Tracking India's Bandit Queen

A conversation with Mary Anne Weaver

In "India's Bandit Queen" (November 1996), Mary Anne Weaver reports on the remarkable story of Phoolan Devi, a poor village woman who was once the most wanted dacoit, or rebel, in India but who, after eleven years in prison, has now been elected to the Indian Parliament. Weaver recently spoke about Phoolan Devi with The Atlantic's Toby Lester.

You've been covering Phoolan Devi's story for thirteen years or so. What first drew you to her?

It was partly the myth, the lore, and curiosity about who she was. When I arrived in India [as a foreign correspondent] in 1982, no one knew anything about Phoolan's background. She was simply this woman who had allegedly gone into a village, massacred twenty-two men, and then disappeared into the ravines. Every now and then there were Indian and foreign correspondents who went off in search of her—always unsuccessfully—and maybe once a month there would be an item in the Indian press that said that Phoolan had been spotted in such-and-such a village, or had raided such-and-such a village. That she was a woman, of course, was the most interesting aspect of all this.

You write early on in "India's Bandit Queen" that Phoolan, "as a creation of the worst aspects of a monstrous social structure, . . . could lead a credible challenge against the caste system that has defined India since ancient times." How much of a role does the caste system still play in contemporary India? And does Phoolan's election into the Indian Parliament really represent a challenge to the system?

The caste system, nominally abolished by Gandhi and the Indian constitution, still has an immense influence on everyday Indian life. In the May, 1996, parliamentary elections the lower castes were reaching for power at the national level for the first time, and Phoolan is one of many low-caste politicians who came to power as a result. The Prime Minister of India himself, H. D. Deve Gowda, is a member of a lower caste. There's currently a surge of lower-caste politicians expressing themselves, and Phoolan is very much part and parcel of that.

It's a caste surge rather than a gender surge, then?

Definitely. Only a handful of women were elected in the most recent elections. Women in India are making great strides in the professions, but those making the strides are largely urban, educated women, not village women. In that respect Phoolan is a real anomaly. She is an illiterate, low-caste village woman who not only has survived a horrendous past—she survived all the horrors that happened to her before she became a gang leader; she survived all the horrors she allegedly committed as a gang leader; and she survived eleven years in prison without trial—but she also continues to survive in the urban jungle of Indian politics. And unlike so many women political leaders in formerly British India, her power is not a dynastic inheritance. She has achieved it herself.

Most of the nation appears to be very much on Phoolan's side—even at the most fashionable dinner parties in New Delhi the chattering classes are chattering endlessly about Phoolan. Her autobiography will probably be a best seller. She's a symbol of so many things—of defiance, of rebellion, of revenge, and of gender, although many Indian feminists would dispute this.

It has to be pretty frustrating for Phoolan to be playing a symbolic and political role after having been a dacoit. Is she comfortable with all the attention she's getting in her new position?

I think she adores it. When she threatened to immolate herself outside of a New Delhi cinema in February, in a protest at the premiere of a film made about her, she was furious—outraged!—because only one photographer showed up.

Phoolan, as you've portrayed her, seems deliberately to avoid identifying herself with one religion—she wears symbolic Sikh jewelry, talks about how others consider her a reincarnation of the Hindu goddess Durga, has a picture of Jesus sitting on her television, and consults with Buddhist monks. Is this behavior just a peculiarity of Phoolan's, or does it represent a means of self-empowerment for India's lower castes—who, as you point out, make up 85 percent of the electorate?

The Sikh jewelry, the picture of Christ . . . all of this is intrinsically Phoolan. However, what is happening, and has happened for many years, is that large numbers of the lower castes are converting to Buddhism and, to a lesser extent, to Christianity. Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar—a writer of the Indian constitution who was the most prominent leader of the former "untouchables" and whose portrait hangs in all lower-caste homes—escaped his "untouchability" by converting to Buddhism. Tens of thousands of others have done the same.

