Phoolan Devi, a martyr in the fight against caste, race and gender oppression
By Vidya S. Anand
(A speech delivered on March 24th 2002 at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London WC1 at a meeting organised by South Place Ethical Society.)
Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It was in a spirit of humility that I accepted your invitation to share with you my thoughts about Phoolan Devi, one of the greatest leaders of the movement for the liberation of the Dalit people of India. A people whose oppression is surely the oldest, most tenacious and cruellest known to men and women in any part of the world and which to this day still holds hundreds of millions of people in its bondage.
When the most oppressed rise up, they are a mighty force capable of smashing even the tightest chains of bondage.
So Phoolan was also one of the most potent representatives of the world wide struggle against caste, class, race and gender oppression. Your august organisation, for over a century now has given a platform support and a much needed voice to the oppressed, the suppressed and the exploited, whether that oppression, suppression or exploitation is manifested on the basis of creed, caste, class, race or gender. Or, as in Phoolan's case, all five!
It was the late Frank Ridley who first brought me to one of your meetings some three and one half decades ago to listen to a talk on Giordano Bruno. I was touched to hear a moving account of a martyrdom by fire of a free spirit of yesteryears.
As I stand here this afternoon, therefore, my thoughts go to my guide, philosopher and mentor, Frank Ridley and to David Tribe who came from down under to do his bit in the noble and universal cause of the secular and humanist movement.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Phoolan Devi, also known as the Bandit Queen, was one of the greatest revolutionaries in the Spartacus mould. She takes her place in that pantheon without regard to the transitory barriers of centuries and continents, mountains and rivers, languages and religions.
Spartacus, as you well know, lead the mighty slave revolt, which came close to destroying Imperial Rome, at the height of its political, military and economic glory. Phoolan Devi was a contemporary Spartacus, who fought against caste, gender and class oppression, every bit as cruel, iniquitous and invidious, if not more so, as the slave system of the ancient world.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I had the profound honour of knowing the Bandit Queen and meeting with her at the very residence at Ashoka Road, New Delhi, only months before her murder, where she was so brutally gunned down on July 25th 2001.
It was around 10.15 in the morning, that fateful day, that the BBC phoned to inform me of this terrible tragedy.
As one who had closely identified with her, and worked for the advancement of her cause, which is our cause, I was numbed with shock and grief.
The producer from the BBC wanted to interview me straight away, but I asked the producer for a little more time, so that I could check the veracity of the report and try to regain my composure.
First, I called Delhi, and was surprised to hear that the friends there, though not far from the scene of the tragedy, were unaware of it. They were as shocked as I was. They asked me to ring back in ten minutes, and when I did so they emotionally confirmed the report. Ladies and gentlemen, her murder had all the hallmarks of a vindictive and organised political assassination by the cowards and brutes who have subjugated and kept countless millions of Dalits under their iron heel for many centuries and, in so doing, have held back the entire development of India, a great nation, with so much to offer to the world.
Phoolan Devi hailed from the Dalit people. Dalits have been the proverbial and actual hewers of wood and drawers of water for the Brahmins and upper caste oppressors for centuries and indeed for millennia. From conception to the grave they toil to maintain and sustain an iniquitous society. Even beyond the grave, their humiliation and degradation continues and knows no bounds. Every construction on the land, from the grandest Taj Mahal to the most humble dwelling, is cemented with the blood, sweat, tears and toil of generations of the Dalit oppressed. Yet, on pain of death, their shadow may not even fall across a Brahminical latrine. Has the human mind ever devised a more vile form of oppression? Does this not put the late and very unlamented apartheid system in South Africa practically on the side of the angels?
Ladies and Gentlemen, as I have stated, despite sustaining such an iniquitous and unjust society, the Dalits have to suffer indignities and cruelties far worse than the lot of slaves. While slaves can attain freedom by manumission, no so such relief is possible for the Dalits, generation after generation.
