India's Bandit Queen

A saga of revenge—and the making of a legend of "the real India"
Phoolan's Revenge"

"Vikram taught her everything she knows," Khuswant Singh, a distinguished editor and author who was among the first to attempt to piece together the contradictory accounts of Phoolan's life, told me one February morning over tea. "He was a handsome young chap, fair, tall, and wiry, and was obviously very taken with her. He had her long hair cropped, and bought her a transistor radio and a cassette recorder, as she was inordinately fond of listening to music from films. He also taught her how to handle a gun; she became a crack shot."

Vikram also told her, according to a popular ballad still sung in the villages, "If you are going to kill, kill twenty, not just one. For if you kill twenty, your fame will spread; if you kill only one, they will hang you as a murderess."

Over the next year Vikram and Phoolan led their gang through the badlands of India—the sandy ridges, ravines, and jungles of Uttar and Madhya Pradesh long controlled by the dacoits, an area that covers some 8,000 square miles. They robbed and looted, held up trains, ransacked upper-caste villages and homes, murdered and kidnapped. Each operation, at Phoolan's insistence, was preceded and followed by an excursion to one or another of a string of temples hidden away from public view, all honoring the goddess Durga. Phoolan's instincts had never failed her, and in her mind it was because Durga directed and protected her. Vikram came to rely increasingly on her sometimes uncanny ability to interpret omens and signs.

When asked at a press conference following her surrender in 1983 if she had ever known fear, Phoolan replied, "Every day I have lived with fear. One night in the jungle I was sitting by our campfire and felt something slithering on my thighs. I realized it was a snake. I quickly picked it up and threw it aside, but I knew that it was an ill omen, so we picked up our guns and ran. Ten minutes later we saw lights of a strong police contingent at our campsite. God sends his own signals."

Perhaps the most important omen came late on a summer night in August of 1980, soon after the festival of Sawan Dui, during the monsoon rains. Phoolan spotted a crow sitting on a dead tree at the edge of their jungle camp and pleaded with Vikram to leave. But that time he didn't indulge her, and they went to bed.

"There was a loud noise, the sound of a bullet being fired," Phoolan told the Indian author Mala Sen, in a series of prison diaries that later formed the basis for a book about her early life. "Vikram sat up suddenly, and I thought the police had surrounded us. I reached for our rifles but they had been removed. Then, Vikram fell forward." A second shot followed, and Vikram died, his head in Phoolan's lap.

His assassins were two dacoit brothers who only a few days earlier had rejoined the gang, after a stint in prison. Their names were Sri Ram and Lala Ram. Vikram Mallah's murder was in revenge for the death of the gang's former leader, Babu Gujar, and for the totally unpardonable fact that he, a low-caste Mallah, had assumed the leadership of the gang. Like Babu Gujar, Sri Ram and Lala Ram belonged to an upper, landowning caste, and within dacoit gangs, too, everything turned on caste.

Phoolan Devi is said never to have fully recovered from Vikram Mallah's death, and she has always adamantly refused to discuss what followed next, but it is known from reliable witnesses that she was gagged and perhaps chloroformed, and her legs and arms were bound, before Sri Ram and Lala Ram threw her into a boat. The boat set sail down the Yamuna, not docking until it reached Behmai. There Phoolan was locked in a filthy, darkened hut, where she was held captive for three weeks. Every evening, shortly after midnight, a man whom she could not see would open the door, and others would follow, one by one. They were tall, silent, turbaned Thakur men, and they would rape her until she lost consciousness.

On the twenty-third day of her captivity Phoolan was dragged out of the shed by Sri Ram and Lala Ram. Bruises covered her body, her hair was filthy and matted, and her eyes were dead. Sri Ram demanded that she fetch him water from the village well, where the Thakur men had assembled, jeering and hooting. From behind shuttered windows their women looked down on the village square. When Phoolan refused to fetch the water, Sri Ram kicked her savagely and ripped off the blanket she wore. Naked, she limped to the village well. The men of Behmai are said to have laughed and spat on her.

Late that evening, after Sri Ram and Lala Ram had left for the ravines, Santosh Pandit, a friend of Phoolan's and a priest from a nearby village, quietly entered the shed where she was being held and carried her to safety in the back of a bullock cart. With the help of Man Singh, a fellow dacoit, she subsequently formed her own gang. Seventeen months later, on Saint Valentine's Day, she returned to Behmai.

Word of the massacre quickly spread through the ravines and into the corridors of power in New Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. Thakur power and domination had never been challenged in this manner before. A new cycle of revenge killings seemed about to begin, and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi could ill afford further caste violence, or a caste war.

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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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