy. She seemed shorter and darker in complexion than I recalled. Her long dark hair was pulled back somewhat haphazardly from her face, emphasizing her large, luminous dark eyes. She wore sandals and a yellow-nylon sari topped with a long chocolate-colored shawl. Her face was freshly scrubbed and bore no makeup, though there were traces of red polish on the nails of her fingers and toes. Gold bangle bracelets covered much of her forearm, and she wore earrings of gold.

She instructed me to sit next to her on a couch, and, once ensconced, she took her right leg and tucked it up in a half-lotus position, eyeing me somewhat warily as I warily eyed the dog. I suggested that perhaps she could chain Jackie—to whom she had introduced me—on the other side of the room.

"She is a reincarnation of someone else," Phoolan replied. Therefore the dog would remain, growling constantly and occasionally lunging at me, throughout the interview.

Eager to have Phoolan discuss her life since the surrender, I began by asking her about a matter that had never been fully explained—her conditions for laying down her arms.

"There were a lot," she replied. "First, and most important, that I and my gang members would not be hanged; that we would be released from prison after eight years; that we would never be handcuffed; and that we would be permitted to live in prison together—in an A-class jail" (an open VIP jail). "And that we would surrender only in Madhya Pradesh, and would never be extradited to Uttar Pradesh . . ."

"Because of Behmai?" I interrupted.

She didn't reply directly, and a frown crossed her face. After a few minutes she said, "Now let me continue, and please don't interrupt again. My other conditions were that all my cases be tried together in Madhya Pradesh in special courts; that the land that was my father's and was stolen by my cousin be rightfully returned to him; that my brother [he was then fourteen] be given a government job; that my family be resettled in Madhya Pradesh, on government land; and that they be accompanied by my goat and cow."

"Did you negotiate all of this with the government yourself?" I asked.

She looked somewhat startled. "Of course," she said.

As I listened to Phoolan, I couldn't help recalling something that one of her lawyers had told me earlier: "Phoolan is one of the most astute women I've ever met; she has an unerring instinct about people, and is vastly intelligent. It must be terribly frustrating for her to be illiterate."

All the members of Phoolan's gang served their time in prison, some of them considerably less than eight years. Most of them—including Man Singh, Phoolan's husband or lover—agreed, much to her scorn, to abrogate one of her conditions and returned to Uttar Pradesh for trial. Perhaps not surprisingly, they were all acquitted—no witnesses were willing to come forward and identify the gang. None was ever tried for the massacre in the village of Behmai. Phoolan, on the other hand, still has thirty cases pending against her in the courts of Uttar Pradesh; she was never pardoned, despite the orders of the then chief minister, which were not honored by the courts (although a new appeal was filed in her behalf by the state government recently), and she is now out of prison technically only on parole. Later this fall, depending largely on the outcome of state elections in Uttar Pradesh, the Supreme Court could rule on a case brought by the widows of Behmai demanding that Phoolan be brought to trial, prosecuted, and hanged.

I asked Phoolan why she had remained in prison for more than eleven years—as the members of her gang, one by one, had left—in violation of the agreement she had made.

"The others went to Uttar Pradesh and stood trial, in defiance of my orders," she replied.

"Why didn't you go with them?" I asked.

"If I return to Uttar Pradesh, I'll be killed." She made the statement without emotion, and began playing with her dog.

After a few moments she went on. "I rotted in jail. Everyone simply forgot that I was there. Indira Gandhi, who agreed to my terms, was dead. The chief minister of Madhya Pradesh had been assigned to another state. I had no money, and I couldn't get legal aid." Anger crossed her face. "And all the members of my gang were Thakurs and Yadavs, far higher castes than mine; they had ministers in the state assemblies. I belong to the Mallahs"—one of the lowest castes, comprising boatmen and fishermen.

"I didn't know that you led a gang of upper-caste men."

"There's a lot you don't know about me," Phoolan said.

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