A contemporary report from India states:
`Two Dalits are assaulted every hour
Ladies and Gentlemen, the great fighter for the oppressed, the anti- slavery warrior from the United States of America, John Brown exhorted the oppressed thus:
"Sometimes there comes a crack in time itself
Ladies and gentlemen, into such an unjust society, Phoolan Devi was born thirty eight years ago, in a village called Gorha Ka Purwa in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
A poet from a far off land takes up her story in the following words:
`Born in a hamlet by the Yamuna river,
In a region called Uttar Pradesh
Phoolan's family were Mallahs, a lowly fisherman's caste,
So she would always be poor and repressed
When barely eleven, she was sold into marriage
The price, just a bike and a cow
Three fold her age, he was brutal and he beat her,
But she never succumbed to his power.
She finally broke free and trod a hard road through the mountains to be with her kin
But her family felt shame, could not welcome her back, Seemed that being at home was a sin, on the fringe of society, outcaste and lonely
What a life for an innocent girl'.3
Ladies and gentlemen, Indian society is sadly such that it looked down upon a repudiated wife and hence her hardships increased manifold. The upper caste thugs saw her as a fair game for their lust and bestial oppression. When she complained to the authorities, they too, in the persons of police officers raped and reviled her. In the words of the Nobel Prize Winner poet, Rabrindranath Tagore, the caste system constitutes a "gigantic, cold-blooded repression". In India today, seventy-eight per cent of Dalit households have no electricity and about 70 per cent no sanitation. Nearly half of 160 million Dalits live below the poverty line. Sixty per cent of alit children, under four years of age, suffer from malnutrition. The infant mortality rate exceeds 90 per 1,000 births.4 According to Naoko Yuzwa, leader of the inspirational Dalit women's delegation to the UN World Conference Against Racism, held in Durban, South Africa, last year: "Dalit women suffer triple oppression. They are oppressed by being members of the lower caste, for being women, and for being workers."5
This brave Dalit sister added: "We do not have rights from foetus to after-life. The government has initiated forced sterilisation which only targets Dalit women. As toddlers we cannot play with other children. As teens, we are segregated to the back of classes in schools and have no rights to higher education. We cannot drink from the same wells as the upper caste. Even in death, they rob us of dignity. We cannot be buried or cremated in the same graveyards as the upper castes."6
For centuries, the Dalits were even prevented from protesting about their inhuman condition. All that a Dalit woman could do was to lament:
"Hush, my baby, Don't cry, my treasure,
Weeping is in vain,
For the enemy will never,
Understand our pain,
For the ocean has its limits,
Prisons have their walls around,
But our suffering and our torment,
Have no limit and no bound."7
At this point, let me quote you a judgement in which a learned judge in Rajasthan, on November 15th 1995, in the case of a rape of a Dalit woman by the upper caste thugs, wrote:
"The accused come from good upper caste families, including Brahmins, while the accuser hails from a low caste community. The court cannot believe the allegation of rape from a low caste woman against the upper caste boys."8
Ladies and gentlemen, in such a society there was surely no course open for a free spirit but to take up arms against the oppressors. As a Chinese leader put it, we are advocates of abolishing the gun. But sometimes, in order to abolish the gun, it is necessary to take up the gun. Such was the dilemma faced by Phoolan Devi, and the manner of its resolution, at this fateful time in her too short but highly eventful and abidingly significant life.
The world of violence and brigandry is not a pleasant one. For everyone has come to it from their own personal or social reason and trauma. But to knit them into a viable and strong whole is an uphill task fraught with dangers from both within and without.
Brave souls everywhere in the world, throughout the ages, have taken to this recourse. Every society has had its share of inhumanity and each has also played its part in seeking justice for the weak and oppressed.
Nearer home, in Ireland, for instance there was a Bandit Queen, Grace O'Malley, who, in Elizabethan times, also lived and died for the cause of the oppressed, men and women from the Emerald Isle. Ladies and gentlemen, Phoolan Devi, although completely without formal education, was a brilliant strategist, tactician and fighter. This young woman, illiterate and innumerate, quickly mastered the various elements of guerrilla warfare. She was an accurate marksperson, as her enemies soon discovered to their cost. She struck by stealth. She was leader of her own regiment of men, who unquestioningly obeyed her orders. On the battle field she was as good, and even better, than most men. She knew her inhospitable terrain well and long eluded the vastly superior, numerically and technically, security forces. For it was her terrain. And her people. It was a world and an environment inimical and hostile to caste oppressors, precisely because the oppressed had known it for centuries.
