“How can people like you—backward caste people—think you’re better than us? One day I’m going to teach you to obey me!” Phoolan Devi’s Thakur oppressors had lambasted. Later, they killed her partner while he was asleep, raped and tortured her repeatedly for weeks, and paraded her naked in myriad villages, dragging her semi-conscious body from one place to another.
Born on 10 August 1963, in an impoverished, backward caste family of the Mallah caste, which is listed in the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in Uttar Pradesh from where Phoolan Devi belongs, Phoolan Devi’s life is triggering and traumatising to even read.
Phoolan Devi herself was illiterate owing to systemic oppression. How did she overcome the obstacles of penury, sexual and physical abuse in child marriage, heinous torture in prison over fabricated charges as a young girl, constant harassment and abuse by oppressor castes in her village as well as in the initial dacoit gang that she was forced to join, and later the media, administration, and judiciary, seems implausible to grasp. Yet, she lived it all. She fought it all, and she didn’t only create history, her existence itself became history!
However, the life of Phoolan Devi needs to be analysed, instead of romanticised. While it is salient to celebrate her resilience, one needs to ponder why she was put into such circumstances. Why did she have to suffer and endure so gravely?
Oppressor caste media and entertainment industry capitalise by glorifying Phoolan Devi for all that she achieved despite oppression, but conveniently forget that they themselves are the oppressors. And that Phoolan Devi could have led a life sans trauma and abuse, had casteism and patriarchy not trampled upon her since her elementary years.
Given the circumstances of being born into an impoverished oppressed caste family as a woman, Phoolan Devi’s life was brimful with tribulations. She and her family toiled day and night, yet they barely survived due to a casteist system hindering their growth, comfort, and dignity.
After being married as a child to a man decades older than her, Phoolan Devi faced umpteen kinds of barbaric violence at the hands of her husband and later her husband’s second wife. Her desperate pursuit to walk out of the marriage was met with shame, harassment, and abuse from the villagers in her native place. Her life was made a living hell. She gradually comprehended the patriarchal nature of marriage as an institution as she said,
“Before I was married, I thought the sound of bangles jangling on my forearms would be delightful. I looked forward to being able to wear bells around my ankles and silver necklaces around my neck, but not anymore, not since I had learned what they represented for the man who gave them. A necklace was no prettier than a piece of rope that ties a goat to a tree, depriving it of freedom.”
Days of banditry
Later, she was kidnapped from her village by a group of bandits, and had to commence living among the ravines with them, traveling constantly, facing harassment from multitudinous sides. She had to adapt to staying only among men, where she was the only woman. This brought about an unfamiliar bracket of ordeals—social, mental, and physical—especially when they camped far away from rivers.
Gradually, Phoolan learned how to fire guns and survive in the forest. Her stay in the forest became a gratification, instead of ostracisation. She along with her partner and gang then returned and thrashed her first husband who had earlier violated her in all ways, and Phoolan took her revenge.
However, even after the dacoit gangs had moved out of civilisation and would live in the forests traveling from one place to another, casteism remained a constant. The upper-caste Thakur members of the gang abhorred, abused, and tormented the members from the Backward Castes and the Scheduled Castes. Even when they pillaged, the upper-caste members would be specifically monstrous towards Backward Caste and Scheduled Caste individuals and families. They even murdered Phoolan Devi’s partner while he was asleep and then tortured her to degrees that are beyond comprehension—such was their caste hatred towards backward castes. It still is.
Devi becomes a gang leader
Later, when Phoolan became a leader and took Bahujan men into her gang, she returned to the Behmai village to take revenge. While she was away searching for her violator, who had heaped violence onto her and her partner, her other gang members killed Thakurs who had been torturing and exploiting the marginalised communities.
In this patriarchal world, where women are referred to and identified as the property of men or in relation to men, Phoolan Devi refers to the men she led in her gang as “my men”; not in the sense of ownership but in the responsibility of leadership—where she elaborates on how she made sure her gang members were always safe, well-fed and well-clothed. As a dacoit, Phoolan Devi never raided for her personal enrichment.
