On 18-19th of July the video of two tribal women being paraded naked streamed all over the social media. The social media went into a tear and drew reactions that befit the unfortunate incident. However, one needs to remember that this incident was not a rare occurrence in Indian Society. Women being paraded naked is an occasional hews that appears in the newspaper of our country. One such incident in 1981 would have slipped into oblivion had the victim not reprised her humiliation.
Phoolan Devi, the victim was raped in early 1981 by a gang of dacoits predominantly consisting of Thakur community. After her rape, she was paraded naked in the village with the bystanders from the thakur community laughing at her plight. The fire of revenge smouldered within her until she wreaked vengeance on 14 february 1981. She killed 21 people, 17 of whom belonged to Thakur community. Although mired in controversy this act has been hailed as an act of rebellion and often cited as an exemplary recourse to atrocity perpetrated by the powerful people. When the netizens were expressing their anger on social media over the clips of the helpless kuki women, some of them memorized Phoolan Devi, who was also the victim of such violence inflicted by men.
Kanchan Yadav, a Scholar at JNU shared the blurred picture of the incident and wrote “ The story of becoming Phoolan would not have been so easy. She would have not picked up gun for penchant. She would have not lived a comfortable life in the jungles. The arrogant and casteist men of this male-dominated country would have forced Phoolan to become Phoolan Devi.
Born on 10 August 1963 in the village of Gorha ka Purwa in Jalaun district of Uttar Pradesh. Phoolan was an inborn rebel. At the age of 10, she entered into a argument with her uncle, when she learnt that he had usurped her father’s land. This behaviour of Phoolan pushed her father to get her married. She was forced to marry a 35-year-old man. The marriage didn’t last long her husband remarried. She was allegedly beaten by the couple and was forced to leave her husband’s home.
Phoolan returned to her home, but her adolescence always invited unwanted attention from the village rowdies. Once the son of the village sarpanch tried to force himself upon her but she resisted. In a meeting called in the village, she was blamed for the incident. Incidents like these disenchanted her from the village. She became close to distant relative Kailash, who worked for the dacoits. She went back to her village after she was asked by his wife to leave. She once again went back to her home and fought with her uncle.
But in 1979, something happened that was to conclusively seal her fate. Babu Gujjar took her away to the ravines. The reason of which are conflicting and vary according to various different accounts. She was raped repeatedly by Babu. But her ordeal came to end, when he was killed by his second in command Vikram Mallah. Mallah became fond of her. She was trained by him to use arms. She became an active member of the gang.
Trouble ensued when dacoit siblings Lalla Ram and Sri Ram were released from the Gang. The dacoit belonged the dominant Thakur caste. In an attempt to take control of the gang, they murdered Vikram Mallah and took Phoolan to Behmai, a Thakur dominated village. It was here that she underwent the most traumatic and undignified moments of her life. Not only was she raped and paraded naked, she was also forced to collect water from the well in the state of nature. She avenged her humiliation soon after in what is known as the Behmai Massacre.
She surrendered to police in 1983 and underwent 11 years of prison. She was released in 1994. Upon her release, she was received warmly by the society. Her story had inspired many people. She began appearing in interviews. In one of her interviews, she had said “ I would prefer to be an animal in the next birth, rather than a women”.
Noted Director Shekhar Kapoor went on to make a film on her titled Bandit Queen. Where Seema Biswas essayed her role. The film was received well by the audience. The film released in 1996 in India. The making of the film and its success was testimony to the inspiring figure that Phoolan had become as it was a rarity for a biopic to be made on a living person that time.
In her autobiography “I, Phoolan Devi – The Autobiography of India’s Bandit Queen” (as narrated to French authors Marie-Therese Cuny and Paul Rambali ) She says “The poor must bow down and touch the feet of the rich. The poor eat a few grains of millet while the rich feast on mangoes. The pain of hunger in the belly of the poor produces fear and submission. I tried to submit, as my father said I should, but I was unable. I was like my mother. There was too much anger in me.
She converted to buddhism on 15 february 1995. Later she became a Member of Parliament on a Samajwadi Party ticket from Mirzapur.
Unfortunately, her rebellion and her popularity had a price attached to it- On 25th July, 2001 she was killed by three men outside her home in New Delhi. The accused Sher Singh Rana was caught and sentenced to death in 2014. But he managed to get bail in 2020.
Even after her death Phoolan Devi is considered to be a figure of rebellion. The Time Magazine figured her amongst the top rebellious women in the world. Her comic biography Phoolan Devi: Rebel Queen was released in 2020 based on the illustration of international illustrator claire fauvel. Notwithstanding the controversy attached to her life many political parties staked claim to her legacy. Her valour continues to inspire women across the globe even after 20 years of her death.