Allow me to quote from the Chorus of `The Ballad of the Bandit Queen': "The Bandit Queen, Phoolan Devi,
is riding again tonight
In her khaki and denims, and bright red bandanna,
she's spoiling once more for a fight
Her gang are all Mullahs and low-castes,
poor peasants in need of a meal
Your high-caste Thakurs better lock up your doors,
Or Didi's bullets will make you squeal"9
Colossal rewards were offered for her capture, dead or alive. But there were not traitors or quislings in her community. They saw her not as a Bandit, but for what she was, a liberator, and, truly, a saviour. As was said in South Africa, when you have struck the women, you have struck a rock. Phoolan Devi was, indeed, such a rock. Her cause was their cause. And often at great risk to themselves many concealed her from the spying eyes of the security forces and their high caste stooges.
Ancient and modern guerrilla strategists have all stressed the importance of popular participation in such revolts. Without the protection and loyalty of the people, the sea in which the fighters swim, a guerrilla war can be effortlessly crushed. Phoolan Devi was the people and the people were Phoolan Devi. This is a remarkable achievement. One which will no doubt be taken aboard by future leaders of the Dalit people. No one wants to see a violent insurrection In India. But if the oppressors continue to deny the Dalits their basic human rights, many will be persuaded as to the need for armed struggle.
What is nauseating about these oppressors is that many of them actually believe that the caste system has been divinely ordained. This sounds quite comic, and indeed would be, were it not for the ugly and brutal reality of caste injustice.
It is only when the evil Brahaminical order is finally crushed, by whatever means necessary, that India will truly be able to claim the moral high ground and become an exemplary secular and popular democracy. Democracy only exists where all people are genuinely free – when many are in chains, democracy becomes a laughing stock. Ladies and gentlemen, when she finally came out of the ravines, with her head held high, and her fighting units intact, she brokered a deal with the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh.
Phoolan Devi called a halt to her armed struggle after she had achieved some of her objectives.
First, she created the unique Phoolan Devi doctrine, that when justice is denied and the oppressor is backed by the armed might of the state and is immune from prosecution, justice is best served by teaching the tyrants in the only language they understand – constructive violence.
As `The Ballad of the Bandit Queen' relates:
"One Saint Valentine's Day, her gang hit Behmai,
planned as nought but a routine raid
But seeing there those who had beaten and raped her,
Her revenge echoed way past Bombay
Twenty-two high castes were taken that evening,
dragged from their homes through the grime
Their pleas were not harkened, their screams went unanswered,
they all paid with their lives for that crime"10
In creating this Phoolan Devi Doctrine, she inherited and developed the work of her most influential and formative mentor, Babasaheb Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the socialist and philosopher, the framer of independent India's enlightened constitution, that is sadly honoured largely in its breach, and the founder of the modern Dalit liberation movement.
It was Babasaheb who taught that the Dalit people would have to be their own liberators. That no saviour or superman from on high would deliver. There was none so fit to break the chains as those that wore them.
As Babasaheb taught:
"You must abolish your oppression yourselves.
Do not depend for its abolition upon God or superman.
Your salvation lies in political power and not in making pilgrimages and observance of fasts."11
As far back as 1942, Babasaheb perceptively warned:
"For the ills which the untouchables are suffering, if they are not as much advertised as those of the Jews, are not less real…The anti- Semitism of the Nazis against the Jews is in no way different in ideology and in effect from the Sanatanism of Hindus against the untouchables."12
Phoolan took these teachings to her heart. In so doing, she developed herself as an original thinker and actor. But she always modestly acknowledged her debt to Babasaheb and the inspiration and courage she derived from him, as well as the teachings of Lord Buddha to which both Babasaheb and the Bandit Queen deferred. Politically, she was a follower of Babasaheb. Spiritually, her inspiration was the casteless teachings and practice of the Buddha.
