Phoolan Devi (c. 1956—)

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Phoolan Devi (c. 1956—)

Bandit queen of India. Born Phoolan Devi (Goddess of Flowers) in the state of Upper Predash, India, around 1956; daughter of Devidin Kewat and Moola; learned to read and write in prison; married Puttilal (a farmer), around 1967; married once more.

In February 1981, Phoolan Devi and her gang of seven men were charged in absentia with looting, kidnapping, and killing 22 high-caste Hindu men from Behmai, a remote town south of Delhi. Politically, the incident was a firecracker. The Thakurs (landowners) of Uttar Pradesh (UP), who controlled the rural vote, demanded justice so loudly that Indira Gandhi and the government in Delhi were forced to act. For the following year, police from three states—UP, Madhya Pradesh and Rajastan—pursued Phoolan, one step ahead of the national and international press. Labeled the "Bandit Queen," she became the Bonnie Parker of India. Sightings made the weekly magazines.

Gandhi was advised that the hunt was costly and that the only recourse was to persuade Phoolan to surrender. Dacoits (armed gangs) had been urged to capitulate before, negotiating terms with the government. The Chambral Valley of India has a history of rural banditry dating to the 12th century. For generations, the locals have settled scores their own way in this desolate region. Many revolt against a feudal order in which workers who till the soil reap no rewards. Some are women. In the 1950s, the now-revered Putli Bai led one of the most feared gangs in the Valley.

Eventually, Phoolan agreed to a deal, but on her terms: (1) neither she nor members of her gang would be hanged or extradited to UP; (2) with two meals a day, they could share a cell at Gwalior Central Jail (which overlooks the battlefield where Lakshmibai , rani of Jansi, was killed); (3) her family would be moved to Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, along with her goat and cow; and (4) she and her gang would only serve an eight-year sentence.

The roots of Phoolan Devi's rebellion took hold before she was born. Her illiterate father Devidin was the younger brother of the literate Biharilal. Without Devidin's knowledge, Biharilal bribed the sarpanch (chief) of the village, who kept the land records, to transfer all their father's property into his name. As Phoolan told her biographer Mala Sen :

Ignorant of this, my father kept toiling on that land and it was only after he had reached the age of nineteen or twenty that he asked for his share. It was then that the two of them—[Biharilal and his son Maiyadin]—turned him out of the house and my father was forced to build a small hut on the outskirts of the village. They took over the land and my father did not get any share of either the 80 bighas of land we had in the village, or the two-storied family house that my grandfather had built.

At first Devidin appealed to the village council, but Biharilal denied that Devidin was his real brother, claiming he was a servant in his grandfather's house. The villagers urged Devidin to file a suit. Finally in 1949, he took the case to court, but Biharilal, holding all the money, had a distinct financial advantage. Each time Devidin's suit appeared to be progressing, Biharilal and his son would harass him, stealing from his crop, sending thugs to attack.

Phoolan Devi, born around 1956, grew up with this story of injustice. By then, her uncle had four servants and feasted, while Phoolan and her four sisters and one brother lived on a sparse diet. Devidin owned only a small piece of land that provided his family with grain. Said Phoolan:

My parents were very poor…. My father would work the entire day and in the evening come back with food for us and only then could my mother cook to feed all of us. It was out of these meager earnings that they saved up for the court case.

On an afternoon in 1967, when Phoolan was about ten, she talked her reluctant 13-year-old sister Rukhmini into entering their uncle's field, now occupied by their cousin Maiyadin, to eat hora (chickpeas). After all, Phoolan argued, it was her father's share of the land. Maiyadin discovered them and shooed them home, but Phoolan refused to leave. When Maiyadin signaled his servant to drag the gentle Rukhmini off the land, a furious Phoolan rushed to her sister's defense. Maiyadin informed the village council that Phoolan was stealing hora from his fields, and her parents were beaten. "It was as if they wanted to break every bone in my body," her mother Moola told her later.

