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I wanted to prove that we all have our honour, whatever our origins, our caste, the colour of our skin or our sex. — Phoolan Devi
I was about sixteen years old the day Phoolan Devi was shot dead at Delhi. I don’t remember whether I know anything about her at that time, all I remember is that I had heard her name before. Maybe, I had read about her somewhere or watched her on television or my father had talked about her. So, the day she died I felt like low-caste people of India lost someone important. That’s all what I remember about the day, yes dated 25th July, 2001 the day Phoolan Devi was shot.
Days rolled and years passed when few days back I got my hands on the book named “I, Phoolan Devi – The autobiography of India’s Bandit Queen”. As, I was turning pages while reading the book my heart sank many times and every time same question came to my mind why us? Why low-caste people have to suffer in their own homeland, why? Is it because, low-caste people were born under the dark stars? When will we be able to live peacefully without being assaulted? (After reading the book, I also watched the movie named “Bandit Queen” by Shekhar Kapoor and I must admit that the movie shows just a fraction of the sufferings Phoolan Devi endured and what I hate the most about the Shekhar Kapoor and his movie is that he didn’t even dare to meet Phoolan Devi once for the movie!) I was born brought up in a village and I’ve witnessed the pain and suffering women have to undergo. While reading the book, I decided that I’ll review-cum-summary the book as a tribute to the Phoolan Devi for her courage and suffering in the hands of so called upper caste people.
Book, “I, Phoolan Devi – The autobiography of India’s Bandit Queen” is a true story of Phoolan Devi, as narrated to French authors Marie-Therese Cuny and Paul Rambali. Phoolan Devi was born into a family of Mallahs, considered lower caste, in the village named Ghura Ka Purwa (Uttar Pradesh). This is a story of a woman who stood against the brutality of Thakurs and woman who decided not to be docile Indian women. Phoolan Devi’s mother always encouraged her not to accept injustice. In Phoolan Devi’s own words:
“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.”
Even at the tender age of ten, she took fight with her cousin, Mayadin, who had grabbed her father’s land; she forced the Panchayat to reopen the land case. She fought with Mayadin when he tried to cut Neem tree, which belonged to her family. At the age of 10, she could hold snakes without fear. She was a brave fighter from the start, never accepted the degradation and kept dignity above everything. There were times when her family had nothing to eat and her mother cursed for giving birth to girls. Mallahs as other lower castes were expected to do all kind of worst jobs such as herding the Thakurs’ animals, cut grass for those animals, collect dung, massage Thakurian’s head, and the worst was they were not allowed to ask anything in return. If, anyone refused to do work for Thakurs, they were beaten; even Phoolan was beaten more than once for refusing to do menial chores for Thakurs.
As it used to happen (or still happen) in India, she was married at the age of eleven to Putti Lal, aged around thirty. She didn’t even know what marriage is and became furious when people told her that Putti Lal is her husband. She was raped, beaten and raped time and again by her husband. Somehow, this torture news reached her parents and her parents rescued and brought her back to home despite objections from the society. So, at the age of eleven she was married, beaten and raped.
Even after coming back to her home, life wasn’t easy for her as there was no one to protect her and so called upper caste, Thakurs, took advantage of this and started taunting her, and passing foul comments. One day, son of sarpanch tried to rape her and she slapped him and ran away but village panchayat decided she be thrown away from the village. So, she decided leave the village despite her parents were not willing but her mother had no other option to agree with her and her mother gave her five rupee to take care and Phoolan went to her elder sister, Rukmani.
While she was at her sister’s place, robbery took place in her village and she was blamed for the robbery by her cousin, Mayadin. Police came and arrested her for nothing, no one tried to listen to her story. For few days she was locked up in the cell for investigation along with her father and police-men raped her in-front of her father. Later on she was sent to the jail for a week and released when her mother was able to produce the proof that she was with her sister when robbery took place in the village and she has nothing to do with robbery.
