Editor’s Pick

01 February 2017
noboru hashimoto / corbis / getty images

PHOOLAN DEVI, the famous Indian dacoit turned politician, visits the Japanese parliament in January of 1999. Speaking to a reporter during the trip, Phoolan offered a piece of advice to women: “Against anyone who will stop you—your father, society, your son—you must fight them to the end, if you want your freedom.” She followed this defiant creed throughout her own life as well.

Born in 1963 into the marginalised Mallah caste, in a village in Uttar Pradesh, Phoolan was married off to an abusive man in his thirties when she was 11 years old. Around 1979, she was kidnapped by a dacoit gang led by Babu Gujjar: a notoriously cruel, upper-caste man who immediately began to brutalise her. Soon, the gang’s second-in-command, Vikram Mallah, killed Gujjar and assumed leadership. Mallah and Phoolan became lovers, and the two led the gang on expeditions that often involved looting, kidnapping and killing. In 1980, Mallah was murdered by upper-caste men.

The details of Phoolan’s life, especially in the period that immediately followed Mallah’s killing, are disputed. Most accounts describe how she was kidnapped and held hostage in the village of Behmai for almost a month by upper-caste Thakur men, who gang-raped her nightly. Phoolan herself was always reluctant to provide details, but she said to her biographer, Mala Sen, “Un logo ne mujhse bahut mazak ki” (Those people really played around with me).

Phoolan eventually escaped, and went on to lead her own gang of dacoits. In 1981, they returned to Behmai and murdered 22 Thakur men in an act that was simultaneously one of personal revenge and collective lower-caste outrage. After this, Phoolan gained widespread notoriety and admiration, coming to be invested with the soubriquet “Devi.” The government conducted a two-year-long search for her until she negotiated her own surrender. She lived in prison for 11 years and was released in February of 1994.

After leaving jail, Phoolan was twice elected a member of parliament from the Mirzapur constituency, for Uttar Pradesh’s Samajwadi Party. She met her death in 2001, outside her Delhi bungalow, at the hands of masked gunmen seeking revenge for the Behmai killings.