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A Woman’s Revenge

Rape for India’s lower caste women has been part of everyday life for centuries. Recently women have protested in the streets turning rape into a national debate. Phoolan Devi did more than protest. She formed a gang and targeted upper caste men who had reportedly raped women. Devi became India’s judge, jury and executioner in the early 1980s.

After her gang looted affluent victims she took delight in dismembering them. “I crushed the serpent they used to torture women,” was the way Devi described her deeds in her 1995 autobiography, “I Phoolan Devi”.  In the Behmai massacre in 1981 she had her gang execute 22 upper caste Thakur men.  That episode made her India’s most wanted criminal.  She was dubbed the bandit queen and a subject for Bollywood.

Fueling Devi’s bloodlust was revenge, pure and simple. As an under caste fisherman’s daughter who couldn’t read or write, she saw injustice at an early age and always had a cow-sized chip on her shoulder. As she grew older and more defiant, men tried to control her by brutalizing her. Devi’s arrogance and toughness grew the more they beat and raped her. Through revenge she hoped to gain respect. “I wanted to prove that what we all have is our honor, whatever our caste, the color of our skin or our sex. I wanted respect.”

Forgiveness was not part of her spiritual makeup. She worshiped Durga the Hindu goddess of strength and power and it was revenge that turned her into a killing machine with a social conscience. She became a national hero to millions of Indian women who admired her defiant courage and her femininity. Devi redefined what being a woman in modern day India could be, a rebel with the balls to challenge a male dominated society. The subjugation of India’s women has long prevented India from escaping poverty. Devi’s exploits might seem abhorrent, the antithesis of Gandhi’s earlier non-violent revolution, but in brutal, badassdom India she chose to fight fire with her own burning flame. In the end like Gandhi, she was gunned down. Her assassination came after she dropped her guard giving up her AK 47. She tried to change the society by successfully running for Congress. A fatal mistake.

Life Lessons

By the time she was 11, Phoolan Devi had figured it out. She had to be as ruthless and bloodthirsty as any man if she wanted to survive as a lower caste woman.  She watched as her passive father was dominated by his brother who chopped down her father’s tree, her family’s most valuable possession. At 11, she was sold into marriage by her father to a 23 year old widower for a broken down bicycle and a scrawny cow. Sexually abused by her husband, she fought back and refused to be her husband’s slave by running away and returning home nearly 300 miles. Her father-in-law had locked her in a dark shed for days with rat feces in the boiling Indian heat.

Her salvation was a life of crime, although she never considered herself a criminal despite the frequent raids on trains and buses. She was never driven by money, but by acceptance and a hunger for love. “They called me a pest and a criminal. I never considered myself someone good, but I wasn’t a criminal either. All I did was make men suffer what they made me suffer.”

At 17, Phoolan was ready for action and love and found her partner in crime and in bed in Vikram Mallah, a dacoit gang member. He liberated her from her bad marriage after his gang kidnapped Phoolan. The gang’s leader Babu Gujjar wanted to bed Phoolan but Vikram protected her and killed Gujjar. Vikram was the new leader and Phoolan had her first and only true love and first gang affiliation. Within a few weeks the gang pulled up at Phoolan’s husband’s village. She got her revenge with a knife, tossing the husband on the road with a handwritten sign that warned village men not to marry young girls. Phoolan’s first taste of revenge must have been sweet after six years a slave.

If Only Bonnie & Clyde

Perhaps if Phoolan and Vikram could have had a Bonnie & Clyde wild-run through the Indian countryside her life would have turned out just blissfully violent, but it wasn’t that simple. It wasn’t the law, but Shri Ram, a high caste gangster and Vikram’s guru that became her chief tormentor. Shri blamed Devi for the death of Babu Gujjar and was likely jealous of Vikram. In a power struggle to control the gang he hunted him and Phoolan. He hated the way Phoolan’s foul mouth tough girl persona intimidated his high caste gang members.  In one roadside ambush he shot Vikram twice in the back, but Phoolan helped save him. Vikram wasn’t so lucky on the second night raid, but Shri purposely kept Phoolan alive.

For the next three weeks Phoolan was paraded through upper caste villages where she was tortured and gang raped repeatedly then left for dead. This humiliation would have crushed most of us, but Phoolan Devi wasn’t stopping there. An old Brahman found her in the road and nurtured her back to health. Within months she formed her own gang and went on a revenge killing spree searching for Shri Ram.  She thought she had Shri cornered in his upper caste village of Behmai where a wedding was in progress. She dressed her gang members in police clothes to gain access but after interrogating the village men none could produce Shri. Instead of just torturing them, Phoolan ordered her men to kill them, firing squad style. Many of the dead were in the village attending the wedding as guests. Phoolan let her blind revenge cloud her strategic judgment and it cost her.

The massacre was headline news throughout India. How could a low caste woman go on a high caste male killing spree? The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh resigned in disgrace and the Indira Gandhi government sent the military in search of Phoolan and her gang. After two years they couldn’t find her, but when the government threatened Phoolan’s mother and father, she negotiated a surrender that kept her parents safe and prevented her and her gang members from getting the death penalty. Her life of crime was over. Thousands attended her surrender and cheered the bandit queen. She laid down her arms before a photo of Gandhi and the Goddess Durga.

No Justice, Just Martyrdom

There was never a formal trial and for 11 years she was kept in jail where she was forced to have a hysterectomy. “We don’t want Phoolan Devi breeding more Phoolan Devi’s,” was her warden’s explanation for the operation. Political pressure built as her popularity remained high among lower castes forcing authorities to release her. In 1996 she successfully ran for Parliament and worked to make life better for the poor. Her organization Eklavya Sena taught lower caste people self-defense.

But Devi had laid down her own guns and was defenseless when three gunmen opened fire outside her Delhi bungalow in July 2001. The hit was revenge for the Behmai massacre and ended Devi’s own campaign to bring some respect to the millions of downtrodden Indians.

The cycle of revenge was complete and left Phoolan Devi a martyr for lower caste women. It was a role she didn’t seek; she just wanted respect and got it at the end of a gun and later at the ballot box.