Though Indian law forbids girls to wed before age 15, Devidin and Moola made swift marriage arrangements for their daughters. Fortunately, Rukhmini would grow to love her chosen husband and have three children. Phoolan was not so blessed. Puttilal, the man chosen for her, was 20 years her senior. Devidin felt Phoolan could use a firm hand, but Moola, who was against the match, demanded a gauna (a period of time before the bride must live with the husband), and three years was agreed upon. Despite this, Phoolan was sent to her husband three months later, when Puttilal threatened to cancel the marriage and the dowry of one milch cow, 100 rupees, and a bike. Said Phoolan:

I did not understand the meaning of "husband" and when he made passes at me I would scream and shout, not knowing the meaning of these gestures. My fear angered him and he would hit me. He treated me like an animal. He would touch my breasts and say that I was like a baby teetar—a partridge—and asked when I would mature. He was a pervert, in my eyes, and I soon learned that his first wife had died in childbirth at the age of fourteen. The child had also died. When he took me to his home I was eleven.

During the next few years, Phoolan was often sick. In the midst of one illness, her disgusted husband sent for her father to fetch her. Now 13 or 14, Phoolan returned home in disgrace and with little future. Though she was still Puttilal's wife, he had let it be known that he would only take her back for 10,000 rupees. Her parents were terrified that they would be burdened by their daughter for the rest of their lives.

Suresh Chand, son of the sarpanch and friend of Maiyadin, began to follow Phoolan around, flirting with her. One evening, while Phoolan was cutting basra in her father's field, he made an advance. She fought him off and ran into the town. Enraged, Suresh caught her, beat her, and told all who would listen that she had attacked him because he had refused her a favor. At home, she was reminded of the rule: they were poor, people like Maiyadin and Suresh Chand were rich; they could not fight them. Now Suresh Chand became their nemesis, stirring up the village against them.

Putli Bai (1929–1958)

Indian bandit queen. Born around 1929 into a Muslim family of prostitutes in Agra, India; daughter of her mother Ashgari (who ran a brothel); died in 1958; children: daughter Tanno.

One of the most well known and most revered bandit queens in India, Putli Bai reigned in the 1950s. She first came to public attention as a willowy dancer in her mother's traditional Nauchghar (brothel of dancing girls) in the town of Agra. Rich landowners and the wealthy throughout the state paid her to dance at festive occasions. At one point, she was asked to dance at a wedding at Dholpur, now in Rajastan. While there, she was kidnapped by the leader of a dacoit gang by the name of Sultan who had been smitten with her. Though she attempted two escapes, she eventually chose to stay with Sultan and had a daughter with him who was sent to live with Putli's mother. When Sultan was killed by the police, Putli teamed up with another gang leader, Kalyan Singh, known as Kalla. The Kalla-Putli gang was soon feared throughout the Chambral Valley. Injured in a police gun battle, Putli lost her left arm at the elbow. While she recovered, Kalla had a gang member dress as a woman in a sari during each raid to deflect police boasts that she had been killed. "A few months later," wrote Mala Sen, "Putli was seen in villages again, wielding a rifle, held steady with the stub of her left arm, her aim still accurate." On January 23, 1958, while trying to escape an ambush by crossing the Kunwari River, the 29-year-old Putli was shot and killed. People still pray at the location where her body, along with her rucksack, containing a half bottle of rum and the Koran, was retrieved from the river.

To save the family honor, Maiyadin suggested she be returned to her husband. Once more, Phoolan was sent to live with Puttilal, but he had remarried, and his new wife Vidya was furious. For the next three years, Vidya treated Phoolan like a field hand, and again the young girl was often ill. At last, Puttilal agreed to accompany her home for a visit with her parents. When they arrived at the banks of the Jamuna River, he went to find a boatman and never returned. At 17, Phoolan was a discarded woman with no future; her mother urged her to commit suicide. Writes Sen:

Although Phoolan Devi was not aware of it, around this time, about the mid-1970s, women's groups in urban centres up and down the country, groups reflecting various shades of feminism, were highlighting experiences such as hers. Endless cases of "dowry deaths" and sexual assaults against women were being reported, demonstrations organized and calls made for changes and modifications to the law. All these developments, repeatedly the focus of middle-class attention in the cities, meant little to her. Her isolation and sense of humiliation … had become complete.

Phoolan worked the land with her family, determined to stay out of trouble. She also appealed her father's case so eloquently that the hearing was reopened and the claim transferred from the Sessions Court at Kalpi to the Allahabad High Court. This was to be the family's downfall.

If any woman were to go through my experience, then she too would not be able to think of a normal life. What do I know, except cutting grass and using a rifle?