In her autobiography, she writes how most members of her gang were compelled to become dacoits owing to an oppressive system of casteism and capitalism which left them with no other choice. They raided for their basic needs—ransacking the houses of the rich upper castes who had gained wealth by exploiting and cheating the marginalised people from the Backward and Scheduled Castes. Phoolan Devi would then hand out money to the destitute, giving out bundles of money to those who had been looted off by the oppressor castes. In that, Phoolan Devi’s act was not of a dacoit, but as someone who returned back to the impoverished what had been wrongfully exploited from them. It was a way to make amends, to bring reparations, in a society and administration where injustice was the practice, as she herself says, “I was driven by my hunger for justice.”
However, despite the revenge she took, the heartbreak and trauma did hurt her at times. She did deserve a life where she shouldn’t have had to combat, where life was fair without a continuous fight. At one point she had felt, “Not all victories could be won by rifle shots … I had learned not to hope for peace; there was nothing in the world that would give me peace.”
Initially, Phoolan Devi was vehemently against surrender. However, after being cheated on by a Brahmin police officer who had clicked her photographs by deceit, she was forced to analyse the situation. Prior to this, Phoolan Devi “had never seen a camera this close before” and “didn’t know how the photos came out of it”. Ultimately, she decided to surrender—on her own terms, dictated by none.
For eleven years, she was made to languish in prison while suffering from myriad medical problems as the cases against her were kept on trial for way longer than required—another atrocious aspect of the casteist and patriarchal system. During this period when she was operated on ovarian cysts, a hysterectomy was performed by upper-caste doctors without Phoolan Devi’s will or consent. When questioned, the callous upper-caste doctors had replied, “We don’t want Phoolan Devi breeding more Phoolan Devis”. This was an inhumane mockery of her reproductive rights by using forced sterilisation as a form of abuse against a Bahujan woman who decided to fight the casteist and sexist system.
In February 1994, the new Home Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mulayam Singh Yadav, who himself belongs to a backward caste, ordered that all charges against her be dropped. Phoolan Devi stood as a candidate for the Samajwadi Party and was elected to the Lok Sabha twice as a Member of Parliament from the Mirzapur constituency. She also converted to Buddhism and founded the Eklavya Sena. At one of the Sena rallies, she had said,
“Eklavya was our emancipator. Our exploiters severed his thumbs and sent him to the jungle. But now, times have changed. There are hundreds of Eklavyas. Today, if any Dronacharya tries to sever the thumb of an Eklavya, his hands will be chopped off.”
Phoolan Devi was vigilant of journalists, filmmakers, and media who were only interested in acquiring the sensational and violent parts of her life when conversing with her. She knew that, and yet she spoke, not as a voice of the voiceless, but as the voice among those who have been forcibly shut off, a girl among millions of girls who had never been heard.
Government officials from privileged communities have often recalled how as an MP, they had expected her to be rowdy and had panicked upon hearing of her arrival. But that, she was exceedingly law-abiding, courteous, and amicable — a pleasure to work with. Contrarily, the officials spoke of how MPs from so-called respectable backgrounds would often act violently and illegally and threaten the officials. In her later interviews too, Phoolan Devi comes across as an effervescent woman full of life.
However, her life was at constant risk and amidst concerns about her not being given adequate security, she was shot dead on 25 July 2001 outside her official bungalow allotted to her as an MP—less than a mile from the Indian Parliament—an area considered one of the most secure places in India.
Phoolan Devi’s experiences of exploitation and retaliation are of an individual who was oppressed by all, who was illiterate due to systemic oppression and who couldn’t write anything barring her name. Yet, she struggled, yet she survived, yet she shone, as she said, “what they called a crime, I called justice.”
Ankita Apurva was born with a pen and a sickle.