The conservative Indian film censor board has
barred release of the movie because of its violent rape scenes,
nudity and depiction of sensitive political issues. Devi, who
cannot read or write and was only recently freed after serving 11
years in prison, has filed a court suit to keep the film out of
Indian cinemas, charging that it is an unauthorized invasion of
"They are raping me all over again and selling
me on the screen," says the 32-year-old woman whose life has
become a frenetic media whirl since her release from prison in
February. "They are selling my honor."
The debate over "Bandit Queen" has dominated
Indian newspaper headlines and titillated a public that has been
forbidden to see the movie even as it has been shown at the
Cannes, London and Toronto film festivals. Some news
organizations, including The Washington Post, have been allowed to
view the Hindi movie at select screenings.
But the rancor over "Bandit Queen" goes far
deeper than the usual censor board debate over sex and violence.
The movie offers a brutal view of the way women are treated in
poor rural Indian society. It is a story of social inequities and
injustice, of discrimination and desperation. It rips open some of
the ugliest wounds of Indian society, wounds that middle-class
Indians would prefer remain closed and forgotten.
"Her personal story, extraordinary as it is,
reflects many aspects of life as experienced by thousands of women
in rural India who continue to strive against a feudal order that
persists in a `modern' society, a society in which peasantry
collides with capitalist markets and technology," Devi's
biographer, Mala Sen, writes in her introduction to "India's
Bandit Queen: The True Story of Phoolan Devi," from which the
movie was adapted.
Of the movie, Sen told reporters during the
London Film Festival: "The violence and brutality depicted in the
film is happening in India every day. . . . It's about time that
we opened our eyes and looked at this reality."
Seema Biswas, the 29-year-old actress who plays
Devi in the movie, said she found the role so traumatic and
draining that she suffered a near breakdown by the time the
filming was complete.
The movie, like the reality that Sen and the
film's producers say it depicts, is disturbing to watch. The real
Bandit Queen's story is no less disturbing to hear.
"I was married when I was 11," Devi begins,
swathed in a white cotton shawl that swallows her now-frail 4-foot
10-inch frame. "If I hadn't gotten married at that young age, my
life would not have been ruined."
Devi has agreed to speak with a reporter at her
rented New Delhi apartment, where she is attempting to begin a new
life with a new husband. She shifts uncomfortably beneath the
shawl. In her native Hindi dialect, she says softly, "Even now I
fight with my mother about it."
She tries to rationalize her parents' decision
to marry her off to a man three times her own age -- in much the
same way that modern India wrestles with the child bride
phenomenon, which remains prevalent in rural villages despite laws
intended to curb the practice.
One of six children born to a poor north Indian
farmer who scratched out a living by working other people's rocky,
arid land, Devi said her parents struggled just to feed their
offspring. When a relative found a prospective groom for young
Phoolan, whose name in Hindi means "flower goddess," her parents
agreed to the match. The man gave Phoolan's family a cow, as was
customary in marital arrangements, and took the frightened child
bride home with him.
Her mother, asked by reporters several years
later why she had married off her daughter at that age, replied,
"Poverty is a terrible thing. We are forced to do many things
because of it. How can I explain?"
"My parents had the best intentions for me,"
Devi now says. "They thought, `He's got money. My daughter will be
married. She'll be happy.' "
Her large brown eyes harden. "No one knew that
he was not a man, he was a monster."
Devi said that her husband took a second wife
and that the two often beat her, treating her as little more than
a slave. She ran away and returned to her parents' home. But they
sent her back. Terrified of sex, she wailed each time her husband
forced himself on her. Finally he abandoned her on a riverbank.
Her parents, dishonored that their daughter had been kicked out of
the house by her husband, farmed her out to relatives.
As a divorced, low-caste woman in a rural
village, Devi encountered the wrath of conservative Indian
society, which is ruled by a strict code of social separation. Her
family was from a community called the Mallahs, low-caste
fishermen and boatmen. Most of the Mallahs were landless peasants
who worked the soil of the Thakurs, a higher caste of feudal
landowners and businessmen. During Devi's youth in the 1970s, as
in rural India today, the Mallahs often were repressed and abused
by the Thakurs.