—Phoolan Devi

In January 1979, Devidin summoned his family. Probably as a result of their court victory, he said, the basra crop had been trampled under by oxen. A few days later, Phoolan's brother came running home with news that Maiyadin was attacking their neem tree with an axe. A neem tree is prized for its shade; its berries heal. When Phoolan raced to the site and caught her uncle and four men in the act, she threw a stone, making a slight cut above her uncle's eye. The men tied her up, called the police, and she was thrown in jail. After a month, she was released on bail, but it was rumored that she had been raped while incarcerated. All Phoolan would later say was, "They had plenty of fun at my expense and beat the hell out of me too." She was now around 22.

Phoolan was then sent to another village to stay with her sister. Upon arrival, she accompanied Rukhmini to a hospital for an operation. On their return, Phoolan's brother-in-law gave them the news: the police were looking for Phoolan; she had purportedly been involved in a dacoity (armed raid) at the house of Maiyadin and her parents had been taken to the police station. Immediately, Phoolan set out for home, armed with a paper testifying that she had been with her sister at the hospital at the time of the dacoity. On the way, a mob accosted her and had her arrested. Beaten by the police, she was told to cooperate, to do as Maiyadin and the sarpanch told her. Wrote Sen:

She had arrived at the police station, terrified by the reaction she had provoked in the village. She saw her parents but was not allowed to speak to them. The officer-incharge made a mockery of the certificate from the hospital, tossing it on the table, saying it was a meaningless piece of paper. Every time she tried to say anything he told her to keep her mouth shut. He also molested her, publicly not surreptitiously, using the end of his cane to lift her sari, examining her all over, while his subordinates watched her "interrogation," adding their own crude and obscene remarks.

The beatings left scars.

Though Moola found a lawyer which led to her daughter's eventual release, Maiyadin was determined. While still out on bail, Phoolan learned that a dacoit gang, whose chief lieutenant was a friend of Maiyadin's, intended to kidnap her. She then received a letter from the gang threatening to punish her with the common scarring practice of nose or ear cutting. A second letter followed. Twice the family went to the police with the letters, and friends cautioned Phoolan to leave the village. In July 1979, 25 armed men entered her house at midnight, menaced the family, beat Phoolan, then threatened once more to disfigure her until she agreed to go with them. (Later, when she told this story to the police, they summarized her narrative with, "So you agreed to go with them.")

In bare feet with bound hands, Phoolan was ushered, pleading, through the darkness. She was then forced to accompany them on a long march and river crossing, as each day they moved camp. During the first two days, the leader Babu Singh Gujar raped her often. When Babu Gujar offered her to others, however, his lieutenant Vikram Mullah intervened. Within three days, Vikram had killed Babu Gujar and two others in defense of her honor. Instructed to don one of the dead men's shoes and police uniform, Phoolan became Vikram's mistress. "A piece of property has no choice," she said.

When Moola went to the police to report the kidnapping, they were dismissive. Phoolan, they said, had jumped bail. Besides, Maiyadin claimed that Phoolan had run off with dacoits, proving that she had been involved on the raid of his house. He demanded she be registered as a wanted criminal.

Phoolan claims that Vikram treated her well. (Vikram, who was married with a wife and a son, sent them money, but he had left this life behind.) Wrote Sen:

Stories and legends of [dacoits] abound in the area. They are both feared and idolized. Scores of Hindi films have been made about them, enhancing the romantic rebel image they project, songs have been written describing their exploits and endless stories are told about particular bandit leaders…. Vikram Mullah … was proud to have been integrated into this tradition…. Phoolan says he called himself "Vikram Singh Mastana," projecting himself as a man already satisfied by all earthly desires and therefore able to give rather than take.

Moola told Sen that Vikram arrived one day at their home to give them news of their daughter and to tell them that he had married her. When Moola asked how, since she was already married, Vikram laughed. In the eyes of God, he said, she was his wife, and, unlike Puttilal, who had come to take a dowry, he had come to leave a dowry. He gave Moola 5,000 rupees and also repaid Phoolan's lost bail.