So, at around thirteen, she was married once, un-officially divorced, beaten more than once, raped more than once and was in jail for nothing. Even after so much humiliation nothing changed for her and not even the behaviour of so called upper caste people – Thakurs. Time came when people from the nearby villages started coming to her home to satisfy the uneasiness of their balls! It became very difficult for her to survive and hide, to hide herself; she started sleeping on the trees outside her home. Once she was raped in-front of her parents by so called upper caste people of her village. This incident filled her with rage and all she wanted now was revenge. So, this was the first time she approached Thakurs of nearby village, those Thakurs had their personal conflicts with the Thakurs of her village. So, those Thakurs came and threatened the Thakurs of Phoolan’s village. But, very soon she realised that those Thakurs didn’t come to rescue her but to settle their own scores.
Later on, she was kidnapped by the gang of Babu Gujjar and Vickram Mallah on the suppari of so called Thakurs. When Babu Gujjar tried to rape Phoolan, Vickram killed him and saved Phoolan’s life and fell in love with her. In this way, Phoolan became the Bandit Queen and Babu Gujjar was the first person killed after her name. In her gang most of people were from Jatav, Chamar or Mallah community. Most of them had chosen this life because they couldn’t get justice from the police and upper caste people treated them worse. They led the life of modern Robin-Hood – i.e. taking from the rich people and donating to the poor and first time in life Phoolan felt secured and not helpless in the company of Vickram Mallah and rifle. People started trusting her and started supporting her in order to escape from the brutality of upper caste people. Many other gangs started working, using the name of Phoolan Devi!
I wanted to be able to put the bundles in their outstretched hands and punish the ones who tried to deprive them of their right to exist. — Phoolan Devi
But, this peaceful time was limited in the life of Phoolan, very soon when Vickram paid the Rs. 50000 for the bail of Shri Ram and Lale Ram (both brothers and Thakurs) Vickram was betrayed and killed by the Shri Ram. (This is a story of betrayal by the so called upper castes) Worst nightmare for Phoolan wasn’t over; she was kidnapped and raped continuously for weeks by Shri Ram and his gang-men. Shri Ram took her from one village to another and kept saying that this is what happen to low caste Devis. This incident filled Phoolan with more rage and now she only wanted the revenge from Shri Ram. While Shri Ram was taking her from village to village so that people could satisfy their lust a kind hearted Brahmin helped her to escape from this torture. She went back to forests and formed her own gang once again. Her only mission now was to see Shri Ram dead and once she heard that Shri Ram and his men are coming to a marriage in the village named Behmai. She went there with her gang and chased Shri Ram and his brother but they escaped but when she returned back to the village she saw that her gang-men had killed about 22 Thakurs!
And very next day, all newspapers, new-channels and media were covering the same story as if media had ever cared about the torture on Dalits in India. Great hunt for her started but somehow she was able to evade capture. First time in her life she was helicopters and helicopters bombarding! Later on she negotiated a deal with Madhya Pradesh government, which agreed not to give her death penalty and give her maximum of 8 years of jail term along with her gang-men. When asked why she wanted the jail term of 8 years, she said that she heard from reporters that I’ll get maximum of 8 years if I turn myself in! She turned herself in the mass function and spends 11 long years in jail without trail! After 11 years, when she came out of jail, she was a different person…
Book, “I, Phoolan Devi – The autobiography of India’s Bandit Queen” describes the true nature of Indian attitude towards women and how two faced it is. When society consider and treat girl child less than evil or worse, when women who give birth to girl child are killed or taunted all the times – oh..! Girls again, aren’t you ashamed of yourself, Phoolan Devis are bound to rise. This book is a one woman’s fight to reclaim her dignity and pride under the gender and caste discrimination. If you want to know the real story on the plight of women in India, the discrimination women face or hard realities of caste discrimination in India; this book is for you. (Or you want to read and cry; this book is for you!)
P.S.: Phoolan Devi contested from the Mirzapur on the ticket of Samajwadi Party and elected as Member of Parliament twice. She was assassinated on 25th July, 2001, by the family members of Thakurs killed by her gang in Behmai village.
P. P.S.: I don’t support violence of any kind neither do I Casteism. In case you liked the above piece please click on Like button and share it with your friends!