and ain't i a woman: The Bandit Queen

July 24, 2002

and ain't I a woman?

and ain't i a woman: The Bandit Queen

July 25 marks the first anniversary of the murder of Phoolan Devi, who became known as India's "Bandit Queen". After completing it in 1995, Devi described her autobiography, I, Phoolan Devi: "It is an outstretched hand of courage to the humiliated and downtrodden, in the hope that a life like my own may never repeat itself."

Devi endured physical, sexual and mental abuse from her family, her first husband, upper-caste members in her village and local police. Through continuous abuse and extreme hardship in day-to-day living, she fought to survive. The publishing of her autobiography was testimony her strength, courage and determination. Being illiterate, Devi told her story on tape and had it transcribed.

Phoolan Devi was born on August 10, 1963, into a lower-caste family in Gorha Ka Purwa, Uttar Pradesh; she had two sisters and one brother. From a very young age, she was expected to work hard in order for her family to survive. There was never enough food and being a member of a lower-caste family meant that she also had to do chores for other people in the village.

At the age of 10, Devi was married as prearranged by her family and was forced to live with her husband's family immediately, rather than waiting until 16 as was the custom. She was raped by her husband and suffered near fatal beatings by his family. Finally, she was returned to her family after attacking her husband and running away.

Over the next few years, Devi and her family endured attacks as punishment for her "bad behaviour" and for bringing "shame" to her family and village. After being accused of stealing from a neighbour and destroying the home of an upper-caste family, she was arrested. While awaiting the court hearing, she was violently attacked and gang-raped by police officers.

She escaped prosecution by pleading guilty to the crimes. She was forced to deny that police had attacked her because they had threatened to kill her if she mentioned it.

Seeking justice, Devi sought help from a local gang of bandits who had been conducting Robin Hood-style raids on land-owners on behalf of lower-caste families in Robin Hood style raids. In a three-year campaign, Devi and her gang delivered retribution for rape victims, and robbed from the rich to give to the poor. They were allegedly involved in the massacre of 22 higher-caste men, in revenge for her gang rape.

She finally negotiated surrender on her terms. Tense negotiations with the Indian government followed. Devi put forward a list of demands that included: that she not be executed; that she be jailed for eight years with the men of her gang; and that her family be protected and their land returned. Public support for Devi and her gang grew.

In 1983, Devi was jailed for 11 years. During this time, she remained an inspiration to the poor and downtrodden. In 1994, she was released on parole and lived in seclusion with 24-hour protection. Even though she had many supporters, she also had many enemies who constantly sent her death threats.

Her interest in politics grew and she was a popular and confronting public speaker. Devi joined the Samajwadi Party, which represents the low castes and became a member of parliament in 1996. She campaigned tirelessly for the rights of lower-caste people and for an end to the persecution of people on the basis of caste, skin colour and sex.

Tragically, Phoolan Devi was shot dead on July 25, 2001, by three gunmen outside her home. No-one claimed responsibility for her murder, but three men were arrested in August 2001. It is believed that her killing was politically motivated, as the state she represented was preparing for legislative assembly elections to be held later that year.

Phoolan Devi's story is not a fabricated tale, it is the tragic story of poverty, racism and sexism at its worst. It is also a story inspirational rebellion. Long live Phoolan Devi!


From Green Left Weekly, July 24, 2002.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.