Phoolan became part of the seven-member gang and learned to fire a gun. Dacoits, a pejorative term, prefer to be called baghis; they often dress as police, kidnap for ransom or hijack commercial trucks, and see themselves as rebels opposing injustice. Some have a sense of honor; some are just thieves. Vikram, who was also of a lower caste, had a sense of honor; a dacoit Robin Hood, he took from the rich and was supported by the poor. He "always considered my needs," said Phoolan. "When we walked through the behad (the ravines) hungry and thirsty, he would give me water first. He would insist that I eat even when I said I was not hungry. When he washed his clothes he would wash mine too. He even plaited my hair before I cut it short." The gang looted a convoy of 26 trucks, then left a note on the windshield, claiming this was the work of Vikram Mullah and Phoolan Devi.

Two gang members newly released from jail rejoined the group. One of them, Sri Ram Singh, was revered by Vikram but was rude to Phoolan. When she complained, Vikram told her she had to learn to defend herself: "Hit him and pick up your rifle." Vikram then asked if she wanted to go kidnap her husband Puttilal, so Phoolan led the gang to his house where she beat him up, using her hands, her feet, and her rifle butt. She broke his arms and legs and left him tied to his wife Vidya. Phoolan also left a letter for the police, claiming responsibility.

But Sri Ram Singh's arrival brought nothing but trouble. When Vikram was shot by Sri Ram's accomplice Lala Ram, Phoolan managed to get the wounded Vikram to his brother's house, where a doctor took the bullet out; then the pair rented a room in Kanpur while he recovered for three months. Phoolan noted she felt safer there than she had in years. Though she had become famous in the area, no one knew what she looked like, and the couple wandered freely through town. The peace was shattered when they read in the newspapers that two of their gang had been killed by the police. When the couple returned to the group, Sri Ram set up an ambush. On the night of August 13, 1980, Vikram was shot and killed while he slept next to Phoolan. She had been with him for exactly one year.

For the next three weeks, held captive in a house in the small village of Behmai, Phoolan was raped several times a night. Finally an old priest in the village, who would later be killed by Sri Ram, helped her escape and handed her a 12-bore rifle. Managing to evade a swarm of police, she made her way to the home of her mother's cousin. After resting there, Phoolan joined another gang for the next six months, becoming friends with Man Singh. Though she warned him that she found physical contact with a man now unbearable, in October 1980 the two formed an independent group, the Phoolan Devi-Man Singh gang. Man Singh also treated her as an equal and left her alone. Phoolan, determined to avenge Vikram's death, thought of nothing else. She now carried a .303 Mauser rifle and was a crack shot.

In December 1980, her gang raided 90 homes in Baijamau, the town that housed the upper-caste Thakurs, the caste of her rival Sri Ram. During the raid, she was ruthless, pushing Thakur men and women around, threatening to kill their children, and making herself the most "wanted" of bandits. Lower castes had never before threatened the upper-caste for power. As everyone in Phoolan's gang, now 21 strong, came from lower castes, the people of the village of Sindaus were sympathetic and sheltered them, and they were warmly welcomed in the town.

She convinced another gang to join her on a daring daylight raid in Jangamajpur, a town un-known to them but known for its police force. Fifty gang members entered the town, rounded up wealthy hostages, probably Thakurs, looted the bazaar of gold jewelry, liquor, clothes, and distributed much of it to the poor. After an hour's gun battle with the police, they escaped across the river. By now, the police had increased their numbers, determined to wipe out the dacoits; as well, the press had picked up the story of the killing of Vikram Mullah. The government placed a reward of 50,000 rupees on the head of Phoolan Devi, dead or alive.

The gang went on a crime spree: they continued to rob Thakur villages; hijacked lorries by shooting out tires or halting drivers while dressed as police; stopped and robbed the Lucknow Mail express train late one night; and relieved 12 Japanese tourists of their cameras and valuables. Then the gang heard that Sri Ram Singh and Lala Ram would be attending a wedding in the isolated ravine village of Behmai, population 400, a town dominated by Thakurs. The villagers had long sheltered Sri Ram and Lala Ram. Once more, in revenge for Vikram's death, Phoolan called on the services of another gang and entered the village.

The Behmai massacre took place on February 14, 1981. Taken to the banks of the river, 22 Thakur men were shot in the back, as their wives and children listened from their doorways. Only two men survived. The massacre caused a furor in the country and in the national and international press. Thakurs of Uttar Pradesh demanded the head of Phoolan Devi and pressured Indira Gandhi with their large rural vote.

