Cast as Bandit
There is an unfortunate symmetry in the life and death of Phoolan Devi. Her debut in public life was paved with violence. She died, shot by assailants, on the streets of New Delhi. One could say, that she died as she lived. The violence that made her famous had occurred in a remote and backward part of Uttar Pradesh. Her death occurred in the country's capital when she was returning home from the Lok Sabha. There is a journey embedded in the story of her begining and the story of her end. That journey says as much about Phoolan Devi's remarkable and mercurial life as it does about the nature of Indian politics and the character of north Indian society. She was born poor and into a Dalit family. She, like all of her caste and sex, was a victim of discrimination, exploitation and rape. The details of Phoolan Devi's early life and her travails are unclear. She herself, once she became famous and was sought after by journalists and biographers, narrated many different versions of her own early experiences. She particiapted in the making of the legend that transformed her from Phoolan Devi to a bandit queen. What stands out in all those different versions is the violence to which she was exposed and the abuse that she had to undergo. The complex motives of human action are beyond the ken of historians. It is conceivable that she became a bandit to seek revenge; it is possible that she chose a career in violence because that seemed to be the most decent option open to her. Having made the choice, she became a queen in a man's world. There is also some evidence to suggest that Robin Hood-like she robbed the rural rich to help the poor. It is significant that in her own area she was referred to as bagi, or rebel: an indicator perhaps that banditry was a form of rebellion against injustice. She was an anti-heroine on a grand scale, a character out of a Cecil B. DeMille or a David Lean movie.
Her banditry led to arrest and imprisonment. When she emerged from prison, Phoolan Devi decided to join politics. She was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1996 and again in 1999. It is a comment on the state of Indian politics that a person with as many as 30 criminal cases against her became a legislator. In rural Uttar Pradesh, a Dalit woman who had fought upper caste oppression with violence was touched with a certain aura. Phoolan Devi enjoyed this special status and cocked a snook at all forms of conventional morality. As a representative of the people, she spoke consistently for the poor and their uplift. She had courage and chutzpah but her presence in the Lok Sabha was an uncomfortable reminder of the incongruity of democracy in a caste-ridden society.