When I sat with Phoolan in her home, those few short months before her cowardly murder, we sat beneath the portrait of Babasaheb and in the presence of Lord Buddha's statue.
Second, she also embraced the ballot box, as appropriate, in the belief that one must give the last chance to constitutional means and methods. When the time and the opportunity came, her people, who for centuries had not dared to lift their eyes from the dust on the floor, so that they might gaze towards heaven, defiantly voted, overcoming a myriad of obstacles, and sent their Queen to New Delhi as an elected member of the Lok Sabha.
Her political platform was potent. It has been expressed in verse, thus:
"Her message was simple, it struck many a chord,
revealing the source of their pain
`Why is it my destiny to always be poor?
They're no different, the same blood in their veins
So lend your support, help me complete this triumph,
over gender, caste and poverty'
Once the ballots were counted, aghast stood the Thakurs,
as Didi was elected MP'13
She always remained a daughter of her people. To her last breath, Phoolan never wavered in her quest for justice. She refused to be crushed by her circumstances – a cruel husband to whom she was married against her will, gang raped by upper caste thugs, extreme poverty and lack of education.
Ladies and gentlemen, the authorities predictably reneged on the deal which they made with Phoolan Devi. She was kept in prison for eleven long years without trial.
On her release she joined forces with conscious socialists, joining the Samajwadi Party, making no secret of her belief that the alternative to socialism is barbarism, a concept first articulated by that other heroic woman, revolutionary and martyr, Rosa Luxemburg. As I have mentioned, she was elected twice to the Lok Sabha, each time with thumping majorities. But, ladies and gentlemen, the upper caste Brahminical order never truly accepted the people's verdict. For them, democracy is good only so long as it fills parliament with their own odious ilk. For instance, the former president of India, Venkatraman, a Brahmin by caste, went as far as to declare Phoolan's election to parliament as a black mark on democracy. One is reminded of Bertolt Brecht's wry observation: "The government must elect a new people."
Ladies and gentlemen, Phoolan Devi was as good in the debating chamber of the world's largest parliamentary democracy as she was in the ravines of Chambal valley. She gave the oppressors as good as she got from them. And better.
She became a role model for millions of voiceless, oppressed of the world, especially women, and consequently was nominated by the Nobel Peace Prize by that courageous socialist and feminist parliamentarian, Mildred Gordon, who felt that Phoolan's odyssey was as remarkable and accomplished as that of Nelson Mandela, Yasser Arafat or Gerry Adams.
On her brutal assassination, a women from Detroit wrote the following as a humble offering to "the story of a woman who I admired and respected and a woman who lifted me out of the bowls of my own victimisation of rape in 1997:
``You have fallen, my sister across the sea
And my heart is aching for you to return
Though I hope that you shall finally find the peace your life never brought you,
I know that I will miss you for the earth that is my prison, till I met the fate of another gunned down fighter
In a world this ill
You are my fist
You are my blood
You re the ocean of my uncried tears
I will carry your spirit always, as I march my people home14 The murder of Phoolan Devi occurred, of course, in the context of crucial developments in the Indian polity. Indian governments since 1947 had singularly failed to practice the secular democratic ideals on which the country is supposedly based. But they had at least felt constrained to pay lip service to them. The present government, led by the communal BJP, itself in turn dominated by the fascist RSS, the assassins of Mahatma Gandhi, is a different matter. It is avowedly and unashamedly communalist, anti-Dalit, anti-low caste, anti-poor, anti-tribal, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian. Pro-high caste, pro- Brahmin, pro-rich and pro-imperialist. In recent weeks we have seen the terrible cycle of revenge killings of Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat, redolent of the worst excesses at the time of partition in 1947. Such atrocities and tragedies stem directly from the communal divide-and-rule policy of the reactionary government. But such atrocities will continue to recur until such time as long as the question of the oppression of the Dalits, and the fascist ideology on which it rests, remains. Karl Marx said that "English reaction has its roots in Ireland." Likewise, everything that is corrupt, backward and rotten in the state of India has its roots in, and is sustained by, the pervasive nature of Dalit oppression.
