Phoolan Devi: the myth andthe cracked mirror

Born in crushing poverty, reared in the most despicable of backgrounds and illiterate and unpolished, a battered and humiliated Phoolan managed to rise to levels that many bogged by similar circumstances would not ever dream of, least of all the perpetrators of her sufferings. Her killing was therefore celebrated by a system that is ridden with caste-class enmity, writes Zafar Agha

New Delhi, July 27

Perhaps no one with a humbler background than Phoolan Devi in the recent times has ever seized the Indian imagination as the notorious 'Bandit Queen' did both during her lifetime as well as in her death. She was the stuff that myths are made of. Born in crushing poverty, reared in the most despicable of backgrounds and illiterate and unpolished, a battered and humiliated Phoolan managed to rise to levels that many bogged by similar circumstances would not ever dream of. And the perpetrators of her sufferings would certainly never think it possible.

Phoolan Devi's saga became a rage and a model for the downtrodden. Her life story produced one of the most controversial Indian films Bandit Queen that had to be cleared by the Supreme Court for its release all over India. Journalists from all over the world chased Phoolan's story as if it signified the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the tortuous rainbow. Umpteen film directors made documentaries on her life. Authors from distant countries like France and Japan travelled all the way to that unknown and remote Indian village where she was born.

Except for the women from the high-profile political Gandhi family, no other woman in this country got such huge international recognition, as did the dacoit Phoolan Devi. And very few would deny this fact.

When I say this I run the risk of being labelled biased in favour of Phoolan. But one could not but admire this rustic woman's guts, her rebelliousness. It is only a North Indian, whether coming from upper or lower caste, who can understand what it means for a Mallah (boatman caste) woman to stand up and challenge the landed Thakurs the way she did. And it is a fact that this is why the North Indian middle class loved to hate Phoolan Devi for they could not stomach Phoolan's guts.

How could a woman of such 'lowly' background challenge the Thakurs and even dare massacre them, then cock a snook at the Indian law and yet reach the Indian Parliament? It was a 20-year-itch that bugged them till she died for they wanted to take revenge with their own hands. Still they rejoiced at her passing away, secretively though.

Phoolan's dramatic but real life story has been a mirror image of the dirty and ugly face of the North Indian upper caste that the milieu wants to desperately hide from the world outside. But Phoolan was the first person who so dramatically brought into sharp focus the inhuman social reality of caste oppression in northern India.

But Phoolan would never let things off easily. Smarting from her physical and mental wounds, angry like a trampled snake, she killed the Thakurs. It was indeed tragic, as she lined them up and shot them dead, helpless victims of a bandit queen's lust for revenge. Little did they realise that their acts of rapes, tortures and humiliation they meted out to Phoolan would result in such fate for themselves. In fact, what they perpetrated was their birthright while what Phoolan was doing to them was a heinous crime in the eyes of society.

Raped and paraded naked around in public by the influential Thakurs, Phoolan was left with no other option but to kill. By avenging her humiliation, she showed a new path to the backwards and the Dalits who daily suffer the same fate that young Phoolan suffered in 1980s. That they would never get justice in this unjust social system but would have to fend for themselves, was the motto she spread. She virtually taught people of her background the Maoist revolutionary lesson that 'power flows from the barrel of a gun'.

But it was too dangerous a message for the North Indian middle class to stomach. They knew Phoolan's guts could become contagious; her courage could enthuse others from her social background and could lead to not only a political but also the social revolution.

But Phoolan was truly courageous to take them on. Not once with her brutal killings, but every time she hogged the limelight, she in a way told everywhere the story of social injustice perpetrated in countless North Indian villages. She had, indeed, mastered fairly well the art of hogging limelight. She would cultivate an author and sell her story through a book. She would encourage a journalist or a filmmaker to tell the world the story of social injustice that the Thakurs of her village perpetrated on her, and avenge herself over and over again.

I believe, she at times purposely took persons to court for writing about her or making a film on her life. That was her tactics to keep herself and her story into the limelight and show the mirror to the North Indian middle class, much to their irritation, for every time she did it, the latter could see its ugly image.

Phoolan managed to join the world of politics, in the post-Mandal phase. She was now a deadly cocktail of murky politics and ugly social reality for the North Indian middle class. Now she would go on election campaign telling the day today experiences of every backward caste person and Dalit through her own story. And, at the end she would tell them to stand up like her and fight it out. No wonder she was becoming too dangerous a political animal and had to be eliminated.

Finally, she was done away with. It is not known who her killers were. But I am sure the North Indian middle classes are relieved at her murder. The lowly woman who stood up and challenged the centuries-old social order was finally annihilated. The mirror that so disturbingly reflected the rampant social injustice, was finally cracked. Behmai celebrated Phoolan's killing and I am sure many other UP towns and hamlets quietly toasted her death.

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Referred by: Mukundan CM
Published on: July 27, 2001
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