This article appeared in the March 2013 issue of The Portland Radicle.
TRIGGER WARNING: This article references sexual assault, and may be triggering to some people.
This article draws primarily from Devi’s own account in her autobiography I, Phoolan Devi, which was recorded and transcribed (since Devi could not read or write) with her approval during her prison sentence.
Phoolan Devi, the infamous “Bandit Queen” of India, was born in 1963 in a small village in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Her family belonged to the mallah caste and she spent her childhood in poverty, enduring hunger and abuse from members of the upper castes. At age 11, after protesting what she perceived as her cousin’s usurping of her father’s share of land, she was married off to a man 20 years her senior. Although it was customary for child brides to stay with their parents until they were 15 or 16 years old, Devi’s father-in-law immediately took her to his house to do housework, as there were no women in his household. Following brutal sexual assaults by her husband intended to “make her a woman,” she ran away repeatedly from her marital home to her father’s house. Finally her husband married a second wife and demanded that Devi stay with her parents.
Being abandoned by her husband made her a target for unwanted sexual attention by upper-caste thakur men. Devi protested this harassment and was raped at gunpoint in front of her family by a group of thakurs in retribution. Although sexual harassment and rape were a fact of life for many lower-caste women and cultural norms required silence about rape, Devi publicly demanded justice for the assault. News of her breaking the taboo spread and thakur men throughout the area started coming to her village looking to rape her and terrorizing other low-caste women. The villagers shunned her family, refusing them access to the village well, and employers used her ‘shame’ as an excuse to deny her family members their wages.
Devi remained rebellious, using sabotage, threats, and trickery to fight wage theft. She continued to accuse her cousin Mayadin of stealing her family’s inheritance and accompanied her father to court over the issue. She also had altercations with the family of a village leader.
“I was discovering piece by painful piece how my world was put together: the power of men, the power of privileged castes; the power of might. I didn’t think of what I was doing as rebellion; it was the only means I had of getting justice.”
Devi made many enemies and was considered a nuisance by members of her village. To escape a marriage they arranged to keep her from making trouble—one that would put her in the power of one of her rapists—she ran away to the village her older sister and brother-in-law. Meanwhile, her cousin Mayadin accused her of petty theft and local police jailed members of her family in her stead. To free her family, she turned herself in. The authorities ignored her alibi and jailed her, beating and gang-raping her for three days and threatening to harm her family if she spoke about the abuse. The police also extracted a false confession from her, but she was acquitted in trial. When Devi returned home she was taunted and further shunned for being ‘unclean,’ as jail was known to be a place where women were raped. Desperate and feeling that she had nothing left to lose, she became bold and began threatening those who tried to abuse her with a fictitious rifle. On one occasion she beat a would-be rapist and on another scared off several police officers who were harassing her by drawing public attention.
“Because they lived in fear, I realised, all you had to do was frighten them! Because they used violence, you had to be violent too!”
A rumor that Devi was involved with dacoits, or roving bandits began, and in 1979 her cousin Mayadin hired a real gang of dacoits to kidnap Devi. She was abducted from her home and became caught in a conflict between two factions of the gang, one headed by Baboo Gujar, an high-caste dacoit leader who was a serial rapist and abuser, and the other by Vikram Mallah, a mallah like Devi who was tired of Gujar’s behavior. When Gujar attempted to rape Devi, Mallah took the opportunity to kill him. Devi began a relationship with Mallah and became co-leader of the gang. He taught her to use a rifle and she participated in lootings targeting upper-caste villagers, taking prisoners for ransom and occasionally robbing trains.
They also attacked the village of Devi’s husband. Devi stabbed her husband in the chest and left him severely wounded by the side of a road, bearing a note warning older men not to marry young girls. She and the dacoits later returned to her village, where they found her family near starvation, having been deprived of most of its food by villagers who said that the dacoits’ kidnapping of Devi had brought shame upon them all. Terrified of the gang, the leaders of the village and her cousin Mayadin begged for her forgiveness. Devi wanted to kill Mayadin but was prevented from doing so by her parents and Mallah, as killing a member of one’s family was considered a great sin and dacoits depended in part on their reputations and the good will of villagers, who provided occasional food, shelter, and information about high-caste targets.
Tensions rose after upper-caste former members, Shri Ram and Lala Ram, rejoined the gang. The brothers resented the killing of former leader Gujar and the ascension of low-caste Mallah and Devi. Shri Ram eventually shot and killed Mallah and kidnapped Devi, parading her naked from village to village and taking her to the thakur-dominated village of Behmai. For three weeks, she was repeatedly beaten and raped until she was rescued by a low-caste villager and two former members of her gang.
Devi formed a new gang comprised solely of men from similar castes and began a new campaign of robberies throughout the region, working for a while with a Muslim gang. She developed a reputation for avenging wrongs against the poor, targeting upper-caste men who were known for raping, abusing, or exploiting lower-caste villagers. She punished these men by robbing, beating, and on occasion castrating them. According to her autobiography, her greatest satisfaction was distributing stolen money to the poor, though authorities say there is no evidence of her having done so.
“If a mother wanted to protect her daughter, or a father his wife or his sister, they knew all they had to do was say to the rapist that Phoolan Devi would punish them. And I did. I helped the poor people by giving them money and I punished the wicked with the same tortures they inflicted on others, because I knew the police never listened to the complaints of the poor.”
Devi was obsessed with avenging Mallah’s death and her humiliation. On February 14, 1981, she returned to Behmai seeking Shri Ram and members of his gang. There are contradictory accounts of what followed. Some survivors say that when the men could not be produced, Devi ordered over 20 thakur men rounded up and executed although they had not been involved in her imprisonment and rape. Other survivors say that she was not present during the execution. According to her autobiography, she pursued Shri Ram out of the village and did not order the shooting.
Members of her gang were responsible in any case and the incident made Devi and her gang high-level targets for arrest or execution. She evaded the authorities for two years, hidden by low-caste Indians sympathetic to her cause. In 1983, in failing health and with most of her gang dead or captured, she negotiated the terms of her surrender and was jailed for 11 years, waiting to stand trial. During her imprisonment, she was operated on for ovarian cysts and given an unnecessary hysterectomy by a doctor who reportedly said he didn’t want her breeding more Phoolan Devis. All charges against her were eventually dropped in a controversial move influenced by popular support for Devi who at the time of her arrest had been the subject of a media frenzy.
In 1996 Devi was elected to parliament as a member of the Samajwadi Party on a platform of helping the poor and oppressed. She was assassinated on July 25, 2001 by a gunman seeking revenge for the 1981 Behmai massacre. A few decades later, a different sort of gang is prominent in Uttar Pradesh.
The gulabi, or pink gang was formed by Sampat Pal Devi in 2006. The women’s gang, comprised almost solely of dalit or “Untouchable” women, has defended women from abusive husbands, pressured apathetic or belligerent authorities to prosecute domestic abuse, stopped child marriages, and fought corruption among politicians and police, using force when necessary.
“To face down men in this part of the world, you have to use force. I didn’t do anything wrong. I have faith that justice will prevail,” Sampat Pal has said.
The gang’s more daring exploits include hijacking a truck of government-subsidized low-cost food meant for the poor that had been stolen for market resale, ambushing a local electricity office when officials were withholding electricity until they received bribes, and storming a police station where protesters were being detained. The gang has also started a school to fight illiteracy among the poor. The gulabi gang reportedly has over 20,000 members and enjoys popular support.
Phoolan Devi remains a folk hero to the poor, low-caste and dispossessed in India. May her example inspire those fighting against rape culture and terrorize rapists everywhere.