India’s long and unhappy history of dacoity, or banditry, can be traced to at least the fifth century invasion of the sub-continent by Scythian tribes. The ongoing issues of caste, religion and land continued to fuel the rise of armed groups disenchanted with one or more aspects of their lot and, in a few cases, the lot of those like them. These groups usually consisted of those from lower, poorer castes and they generally preyed on the richer castes, especially the Brahmins. Surplus booty of food, clothes and money was sometimes distributed among the caste, family and clan groups from which many dacoits came, engendering a positive attitude towards them from many, if not all. The best-known bandit, outside of India, is Phoolan Devi.
Confused and contradictory though much of her story seems to be, Phoolan Devi conducted her struggle not along territorial borders, but along and across the boundaries of India’s caste system and the boundaries of gender implicit in that system. Born into a low caste Uttar Pradesh family in 1963, the problem of land was an integral element of her upbringing. There was a dispute between her father and her high-caste cousin over ownership of a large portion of the family holding. The illiterate Phoolan’s struggle for restitution of what she considered to be stolen property is a foundational and recurring theme of her life story. Before then she had been sold into marriage to a much older man at the age of 10. He abused her and she returned to her village the following year, beginning a life of frequent absences from home as she was often used by other men, coming to be seen as a shamed woman. She was arrested in 1979 on a charge related to the land dispute, imprisoned for a month and frequently raped.
After her release she was captured by a gang of dacoits, the higher caste leader of which abused her until eventually shot dead by his lieutenant Vickram Mallah, an admirer of Phoolan’s and also from a low caste. Vickram, a Robin Hood figure in his own right, became gang leader with Phoolan as his ‘wife’. Even by dacoit standards this was sensational news and began Phoolan’s legend, the songs celebrating her vindicated honour, low caste revenge on the dacoit leader and her elevation to the status of outlaw, or bhagis (rebels), as they are known in this part of India.
Vickram and Phoolan led their gang in abductions, murders and hold-ups of trains and homes throughout Utter Pradesh and Madya Pradesh, developing a fearsome reputation and mostly avoiding the increasing attentions of the authorities with ease. During this time Phoolan developed a reputation for an ability to read omens, greatly assisting the gang to avoid capture. Ignoring one such omen in August 1980, Vickram was shot dead by two gang members returned from prison. It was a caste revenge killing for the death of the previous leader, the two murderers, brothers Lala Ram and Sri Ram, also being high caste.
Phoolan was taken to the village of Behmai where she was imprisoned, abused and savagely humiliated until being spirited away by supporters. These included a man bearing the name of the famous dacoit Man Singh, with whom Phoolan formed a new gang and a new relationship. Almost eighteen months later, on St Valentine’s Day 1981, she returned to Behmai looking for the brothers Ram. They could not be found, but when Phoolan and her dacoits left the village, twenty-two of its high caste young men were dead.
In February 1983, Phoolan Devi and her gang surrendered to the authorities of Uttyar Pradesh in a stage-managed ceremony designed both for local and media consumption. A deal had been done in which the restoration of Phoolan’s family holding featured strongly, as did a range of other conditions ensuring that the outlaws would not be hanged, only imprisoned. Most of these undertakings were not honoured by the state.
Phoolan Devi spent the next eleven years in gaol. Surviving this, she was released on parole while the widows of Behmai pursued her with petitions for legal proceedings regarding the St Valentine’s Day massacre. She avoided this threat and, in the turgid politics of India in 1996 she was elected to the lower house of India’s Parliament as a member of the Samajwadi Party representing the low caste political interests. Three masked men assassinated her in 2001, perhaps for political reasons, perhaps for revenge.
By then her legend had already grown to significant size, with a feature film and documentary about her life being broadcast internationally. She publicly and legally objected to the feature, Bandit Queen, as inaccurate and, with the aid of professional writers, produced her autobiography, I, Phoolan Devi in 1996. It became an international best seller.
There are numerous references in her autobiography to the dacoit practice of giving money stolen from the rich to the poor. Her experiences before and during her outlaw years give her a strong sense of the wrongs done to the low caste and poor, her own experiences making her an avenger of those communal wrongs as well as those perpetrated against her.
The complexities of the caste system also play an important part in her story, as do the political and religious machinations of the sub-continent. The role of the media in promoting her as ‘the bandit queen’ cannot be overlooked, nor can her abilities as a spin-doctor. Her own lawyer is reported to have said:
“her endless, boundless ways of reinventing herself. …”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.”