Ladies and gentlemen, let me at this point introduce some verse from another brave sister and other poetical tributes to the heroine, Phoolan Devi:
`The world Has lost a Heroine
One of the bravest and strongest women of this century. Yet, like those who are immolated in the fire of their beliefs, Silenced for their truth being too loud
Like Joan of Arc, Giordano Bruno, Savonarola – she will be remembered The fire and rage of her strife for justice, alive and burning in our memory of her
And into the future generations'
Another sister writes:
"Your spirit will continue
In the name of all those that follow
In the name of all those that dream
Of the world in which our like spirits
Would thrive and survive the onslaught
Of the injustice that survived you"
A sister from New Zealand was moved to write:
"You opened our ears
And our hearts
You lifted the veil over our eyes
To see behind the evil masks
Of those that would pretend righteousness"15
This is the true image that the oppressed keep of Phoolan Devi in their hearts. In my capacity as the Chair of the Phoolan Devi MP International Memorial Committee, I have advanced the modest proposal that her former home, and the scene of her foul murder, in New Delhi, be declared a National Monument, with a view to cherishing and perpetuating her memory, remembering her sacrifice, and, above all, serving as a national and global resource in the struggle against caste, class and gender oppression, and for the education of the next and future generations.
However, the Brahminical fascist government has predictably sought to perpetuate their oppression and torment, even in death. Whilst countless hangers on of the ruling circles continue to enjoy all kinds of dubious privileges long after they have been ejected from office, the bereaved family and staff of Phoolan Devi have been evicted from her home.
In their day, the lords and masters of Imperial Rome branded England's Queen Bodaecia, our original "Essex Girl" as the Bandit Queen. On capture, she was cruelly tortured and executed. This grateful nation, even thousands of years later, has erected her statue on the banks of the River Thames she loved. In the world's oldest democracy, she keeps her eye on the Palace of Westminster to safeguard our ancient and modern liberties. As in life, so still in death, the world's largest democracy also needs its Bandit Queen to keep a watchful eye. A fitting memorial would be a modest but necessary beginning.
Yet the tyrannical rulers in New Delhi do not wish to let her soul rest in peace. However, we know that the real and abiding monument to Phoolan is that she lives forever in the peoples' hearts and in the peoples' struggle for liberation. The political party to which she gave her allegiance, and for which she sat in the Lok Sabha, the Samajwadi Party, recorded its best ever results to date in the recent state elections. This is but the mildest portent of the mighty storm of liberation that, in the spirit of Phoolan Devi, will surely sweep across the vast plains, mountains and rivers of Mother India, to complete the cause of Dalit liberation and, in so doing, help to usher in a new and better world for all mankind.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Thank you very much for your kind attention to my modest presentation today.
Hail the Bandit Queen; Hail the Goddess of Flowers; Hail Phoolan Devi.
1. Development Council of the Church of India, Leaflet at Durban Conference, Page 1.
2. Anand, V.S.: Fulfilling the Vision of Babasaheb, London 2001, Page 22.
3. Fullilove R.W.: The Ballad of the Bandit Queen, Sept. 30, 2001
4. Mwandi Jubase: The Plight of the Untouchables, Sunday Times, Durban, Sept 2, 2001, Page 3
6. Power, Megan: Casting Out Caste, Tribune, Durban. Sept. 2, 2001
7. Anand, V.S.: Op. Cit. Pages 20-21
8. Mane, S.: Public Opinion Law Judiciary & Reservation Policy. Mandar Enterprises, Bombay, 2000. Page 24
9. Fullilove, R.W.: Op. Cit.
11. Anand, V.S. Op.Cit. Page. 22
12. Ibid. Page. 21.
13. Fullilove, R.W.: Op. Cit.
14. Amrit. Gunning Down the Hermes, Chicago, 25th July, 2001.
15. Pvra Dalem. The Day they Killed Phoolan Devi, July 25, 2001.