Phoolan has admitted to raiding the village, but she has long claimed that she was not at the massacre site at the banks of the river, though Man Singh admitted being there. Members of her gang back her up. In their book Devi, Richard Shears and Isobelle Gidly write that the two survivors told them they did not see Phoolan Devi at the river, that the leader of another gang, Ram Avtar, gave the orders to shoot. Said Phoolan:

It is true that I wanted to avenge Vikram's death…. I wanted to kill Sri Ram and Lala Ram but they were not among the dead, as you know. I do not believe in killing people without a positive reason but the situation got out of control and, in the eyes of [the goddess] Durga Mata, I am innocent of these deaths.

Tried and condemned in the press, Phoolan Devi went from heroine to ruthless killer.

She and another woman gang member Meera Thakur went into hiding, working as laborers on a building site in a small town, carrying headloads of bricks. No one yet knew what Phoolan looked like. After the women split up, Meera was killed in an encounter with Uttar Pradesh police. Her body was stripped and paraded through a small town, much to the outrage of press and public. "Why naked?," asked an official of Gwalior. "Would they have done that to a man?"

The Uttar Pradesh police became death squads: within six months, more than 700 bandits or suspected bandits had been killed, 5,000 arrested. Meanwhile, the real bandits hit back, killing villagers and police in an orgy of blood. Along with Man Singh, Phoolan was surrounded in the town of Galauli and barely escaped. The couple managed to elude another ambush at Chaurela.

In dealing with the poor, it is a common police practice in India to take a family member hostage. Moola, Phoolan's mother, was jailed for six months as bait; the police also punched and slapped Moola's schoolboy son to force her to remember where her daughter was. Moola was beaten in jail, once hit so hard she needed stitches. As a last resort, they tried to buy her off. "My only crime is that I gave birth to her," Moola told them. They finally released her.

It was the superintendent of police (SP) of Bhind, Rajendra Chaturvedi, who sought Phoolan Devi out and negotiated the terms of capitulation. She was to surrender at a formal ceremony in the market town of Bhind on February 12, 1983. At her insistence, she would only submit to Chaturvedi and asked that pictures of the goddess Durga and Mohandas Gandhi adorn the stage, so that in spirit her surrender would be to them. But overcome with fever the night before, her behavior before the ceremony was erratic. "I was very angry and disturbed and had not eaten for three days," said Phoolan. "I cursed anyone who came before me and I would throw any object within my reach. My extreme anger coloured my vision and I could not see reason."

As Phoolan Devi was now a national legend, thousands turned out to watch her surrender. Her exploits were celebrated in song, statues of her in police uniform were sold in the markets. At the surrender, the woman called Daysu Sundari (beautiful bandit) climbed up onto the 23-foot-high platform built for the occasion, with a red shawl over her khaki uniform and a red bandanna around her head. Man Singh and six others of her gang followed. She turned to the crowd, raised her rifle over her head, then presented it to the portraits of Durga and Gandhi. The crowd's sentiments were mixed: some saw her as a heroine, others as a representation of the incompetence of the law. In the chaos of that day, she enraged journalists with her furious answers in a press conference. She went from "Avtar of Kali" to "Bandit Brat" and "Neurotic Nymphomaniac." Wrote Sen:

Much of what was printed about Phoolan Devi at the time reflected the nature and prejudice of the men who wrote the articles. For some strange reason, few women covered the story…. Some bizarre pieces appeared in various national newspapers.

Many journalists seemed offended by her appearance, disappointed by the physical stature of this "short and dark" woman. They had written that she was six feet tall, and of unsurpassed sexual prowess. Worse, she did not appear thankful to the media for building her into a legend. (Eventually two movies would be released about her. Some claim that a third was near completion when Phoolan sent the producer a note, saying that if she did not like the film she would shoot him. The third was not released.)

Once locked up, authorities would not let anyone in to interview her. Mala Sen asked relatives to visit Phoolan in prison and write down her life story. It took three years for various scribes to painstakingly take down her words, handwritten in Hindi, narrating her side of the events. Phoolan spent 11 years in prison without being convicted. Two years after her release, she was elected to the federal Parliament on a Samajwadi Party ticket in 1996.


Esquire. October 1985.

Sen, Mala. India's Bandit Queen: The True Story of Phoolan Devi. London: Harvill, 1991.

Shears, Richard, and Isobelle Gidly. Devi: The Bandit Queen. Hampstead: George Allen & Unwin, 1984.

related media:

Two movies have been made: Outlaw, Phoolan Devi and The One with Courage.