At several points in the course of reporting this story you were in the presence of people who claimed to have killed scores of people—the police officer Raghunandan Sharma boasts that he's killed 365 men, former dacoit Mohar Singh boasts more than 400 on his part, and Phoolan herself seems, at the very least, to have been behind the Behmai massacre. Has killing on this scale left distinguishable psychological scars on these people?

My assumption in the case of Sharma and Singh is that there aren't any deep psychological scars. Remember that dacoits are held in very high esteem in large parts of northern India. Every village—every family—wants one of its sons to become a dacoit; it is considered to be a very honorable profession. Singh killed a lot of policemen and Sharma killed a lot of dacoits, but that was, well . . . their job. It was what they were expected to do.

As far as Phoolan is concerned, her entire life has left very distinguishable psychological scars. How much of this is owing to the ghastly experiences of the first twenty years of her life, and how much is owing to her experiences as a dacoit, I don't know—and I don't think that even Phoolan is able to separate the two. She has obviously suppressed a great deal of her life experiences; much of her inconsistency as a person stems from this. In some cases, of course, her reinvention of herself is contrived and highly studied; but in others it appears to be a natural byproduct of having suppressed the memory of so many of the atrocities she has endured and is alleged to have inflicted on others.

Throughout "India's Bandit Queen" there's repeated emphasis on image, drama, and film. You refer to Phoolan as a thespian who "always knows precisely which image to project." You say she's "inordinately fond" of film music, which she apparently would often sing in front of her captives. Former dacoit Mohar Singh has recently starred in a Hindi film—as himself. And now there's the controversial film about Phoolan. How much has India's huge film industry informed the behavior of people such as Mohar Singh and Phoolan—and, for that matter, how dramatically has it affected the national consciousness?

The film industry has had a profound impact on the national consciousness. It's almost a symbiotic relationship. Cinema is really the informing element in India, especially among the half a billion people who live in the villages. Film is the only entertainment they have; it is the influencer of behavior and attitudes. It determines what people wear, what they eat, who their role models are.

In Jora, the market town mentioned in my piece that has traditionally been a way-station for the dacoits, there are six or seven cinemas, in a market town of only twenty-thousand people. The dacoits would come out of the ravines and into Jora in order to shop, to pray, to relax—and to go to the movies. In fact, Phoolan told me that in the two years that she was on the run from the law she would take absolutely impossible risks just to go to the movies. What's interesting is that while Phoolan and other dacoits have been influenced by film, they have also had a huge influence on the industry itself. The Indian Gone with the Wind is a film called Sholay, which has broken all box-office records. It's a film about dacoit life. No matter where you are in India, even though this film came out perhaps twenty years ago, you'll find movie houses and video shops still featuring it. All Indian films pit the good guys against the bad guys, the white hats against the black. Dacoits in films always wear white hats, so to speak.

Phoolan is illiterate, but will she have your story read to her? How do you think she'll react?

I presume she'll have it read to her—I've sent her a copy, along with copies to two of her lawyers and a couple of her friends. And knowing Phoolan, even if she doesn't get my copy of the piece, she'll make a point of finding it, because she is very conscious of what is being written about her. It's awfully hard to say how she'll react. I think it's a fair treatment of her, but . . . Phoolan loves to sue people. It's a new weapon for her.

For both of the pieces you've done for The Atlantic this year you've traveled far and hard—and have come back with stories that must have been extraordinarily difficult to get. In the process you've managed to be in touch with heads of state, religious leaders, undercover intelligence officers, "terrorists," rebels, police chiefs, and diplomatic personnel. How in the world did you get so connected (or tenacious)?

Well, it's partially owing to the fact that my husband and I have lived and worked as foreign correspondents in the Middle East and Asia for nearly eighteen years. Governments and situations simply don't change that much in this part of the world. So both my husband and I just have a lot of experience. That plus the fact that we've been based in places where we simply came into contact with extremely unusual people and found ourselves in extremely unusual situations.

What's next?

I'm at work on my first book, to be titled Portrait of Egypt: A Journey through the World of Militant Islam. To a large extent it will be an expansion of my Atlantic and New Yorker writings about Egypt and Islam. I'm very excited about it.