Deconstructing the legend

EACH of us has our first memory of Phoolan Devi. Mine is a faint recollection of a short news report in 1981 of the killings of 22 men in Behmai. Naturally, it was what Phoolan Devi had done and not what was done to her that first made her a public personality. She had been raped at 10 by her "husband," gang- raped again by the police in her late teens and then again by upper-caste dacoits who resented this low-caste woman becoming a leader of a gang of dacoits. Yet, such happenings had not become news because it was acceptable to perpetrate violence on a person who refused to accept her position in society.

Now that Phoolan Devi is no longer around, the familiar process has begun of stripping the personality of a dead person who was never really in the centre of society. That she was not a feared dacoit. She never really led a gang. And she never really engaged the police in an encounter. This is all part of the effort to "deconstruct" the legend. The truth is that we were never quite comfortable with Phoolan Devi, not once but twice, becoming a Member of Parliament. We knew what she had lived through and that made us a bit circumspect about expressing a definite negative opinion about her new role. But we could not get ourselves to accept that a low-caste former dacoit and alleged murderess could sit in the Lok Sabha.

It was always easy to see Phoolan Devi the MP as an example of the criminalisation of politics. There can be no justification for the Behmai massacre, least of all as retribution for what society had done to Phoolan Devi. But why is it that when gangsters, smugglers and dacoits sit in Parliament that is criminalisation of politics, and it is not the same thing with political personalities in high positions who have provoked/organised communal, caste and linguistic riots? Phoolan Devi must have rubbed shoulders with many such "legitimate and respectable" political workers who had the blood of hundreds on their hands.

Phoolan Devi was and will always be a mystery. There were many personas, many legends and she was an icon of many kinds. For now, she is perhaps best remembered as an example of the "criminalisation of society," not of politics. Society never gave this intelligent girl/woman a chance to live a life of dignity. First, it denied her a childhood. Then, because she refused to accept a life ordained by her birth, position and family poverty, it brutalised her, made her an outcaste and later a criminal. Even after Phoolan Devi was brought into the "mainstream", she did not get a second chance of living with dignity. Legitimate society appropriated her for its own ends - as an anointed leader of the low-castes, as a feminist from the Chambal ravines and as a late 20th Century woman Robin Hood.

In retrospect, Phoolan Devi had a smaller chance of survival in New Delhi than in the Chambal. She made the headlines once again, she was hailed as a leader of the low-castes and in 1996 had a stunning electoral victory. But she had become a pawn of the legitimate political process which finally consumed her.

Even after the courts give their judgment, who killed her and why will become as much a mystery as her own life was. India's society probably killed her when it got her married at 10. There are Phoolans being created every day, though most of them do not become leaders of dacoit gangs. And for every brutalised Phoolan who rebels against her situation, there must be 10 who are crushed by "criminalised" society.


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Referred by: Benjamin P.
Published on:August 5, 2001
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