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.
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.
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.
Phoolan Devi was born in Gorha Ka Purwa, in Uttar Pradesh, a remote, inhospitable hamlet not far from Behmai. It is so tiny that it doesn't warrant an appearance on any map. Built up from the banks of the sacred Yamuna River, it is little more than a cluster of mud huts with conical thatched roofs, where sacred cows and bullocks wander as if in a daze through narrow sun-bleached lanes. Like 567,000 other obscure Indian villages, where more than half a billion people live, Gorha Ka Purwa forms part of what was once the Gandhian ideal and is still habitually called "the real India." And Phoolan in her early years was not unlike "typical" Indian women—some 70 percent of whom are born and die in villages not unlike Gorha Ka Purwa.
The typical village woman in northern India receives her inheritance at birth: that of being an unwanted burden, because she is not a son. She comes from a peasant family that owns less than an acre of land, or from a landless family whose existence depends on a landlord's whim. She can neither read nor write, though she often would like to do both. She has rarely traveled more than twenty miles from the village of her birth. If she falls ill, she believes it is because of evil spirits lurking in trees. Her sole worth lies in producing sons and working in the fields—for a meal and the equivalent of fifty cents a day. She is born into a caste, a geography, and a poverty from which there is no escape. Once she marries, at fourteen or fifteen, her life is fixed: her future becomes her mother's past.
In her village practically everything will turn on caste, the refined form of apartheid introduced into India over 2,500 years ago. Its Brahmanical order will define, with few exceptions, the social, economic, and occupational status she will have for her entire life. Caste etiquette will specify what she and her family may eat, how her marriage will be performed, the length of her sari and what ornaments she may wear, whether or not she may draw water from the village well, and through which door she may enter a temple—if she may enter it at all. Caste even determines whether or not a man may carry an umbrella in "the real India."
Phoolan's father, Devidin, whom she described to me as a "simpleton," was better off than some in Gorha Ka Purwa: he owned about an acre of land. Even so, he had had to work as a sharecropper to support his growing family. He and his wife, Moola, had the terrible fortune to produce four daughters—Phoolan was the second oldest—before they finally achieved a son. And all manner of other frustrations befell Devidin. He had lost nearly all of his inheritance, including some fifteen acres of land, to an elder brother and the brother's son, Maiyadin, both of whom were far wilier and better connected politically in Gorha Ka Purwa than he was. But he was too old, too tired, too poor, he told his family, to struggle for anything. The young Phoolan was shocked and outraged.
When she was ten, she began an often lonely battle to reclaim the family land. A spirited and precocious child, with a sharp tongue and wit, she taunted her cousin Maiyadin in the village square, hurling profanities at him and accusing him of all nature of things in front of his upper-caste friends. Then, along with her elder sister, who had just turned twelve, she effected a sit-in on Maiyadin's land. It was short-lived. Maiyadin arrived and, according to Phoolan, beat her unconscious with a brick.
When she was eleven, at the insistence of Maiyadin, Phoolan was married to a widower three times her age from a distant village—in exchange for a cow. Despite her age, her husband forced himself upon her, and beat her frequently. She left him shortly after her twelfth birthday. Walking across an area the width of Texas, alone and terrified and usually in tears, she finally reached Gorha Ka Purwa. Her parents were distraught: women don't leave their husbands in the real India. "What can we do?" her mother wailed. "You have heaped disgrace upon us all. There is no alternative: you must commit suicide. Go jump in the village well!"
Phoolan didn't jump—though she considered it—and she came of age in Gorha Ka Purwa. Over the next ten years she alternately fled the village and returned. During adolescence she married one of her cousins, Kailash, who was already married; consequently the union did not last long. She cut the grass on her family's plot and grazed its water buffalo. She developed a reputation for promiscuity, and became known as a scorned woman, who bathed naked in the Yamuna alone.
All the while she continued her land battle with Maiyadin. When she was twenty, she argued her father's case before the Allahabad High Court. An old court stenographer, now retired, told me one afternoon that his most abiding image of that Phoolan was of an exceptionally animated girl with lively eyes and a flair for drama. She could have been a thespian.
The following year, in 1979, Phoolan, then twenty-one, was arrested on the basis of what she told me was a fraudulent charge of robbery at Maiyadin's home. She spent a month in police custody, where she was beaten and raped—as large numbers of Indian women are. Many of the policemen who assaulted her were men whom Maiyadin counted as his friends. That Phoolan was left "a whimpering piece of rubbish in the corner of a dirty room with rats staring me in the eye," Phoolan later said.
