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Why Phoolan Devi Is A Feminist Icon, As A Dalit Woman Who Stood Up To Caste Based Gender Abuse

Defeating the odds requires courage and strength. ‘Bandit Queen’ Phoolan Devi has proven this, even though she resorted to violence in response to violence. 

Defeating the odds requires courage and strength. ‘Bandit Queen’ Phoolan Devi has proven this, even though she resorted to violence in response to violence. 

Trigger Warning: This has descriptions of caste based violence, violence against women, rape, marital rape, and may be triggering for survivors.

Phoolan Devi, an inspirational feminist icon born into a low-caste family, suffered much more than we can even fathom. On the occasion of her birthday yesterday, 10th August, let’s look back at her accomplishments and the horrific violence she faced.

Phoolan Devi’s birth in a lower caste community was almost a curse to her. She was abused verbally, physically, and emotionally, over, and over, and over again, by multiple people. Her becoming a bandit and later massacring 22 people has been debated in many ways. However, the reasons behind why she did this are not usually a matter of discussion.

This article in The Atlantic discusses why a person becomes a bandit, with reference to Phoolan Devi. The basic idea being that society, police, or any relative who has caused someone a huge amount of pain or loss has compelled her, and others like her down this path. That Phoolan went through such a massive amount of pain and torture, that she decided to fight back and took guns/pistols in her hand for revenge.

What do we know of Phoolan Devi’s life?

Born in a lower caste, poor home

Phoolan Devi was born to a Mallah family in a small village in the district of Jalaun in Uttar Pradesh, on 10 August 1963.

Mallah is categorized as a scheduled caste community, and therefore, she was vulnerable to caste and class based gender abuse just by her birth. In Phoolan’s family, poverty permeated every aspect of life. She never learned to read and write. Her early life was full of poverty, while the rest was full of weighty violence.

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She was only 10 when things began to fall apart. Her father had less than 1-acre of land, which was allegedly appropriated by her father’s brother. Known to be temperamental from an early age, Phoolan protested, and taunted her cousin, Mayadin. Everybody tried to shut her up, and she was ruthlessly dragged and beaten with bricks. In spite of Phoolan being the injured person here, she got labelled as cold-blooded and stubborn.

Child marriage at 11 to a much older widower

She was just surviving this trauma when her parents tied her in marriage with a widowed older man three times her age, at the age of 11. The husband was violently abusive, and in order to escape the trauma of marital rape, she ran away to her parents’ home. Her parents felt that a daughter who had left her husband was a disgrace to them, (according to societal norms, it is a shame to leave your husband, no matter why) and told her to jump into a well with shame. Though she didn’t, she lived with the pain of her own mother saying this to her.

After this, some boys belonging to the Thakur community (upper caste) in the village sexually assaulted her. In the face of this situation, she raised her voice and caused conflict with upper-caste members. In the meantime, her cousin Mayadin had her arrested and put in jail with false allegations.

Phoolan found the police station to be hell on earth. She was treated like an animal, and abused sexually for days and nights. After being released, she picked up a fight with her cousin and the Thakurs too.

Abducted by bandits

In between all of this, she ended up being kidnapped by a bandit gang whose leader was Babu Gujjar. She was raped for the next 72 hours by the whole group, but was rescued from there by Vikram Mallah, the right hand man of Babu Gujjar, who killed him.

Having nowhere else to go, she joined his gang. It was he who taught her survival skills, how to hold a gun, and how to stand confidently. Soon, they fell in love and together spread terrorism in the surrounding areas.

Abducted and gang raped by Thakurs

It deeply troubled the two Thakur boys she had been in conflict with earlier, (Shri Ram and Lalla Ram) to hear what Phoolan was doing, and that the guns allowed the bandits to hold a position of authority and position in the society over Thakurs. They plotted to conquer the gang and therefore, they successfully killed Vikram Mallah and abducted the 17 year old Phoolan Devi.

In Behmai village, Phoolan was locked up in a room. Over a period of three weeks, several upper caste Thakur men beat, raped, and humiliated her. In her later testimony, she has stated that every hour, a new face would enter the room and rape her until she lost consciousness.

She was then publicly humiliated, naked, for raising her voice, since she came from an ethnic minority community. It was her last encounter with brutality because, after that, her anger forced her to revolt.

Phoolan Devi’s escape and revenge

She escaped from there and joined up with those remaining from her earlier gang with Vikram Mallah, and then she prepared herself for 7 months and attacked the Behmai Village in search of those two brothers, and ended up killing 22 Thakur men when she couldn’t find them.

The biggest news of 14 February 1981 was that ‘A Dalit bandit killed 22 Thakur men on the spot’. Indira Gandhi’s government then set out a warrant against her, and finally, with a few conditions, she surrendered and had a dignified 11-year jail term.

What makes Phoolan Devi a feminist icon?

In a global list of the top women rebels in world history, Time Magazine has placed Phoolan Devi at number four. She is the only one in this list from India. There are a total of 17 names in this list, from Joan of Arc to Aung San Suu Kyi.

Phoolan Devi’s life story might seem like something out of a novel, but it was all true and real, which Phoolan herself recounted later. She was granted bail in 1994 by the Mulayam Singh Yadav government. She then moved on to politics, and stood for the 11th Lok Sabha election from Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh, and secured a seat in Parliament. To survive all the brutal physical torture and stepping foot in Parliament as an elected memberis an achievement in itself. Isn’t it?

Today, there are 2 Bollywood movies on Phoolan Devi, a novel, and various articles. She inspires all victims of caste based gender violence to rise above all abuse, even if the world at large views her way of rising negatively. She was a survivor. Her life thorns were clearly: poverty, low-caste, illiteracy, a bad marriage, and being born as a woman.

In an interview, she was asked about her greatest regret in life, her words were “to be born as a girl in a very poor family. I would love to be born as an animal in the next life rather than a woman.”

She would definitely be living the 57th year of her life today if Sher Singh Rana had not shot her in front of her Delhi bungalow in revenge for the 1981 massacre.

What if?

Phoolan Devi was born and grew up in a very backward part of Uttar Pradesh where girls and women realize that their biggest mistake is to be born with a vagina. I ask people who question her decision to shoot 22 people and join a bandit group, “Was there any other option left for her? What could she have possibly done?”

If she had not raised her voice for her father’s land, her family might have died of starvation.

If she had not left her garbage husband, she would have died by rape and other physical violence.

If she had not returned to her village, where could she possibly go? She was a 16 year old Dalit illiterate woman who had survived marital rape back then.

If she had not protested her sexual assault by the Thakur boys, she would have been a victim of depression for not speaking up – she wasn’t literate and educated, and possibly not aware of any other options, of which, honestly, even today Dalit women do not have many of. If she had not joined the bandit group and been Vikram Mallah’s lover, the gang would have probably shot her.

If she had not survived and killed her abusers, she might be Nirbhaya today, dead on a hospital bed.

So many of us who come from privilege not really clued into caste based gender violence would have never known so much about its realities if Phoolan hadn’t stood up to all this and survived. She might have chosen the wrong way, but her reasons were absolutely valid. She held the gun in her hand for her own protection.

Caste based gender violence is systemic even today

The Indian judiciary system is even today biased against lower castes. Marital rapes, gang rapes, domestic violence, sexual assault by upper caste men, and other kinds of violence have become a daily routine for women.

Those who step up and even file cases against abusers find their lives threatened, and at the least, stuck in financial debts and societal taunts. Women first experience hell by abusers and then by the Indian judiciary who blame them back that they were “asking for it”. Let’s put a stop to this support of systemic trauma.

Images source: Wikibio

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