Devi, who was more outspoken than most of her
fellow Mallahs, was the target of constant torment and harassment
by upper-caste men in the village. Eventually she was jailed on
charges that she'd stolen articles from the home of a cousin with
whom her family had been feuding for years. After 20 days in the
village jail, she was bailed out by the Thakurs who owned the
property her father farmed. In payment, the men demanded sex from
her, according to her biographer.
How Phoolan Devi ended up in the hands of
outlaw bandits is murky. She has said she was kidnapped and
physically abused by the gang leader. As to why she eventually
gave in to the gang and its ruthless leaders, even when she had
the chance to escape, Devi told her biographer, "A piece of
property has no choice."
One fact is certain: In the early 1980s, in the
rocky ravines of the rugged Chambral Valley in the state of Uttar
Pradesh, the legend of the Bandit Queen was born.
For Americans, bandits robbing, killing and
rampaging through villages constitute an image from another
century. In rural northern India, that image remains a fixture of
But the gangs never flourished more than in the
early 1980s. They ruled with abandon -- particularly the
lower-caste bandits -- outwitting and outnumbering plodding local
police forces, terrorizing the rich and offering a reverse form of
protection for the poor, who were often abused by corrupt,
higher-caste police. In return, many of the bandit leaders were
idolized by the poor, who considered their banditry just another
profession in a land where the poor had to fight for every rupee.
At the height of her fame, Devi was glorified
by the nation's newspapers, which wrote tirelessly of her
exploits. The Phoolan Devi Doll, clad in her signature police
uniform with a bandoleer of bullets strapped across her chest, was
one of the hottest-selling toys in India.
Devi, because of her own background, injected a
signature twist into her banditry. She became a protector of young
village girls who, like her, were sold into early marriages by
"I'd send my men out during the wedding
season," Devi says, smiling at the recollection. "Any time they
found a young girl who was to be married, they'd let the wedding
procession show up at her doorstep, then chase them away."
But just as the villages were divided by caste,
so were even some of the bandit gangs. And thus, one day two
upper-caste outlaws shot and killed the lower-caste bandit who was
Devi's lover. To demonstrate their power over the gang and its
leader's mistress, the killers took Devi hostage. In one of the
most painful episodes of her life -- and one of the most brutal
scenes in the movie -- Devi was taken to the village of Behmai and
gang-raped by a group of upper-caste men.
"This is what we do to low-caste goddesses,"
one of the rapists hisses in the movie.
And in the scene that most scandalized the
Indian film censor board, Devi is stripped and forced to walk
naked through the village, fetching the men water from a well as
the entire village looks on.
The moviemakers defend the scene, saying it is
a common method of punishing women in Indian villages. In fact, in
recent months, an increasing number of such incidents have been
Devi, in an interview, did not deny the events
occurred but said it was an invasion of her privacy to put them on
display in movie theaters. "The most private and sensitive things
in a woman's life have been portrayed in this film," she said.
"The film shows her being raped by her husband,
by the police at the police station, being mass-raped by the
Thakurs again and again," says Devi's lawyer, Praveen Anand. "She
never wanted to talk about it, even in the book. It is extremely
embarrassing for her to talk about this. Little did she want it to
In real life and in the movie, Devi sought her
revenge. On Feb. 14, 1981, her gang stormed an isolated village
intending to rob wealthy Thakurs who were preparing for an
elaborate wedding. Arriving at the village, Devi recognized it as
Behmai, the home of the two men who'd murdered her lover and the
site of her humiliation.
According to Sen's biography and newspaper
accounts at the time, Devi ordered her men to sweep the town in
search of the murderers. In all, two dozen upper-caste Thakurs
were dragged from their homes and lined up on a riverbank. The
bandits opened fire and left 20 men dead -- the largest massacre
by a dacoit gang in modern Indian history.
Police launched the biggest manhunt ever
conducted in the state of Uttar Pradesh, putting 2,000 officers
and a helicopter on the trail of Phoolan Devi. In true-life
adventures worthy of the Keystone Kops, Devi repeatedly outsmarted
the police, once disguising herself in three different costumes in
a village swarming with police.