But it was the evening of the day of the festival of Sawan Dui, in early July of that year, that was the turning point in Phoolan Devi's life. She had heard rumors, as had everyone in the village, that a gang of dacoits, led by a notoriously cruel man named Babu Gujar, was encamped on the riverbank; she may or may not have received a letter from the gang threatening to kidnap her or to cut off her nose—a not uncommon punishment inflicted on women for a perceived indiscretion in the villages of northern India.
It was just past midnight, and Phoolan was nearly asleep in her family's home when she heard the thud of boots; men carrying torches sprang into silhouette against the hut's mud walls. What followed remains obscured, for Phoolan's own accounts have varied significantly.
Whatever the truth of that evening, Phoolan was marched out of Gorha Ka Purwa and into the ravines. Perhaps she had indeed been kidnapped. Perhaps Maiyadin had paid the dacoits to take her away. Perhaps she was trying to protect her young brother, whom she adored. Or perhaps she simply walked away from her life in the real India.
For the next seventy-two hours she was brutalized by Babu Gujar. Then, on the evening of the third day, his chief lieutenant and deputy, Vikram Mallah, who had admired Phoolan from afar over the years, shot Babu Gujar dead. Word of the killing spread throughout the ravines, as did the fact that Vikram Mallah—a member of Phoolan's caste—had not only slain his upper-caste leader but had assumed the leadership of the gang. Phoolan became his mistress, and in the villages and towns of the Chambal River Valley, where for generations people have taken their own revenge and settled their own scores, killing and maiming in the name of justice and God, women composed songs about the exploits of the low-caste village girl who became a dacoit and was vindicated, her honor restored.
Phoolan, for her part, had a rubber stamp made, which she used as a letterhead: "Phoolan Devi, dacoit beauty; beloved of Vikram Mallah, Emperor of Dacoits."
"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.
Jora is a market town in Madhya Pradesh of some 20,000 people, a grain center with a booming black-market economy. Hidden away in the Chambal River Valley, some three miles from the jungle and the ravines, it is not far from Bhind, where Phoolan surrendered in 1983. It has also long been known as a favored way station for dacoits, who come here for relaxation, to shop, to pray, and sometimes to surrender—most often in the past to members of the Gandhi Peace Foundation and more recently to chief ministers in political celebrations, as Phoolan did. I had come here to meet the Gandhians—and perhaps a dacoit—in the hope that they could tell me about dacoit life and about whether Phoolan, who was about to embark on her election campaign, could return to the ravines, especially across the border in Uttar Pradesh, without risking her life.
I traveled with Deputy Commandant Raghunandan Sharma, the most highly decorated officer in the Indian police. He had spent his entire professional life hunting down dacoits, and had killed 365 of them. He is a portly man in his sixties, with a slight paunch, a small white moustache, and a balding head. He had just retired from the service, but he still liked to keep his pistol tucked into his pocket, or his rifle over his shoulder, comfortably resting on his hip. He had been a handpicked choice to end the dacoit menace—a Hercule Poirot of the ravines.
Earlier that morning, at his bungalow in the town of Gwalior, where Phoolan had spent her eleven years in jail, Sharma told me what it had been like then. "The dacoits almost always had the upper hand," he said. "They knew the topography, every tree and blade of grass; they held the high ground; and their weapons were far superior to ours—when we had .303 Enfield rifles, they had reloading semiautomatic guns. In the summer the temperature in the ravines goes well above a hundred and twenty degrees. It is scorching heat, there is no water, and when we marched, we kicked up choking dust. The dacoits' lookouts could chart our movements simply by watching the clouds of dust."
"There are still some ten gangs out there," he said, looking out the window in the direction of the ravines. "Despite our best efforts, the ravines and jungles are still not safe; you can enter them only with armed guards. A hundred or so dacoits are still at large, including two women—one of them a sworn enemy of Phoolan's."
I asked Sharma to tell me about the lore of the dacoits.
"They're not called dacoits here," he said. "They're called bhagis, or rebels. Every village wants one of its members to join a gang so that the village is protected. And it's often said in the ravines that if a man is blessed enough to have three sons, one will join the uniformed service, the armed forces or the police; one will stay at home and till the land; and the third will become a dacoit. The first will thus give the family legal authority, the second the assurance that the land will not go to waste, and the third will guarantee the social prestige of the family."
With that he jumped up from his chair, slinging his rifle over his shoulder and donning a navy-blue beret. "Come along," he instructed. "Let us move to the ravines."
