Thursday, August 10, 2006

Phoolan Devi

Her poverty and her iron will, seemingly able to withstand violence and dire humiliation, conspired to make Phoolan Devi a country folk hero in northern India -- a diminutive woman with a bandana around her head and a poisonous look in her eyes who struck such fear in the hearts of some that they would swear that she was 6 feet tall with hair the color of dried blood.

Bandit, parliamentarian and poverty activist Phoolan Devi, known as the "Bandit Queen," was born on this day around 1963 in Shekhpur Gudda, Uttar Pradesh, India. Her father was a member of the Mallah caste, a sub-caste of the lower caste Sudras (farmers and laborers), who had been duped out of his share of some ancestral land by his manipulative brother Biharilal and nephew Maiyadin. In protest, the defiant 10-year old Phoolan convinced her 13-year old sister to sit with her in the fields of what used to be her grandfather's land, eating sweet chic peas raised by Biharilal. Maiyadin had the girls kicked off of the property by the village authorities, and had their parents thrashed for failing to curb the children.

Following the incident, Phoolan's impoverished parents endeavored to find suitable husbands for the girls to keep them out of trouble. At 11, Phoolan was sold to a 30-year old man for a cow and a bicycle, and, barely comprehending of sexuality, was raped by her husband. She became a mere household slave when her husband took a second, older wife, and was ultimately abandoned by her husband for her insubordination.

Back home, Phoolan was harassed by higher caste men who considered divorced teenagers to be loose women, but her unwillingness to be anybody's fool frequently landed her in hot water with local authorities -- until, in 1979, she was kidnapped by daciots, roving gang members who terrorized the countryside, and raped by the gang-leader Babu Singh Gujar. The gang's second-in-command, Vikram Mallah, protested Babu's treatment of Phoolan, and during the ensuing fight, Vikram killed Babu. Phoolan pledged herself to her protector, and together Vikram and Phoolan lived off the land and outwitted bumbling local police as they terrorized the rich and committed reprisal attacks against local corrupt officials who targeted the lowest classes.

After Vikram was murdered by a pair of higher-caste Thakurs who wanted to take over the gang, Phoolan was briefly held hostage (again being subjected to multiple beatings and rapes), but escaped to become the leader of her own gang of daciots which was later implicated in the cold-blooded execution of 20 Thakur men during a raid on a wedding at Behmai.

Although Phoolan claimed she was not present at the raid, her notoriety led Indira Gandhi's government to direct the police to make a deal for her surrender. After believing that she had secured an agreement that she would receive only 8 years in prison, on February 12, 1983 she surrendered to authorities before a cheering crowd of several thousand in a concert theater in Bhind, placing a wreath on a picture of Mahatma Gandhi before handing over her rifle and 25 bullets and being led away by police. Phoolan was charged with 48 crimes, including the massacre of the 20 men at Behmai, and due to delayed trials she ended up serving 11 years in prison, before emerging in 1994 as a lower-caste heroine.

In 1995 she formed a social welfare organization, Eaklavya Sena, and in 1996, following the publication of her autobiography I, Phoolan Devi, she was elected to the lower-caste house of the Indian Parliament. Although she was a formidable voice for the plight of poor Indian women, the cloud of unprosecuted criminal charges continued to hang over her, and northern Indian Thakurs were particularly bitter in their denunciation of the Bandit Queen as a murderer.

She was assassinated on July 25, 2001 in New Delhi. Several Thakurs were arrested and charged with conspiracy in her death.

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