While the national press and the poor villagers
of the region delighted in the escapades of the Bandit Queen, she
was no laughing matter for state and national politicians who were
being depicted as fools by the media. The political pressure
became so intense that V.P. Singh -- who would later become prime
minister of India -- was forced to resign as chief minister of
Finally, Phoolan Devi became such a political
embarrassment that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi told law
enforcement officials that if they couldn't catch Devi, they
should cut a deal with her -- on her terms -- for her surrender.
In February 1983, with most of her gang members
dead and her own health failing as a result of her harsh life on
the run, Devi agreed to surrender on the conditions that she not
be hanged, that her men serve no more than eight years in prison,
that her brother be given a government job, that her father be
given a plot of land and that her entire family, along with the
family cow and goat, be escorted by police to her surrender
ceremony in the neighboring state.
Her surrender was an extraordinary spectacle.
She marched onto a stage before thousands of cheering peasant
supporters, bent down and touched the feet of the chief minister
and turned over 25 bullets and her gun. The dramatic surrender
made front-page headlines from New Delhi to Washington.
"I brooded a lot," Devi says of her 11 long
years in prison.
She was charged with 48 crimes, including
allegations that she shot some of the 20 men killed in the Behmai
massacre. But for 11 years her trials were delayed by changes in
government and feuds between two neighboring states over where the
cases should be tried. Finally, Early this year, when a
lower-caste political party won election in Uttar Pradesh, the new
chief minister ordered Devi released on bail, saying she had
"In jail, my only dream was to get out," said
Devi. "I thought life would be easy once I was free. I didn't know
I would have to continue my fights. The hardest battle is now --
with the urban, educated, city-bred dacoits."
Devi has been besieged by the Indian and
international media since her release. She was so intimidated by
the mob of reporters and photographers waiting outside Tihar Jail
in New Delhi that she retreated to her cell and had to be coaxed
out by the prison director.
Within weeks, the controversy over the movie
created a renewed media feeding frenzy. The Indian press has
reported her every move. Devi says that the first time she
ventured to her neighborhood vegetable market she was surrounded
by so many curious onlookers that she ran back to her apartment in
terror. She has received death threats from people opposed to her
release from prison, and the government has assigned bodyguards to
As for her legal situation, the movie couldn't
have come at a more delicate time. There are still 48 criminal
charges, including murder, pending against her. One of Devi's
greatest fears is that scenes from the movie could be used against
her if the cases are brought to trial.
The movie "shows her there at Behmai," says
attorney Anand. "This will have an effect on judgment, on the
witnesses and the media, and may incriminate her."
Devi has denied that she killed any of the men.
Even though she is now at war with her
biographer, Sen, and received $13,000 for the rights to her story
for a movie she now doesn't want released, Devi already has begun
cooperating with a French author for a new biography.
But mostly, Devi says she just wants to move on
with her life. She married a New Delhi business contractor just
five months after she left prison. Now she says she would like to
start a national social organization to help poor women, child
brides and women newly released from prison.
The transition from ex-bandit and ex-prisoner
to urban New Delhi wife has been far from easy. She is illiterate
and finds city life alien. A friend had to teach her how to use a
telephone when she moved into her apartment. She suffers from a
range of health problems exacerbated by years of living on the run
and in prison. She has an explosive temper, which she unleashes on
everyone from journalists to family members. Even the Hindu
goddess Durga, to whom she has built a small shrine in the corner
of her living room, does not escape her wrath: "I even yell and
curse the god when I get angry," she says.
India's Bandit Queen
A saga of revenge and the
making of a legend of "the real India"
By Mary Anne Weaver
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
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
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
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
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
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.
"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
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
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
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
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
"There's a lot you don't know about me,"
"THE REAL INDIA"
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
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
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
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
"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.
THE KING OF THE DACOITS
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
"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
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
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
"Well, there's no point in robbing the poor,"
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
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
THE REINCARNATION OF DURGA
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
When I asked why a parliamentary seat was so
important to her, an adviser answered for her: "Parliamentary
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
"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
"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."
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1996; India's
Bandit Queen; Volume 278, No. 5; pages 89-104.