We drove in a convoy of two cars. A second car would be necessary, Sharma explained, if we happened upon any dacoits along the way. The ravines loomed suddenly on both sides of the road: a vast, crumbling maze of eroded earth and rock, peaks and dips, they extended more than a hundred miles. They looked to me like monumental anthills. We left our car and with some difficulty managed to climb to the top of one of them. All around us the ravines towered majestically. Their combinations of cliffs and mudbanks, camel thorn and elephant grass, tangled roots and passageways, suggested an immense beige, brown, and yellow patchwork quilt. Phoolan had told me that it took her a week just to learn to run in them—the seemingly hard earth proved to be as pliant as sand. And the undulation of the land was so extreme, the passageways so narrow, that it was impossible to know whether anyone was in the ravine beyond.
"Why does someone become a dacoit, other than prestige?" I asked Sharma after we had returned to our car and commenced speeding along the road.
He replied without hesitation, "For the majority of dacoits, land is the key: they fight for it, kill for it, die for it, in the ravines. Also, some join for reasons of revenge: if the system gives you no justice, then you take justice into your own hands. And, I am very sorry to say, many become dacoits because of the high-handedness of the police: police beatings, police inefficiency, fear of the police."
Every reason he cited applied to Phoolan.
Once we arrived in Jora, Sharma made some telephone calls. "We're in luck! We're in luck!" he shouted, as he dashed toward me across a crowded marketplace. "We will be meeting the number-two man to Mohar Singh, a most dreaded and most feared dacoit. Quickly! Quickly!"
We jumped back into our cars and careered through the marketplace and down a series of narrow dirt lanes until we arrived at Jora's rather dilapidated government guesthouse. In a matter of minutes the most dreaded and most feared Ram Charan arrived, looking, at least to me, like anything but a dacoit. A man of presence and impeccable taste, he was nattily dressed in a freshly starched white kurta pajama set off by a gray silk vest and a beige silk scarf. His hair and handlebar moustache were steel gray, and his eyes astonishingly blue. He was accompanied by a lawyer who in hushed tones relayed something in Hindi to Sharma.
"I do not believe it!" Sharma exclaimed with excitement. "Madame, you are so in luck! You are about to meet the most feared and ruthless dacoit of the Chambal ravines: Mohar Singh himself." (The most feared and ruthless was at the moment at Jora's courthouse, doing municipal business, I was told. He was now the elected headman of the village of Mehgaon.) Sharma beamed. "Can you believe it? Here in one room you will have the Chambal River Valley's chief dacoit hunter, together with the chief dacoit."
As Sharma paced up and down the room, I asked Ram Charan to tell me about the terms under which he and Mohar Singh had led more than 500 dacoits in laying down their arms, in a curious spectacle that later became known as the great dacoit surrender of 1972. Dacoity was then at its height, and some 200 gangs roamed the ravines; in their encounters with the police hundreds were being killed on both sides. Then, in a highly unorthodox experiment, Jaya Prakash Narayan, a gentle Gandhian, persuaded about forty skeptical gang leaders—including Mohar Singh, an upper-caste Gujar and a former wrestler, who led the largest of the gangs—and the even more skeptical authorities to give surrender and rehabilitation a try.
Our conversation was interrupted by chaos outside the guesthouse, as a group of children began to cheer amid the screeching of tires. It was a powerful image when Mohar Singh and his entourage entered the guesthouse: the guns, the waxed moustaches, the gold jewelry, and on their foreheads bright red tilak marks, emblazoned by a priest at a nearby temple where they had earlier been. Silently Mohar Singh, a tall man of muscular build, magnificently moustached, surveyed the room. Only his obviously dyed black hair and moustache betrayed his sixty-two years. A rifle hung from his shoulder; he wore a Rolex watch, a gold bracelet, and many rings of gold. His white kurta pajama was topped by a black waistcoat. With his swiftly darting black eyes he immediately located Sharma in the room. The two men, who had attempted to kill each other many times, stared at each other awkwardly. Then they embraced. After a bit of confusion over where everyone would sit, Mohar Singh selected a chair on the far side of the room, with his back to the wall. With a sweep of his large ringed hand he instructed me to take the chair to his right.
Once again he studied us all. He had not yet uttered a word. Then he turned to me and said, "I have murdered more than four hundred men."
"He had the largest reward ever offered in the history of India on his head," Sharma added. Mohar Singh looked around the room and then he smiled.
The reward had been the equivalent of $26,500. "Why was it so large?" I asked.
"Because my gang was so terrifying," Mohar Singh replied. "It was also the largest in the ravines—a hundred and twenty-five men—and altogether we committed some five hundred heinous acts."
"Murder, kidnapping for ransom [his specialty], dacoity in general," he replied. "In the early days I was very fond of killing people in order to create terror in my area, and to extend my control. If I suspected that someone was a police informer, I'd kill him rather than lose my time in asking him questions. I was a very impatient young man." He paused and added, "I killed needlessly; I can say that now."
Before his surrender Mohar Singh had controlled about 180 miles of the ravines, and had been challenged by no one: he had his own army, system of justice, and government. He also had the reputation of being a bit of a Robin Hood. I asked him about that.
"Well, there's no point in robbing the poor," he said.
I asked if he had ever had women in his gang.
"Most certainly not."
"I don't believe in it," he replied. "They're useless. They compromise a gang's security; they push men too much; they're not strong enough to walk fifty or sixty kilometers in a night. Many a gang has fallen, or been infiltrated, because they have had a woman in their ranks."
"What do you think of Phoolan Devi?"
He was plainly irritated, even before he spoke. "She's not a real dacoit," he said. "If it wasn't for you people in the media, no one would have ever heard of her. She's a character-loose woman." I noticed that he chose that phrase with care. "And she never had one significant encounter with the police."
Sharma, Ram Charan, and the entourage—all of whom had relished their encounters—indicated agreement by nodding their heads.
Mohar Singh had begun to fidget in his chair, and I sensed that he wanted to leave, so I asked him what he missed most about his life as a dacoit.
"That was then and this is now," he said with a hint of nostalgia in his voice. Then he answered my question: "I was the uncrowned king of the region. I miss the authority."
"But now," the king of the dacoits went on, "although I had lakhs and lakhs of rupees, I am merely the president of the Municipal Corporation of Mehgaon. But I was democratically elected; no one even stood against me." He smiled, glancing at his entourage assembled around the room, with their rifles balanced against their knees.
I asked him what his plans were, and he replied that he would be standing in elections later in the year for a seat in the state assembly of Madhya Pradesh. He was now on an election tour of sorts, he explained, to round up former members of his gang so that they could participate in his election campaign. Then he added, almost as an afterthought, that he had also recently starred in a Hindi film, The Dacoits of Chambal—playing himself. In a bustle of activity he swept out of the room, surrounded by his men.
"Will he be elected?" I asked Sharma.
He responded, "Without a doubt."
As we watched Mohar Singh drive away in a cloud of dust, I asked Ram Charan, the No. 2, if in his opinion Phoolan Devi could return to the ravines.
He thought for a moment and then said, "Vendettas are a major part of our life here. It's quite possible that if Phoolan has killed, she will be killed in return. They will find her, of that I'm sure. It's blood for blood in the ravines."
As I waited in Phoolan's sitting room late one morning while she was doing a television interview in another room, her husband, Umed Singh, joined me, alternately shouting and whispering into two telephones. The campaign for the May elections was just getting under way, and elsewhere in the house a Buddhist monk swathed in saffron robes, who is one of Phoolan's advisers, was arranging a speaking tour; one of her lawyers was sifting through a pile of court briefs; and an uncle of hers from the village, a withered, shuffling man, came and went through the rooms, occasionally shouting into a telephone.
"I'm sorry—I'm sorry I'm late," Phoolan said as she burst into the room, dressed in a silk sari of intricate brocade. She looked like a prom queen of sixteen. Her voice was full of energy, and a torrent of words spilled out: "Politics is so astonishing! I'm getting so many offers from different parties, but what can I do? If I accept one of them, then the others won't court me anymore. And I've got to be friendly with all the parties at the moment, and antagonize none of them, because of all the court cases pending against me in Uttar Pradesh. I actually had dinner with the governor of Uttar Pradesh last night; he flew me to the [state] capital secretly, in a military plane!" She paused to take a breath, and then she ordered her husband into the kitchen to get her something to eat. I had been told that in Hindi she often refers to him as "my wife."
I reminded Phoolan that she had told me earlier that if she returned to Uttar Pradesh, she'd be killed. Now she was preparing to campaign there. She simply nodded her head in agreement, appearing to see no contradiction between the two statements.
When I asked why a parliamentary seat was so important to her, an adviser answered for her: "Parliamentary immunity."
Since Phoolan had threatened to immolate herself outside the Censor Board and at a movie theater where Bandit Queen was being shown if it was not immediately banned, I asked her what she most objected to in the film.
She didn't answer right away. Then she said, "It's simply not the story of my life, so how can they claim it is? How can they say `This is a true story' when my cousin Maiyadin, the major nemesis of my life, isn't even in the film? There's absolutely no mention of my family's land dispute. In the film I'm portrayed as a sniveling woman, always in tears, who never took a conscious decision in her life. I'm simply shown as being raped, over and over again."
"But you were raped . . ." I began.
She interrupted. "You can call it rape in your fancy language," she said, and her voice began to rise. "Do you have any idea what it's like to live in a village in India? What you call rape, that kind of thing happens to poor women in the villages every day. It is assumed that the daughters of the poor are for the use of the rich. They assume that we're their property. In the villages the poor have no toilets, so we must go to the fields, and the moment we arrive, the rich lay us there; we can't cut the grass or tend to our crops without being accosted by them. We are the property of the rich."
She fell silent, as if she were considering whether or not to go on. Then she said, "They wouldn't let us live in peace; you will never understand what kind of humiliation that is. If they wanted to rape us, to molest us, and our families objected, then they'd rape us in front of our families."
She looked away and then turned back toward me, and I asked what had driven her to stand up.
She said immediately, "Anger."
She paused, and went on, "When I think back, I lose my balance, and sometimes I feel completely lost. I wonder how all of this could have happened to me; how I could have suffered all that I have. My mind aches, and I become confused. I can't think of it."
"What about the happy moments?"
"Once I became a dacoit and started making lists of all the people who had tortured me, who had abused me, and I was able to pay them back in kind, that pleased me tremendously—when they were brought before me, and fell at my feet to pay obeisance to me. The fear of the gun is a powerful thing. I was the master, and those who had once abused me now worshipped me. I was actually happy most of the time that I was a dacoit. There was a song I used to sing: `Shall we kill you or shall we let you go?' It's from a Hindi film. I used to sing it very often in front of my captives, and I also sang it as we marched through the ravines. Being a dacoit was a hard life. We'd go from one state to another, walking the entire night. Then we'd have to survey the area, pay our informers, and bribe the politicians and the police. Our decisions on whom to kidnap, which villages and homes to raid, were not haphazardly made. We had excellent intelligence."
"What do you miss most about your life as a dacoit?" I asked.
"The power and authority," she said. "When people betray me now, like those bastards at Channel Four, [the filmmakers] Shekhar Kapur and Bobby Bedi, if I were still a dacoit, I could have taught them a proper lesson." She looked at me and smiled.
She became reflective, tilting her face and resting her chin on her hand. Then she said, "There's such a big difference between life in New Delhi and life in the Chambal Valley ravines. There are two codes, two sets of mores, customs, and legalities. In New Delhi people are so much more duplicitous: they promise you things, and then behind your back they do precisely the opposite. In Chambal they'll say things openly, they'll shout it from the rooftops, and then they'll follow through. City life is very different; you have law courts. But out in the valley you can do things your way, and by the will of God."
She fell silent, and her eyes studied the room. Finally she turned to me and asked, "What did you think of the ravines when you were there?"
"They're astonishingly beautiful," I replied.
"Did you meet my family?"
I told her that I had tried, but that they had been in her village at the time.
"Then whom did you meet?" Her entire demeanor changed, and she sounded like the interrogator she had once been.
"A number of dacoits, including Mohar Singh."
"What did he say about me?" she demanded, and I replied that he had not only claimed that she had never had a significant encounter with the police but also questioned whether she had actually been the leader of her gang.
She threw up her hands, and anger crossed her face. Then she said, "Let him come here and say it to my face. I dare him!"
"But were you the leader? And if so, how did you get to the top?" I persisted, adding that there were some, including Mohar Singh, who claimed that not unlike a host of women leaders across what was once British India, including Prime Ministers in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, she had simply inherited dynastic power from a man.
She looked somewhat startled, and then she said, "Of course I was the leader! And don't ever question me about that again. And let me ask you something: What's so strange about that? Wasn't Indira Gandhi the Prime Minister of India? Yes, if she had not been Nehru's daughter, she might not have been, but she lasted in office far longer than he did. And if Mohar Singh doesn't think that women should lead gangs, why doesn't he rise up against those who have raped? If all these gang leaders, who happen to be men, would fight against these atrocities, then they would end. It's not to earn money that a woman becomes a dacoit; it's for retribution and revenge. And you tell Mohar Singh that I had absolutely no problem in being the leader of men. Instead of calling me Phoolan, they often called me Phool Singh—which was a testament to my strength. They cleaned my guns, cooked my food, and every morning and every evening they bowed before me, and paid homage to me." She paused, apparently considering her next words carefully, and then she said, "For centuries every dacoit has honored the goddess Durga. And she is what sustained me: whatever she has, I have; whatever she wants, I want. And all of the men in my gang considered me to be a reincarnation of Durga."