Encyclopedia Womannica

Mavericks & Legends: Phoolan Devi

Episode Summary

Phoolan Devi (1963-2001) survived extreme poverty, child marriage, and abuse, before re-inventing herself as India’s Bandit Queen. Famous for her acts of revenge, she eventually rose to a different kind of power -- that of a politician.

Episode Notes

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Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

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Episode Transcription

Before we get started with today’s episode, I want to let you know that it contains mentions of sexual assault and violence. 

From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan. Welcome back to Encyclopedia Womannica.

Our woman of the day was a maverick and legend. She survived extreme poverty, child marriage, and abuse, before re-inventing herself as India’s Bandit Queen. Famous for her acts of revenge, she eventually rose to a different kind of power -- that of a politician. 

Let’s talk about Phoolan Devi.

Phoolan was born in 1963, the fourth and youngest child of Moola and Devi Din Mallah. Though only Phoolan and her sister lived to adulthood. 

Members of the Mallah, or boatmen, caste, Phoolan’s family lived in a rural village, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. 

Even as a child, Phoolan was known for her sharp tongue, her strong convictions, and her violent temper. She once staged a sit-in to protect an ancient tree scheduled to be cut down on her family’s land. She fought off family elders, leveling her own physical and verbal attacks, before being beaten unconscious with a brick.

At the age of 11, Phoolan was married off to Putti Lal Mallah, a man three times her age. At his home, several hundred miles away from her own village, Phoolan suffered beatings and sexual abuse. After several attempts at running away, she was returned to her own family in disgrace. 

But home didn’t offer much of a respite for Phoolan. After a cousin accused her of petty theft, Phoolan was jailed and beaten for three days by the local authorities. When she was released, Phoolan’s family begged her abusive husband to take her back. He did. She was just 16 years old. 

But after a few months, Phoolan once again returned home. This time, her husband’s family sent a message: under no circumstances would they accept her back. 

Rather than face a lifetime of being marked a social pariah -- or perhaps because she had nothing left to lose -- Phoolan ran away and joined one of the many bandit gangs that roamed her state. 

But this decision did not bring Phoolan the freedom she seemingly craved. Instead, she was repeatedly brutalized by the gang’s leader, Babu.

After three days, the gang’s second-in-command, Vikram Mallah, stepped in. He killed Babu, saved Phoolan, and assumed leadership of the gang. Despite both being legally married, Phoolan and Vikram soon struck up a romance.

A few weeks later, the gang attacked Phoolan’s husband’s village. Phoolan dragged him out of his house and stabbed him. She left him lying in the road, bleeding out in front of his neighbors. She also left a note, directed at older men: Don’t marry young girls. 

Phoolan and Vikram quickly gained notoriety in the region. Their gang became famous for their Robin-Hood-like crimes: attacking and looting upper-caste communities, kidnapping wealthy people for ransom, and targeting flashy cars in highway robberies. 

Eventually, Vikram and Phoolan’s relationship, along with caste differences, caused a rift within the gang. Vikram was killed in a gunfight. Phoolan was kidnapped by the rival faction and taken to their village of Behmai. For two weeks, she was gang-raped by 22 men. Then, she escaped. 

Phoolan reconnected with the surviving members of Vikram’s faction, forming an all- Mallah caste gang. A few months later, they descended on the village of Behmai. All 22 of Phoolan’s rapists were shot dead. 

What came to be known as the Behmai massacre sparked outrage across India. Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister resigned. A massive -- but unsuccessful -- manhunt for Phoolan was launched. The authorities tried to paint her as a dangerous criminal. Instead, Phoolan became a folk hero. 

After a career dedicated to stealing from the rich, Phoolan had gained the support and protection of the poor. The massacre was seen as an act of righteous rebellion -- against the caste system, against rape, against abuse of power. Phoolan was the ultimate societal underdog, a poor, lower-caste woman, abandoned by her husband, brutalized by men. And yet, she had gotten her revenge. She was, finally, free.

Phoolan was crowned The Bandit Queen by the local press. They bestowed the honorific “Devi” to her name, which comes from the Sanskrit word for “goddess.” 

In 1983, after two years on the run, Phoolan turned herself into the police. She was charged with 48 crimes - murder, arson, plundering, and kidnapping for ransom. For 11 years, Phoolan sat in jail, awaiting trial. 

In 1994, the state withdrew all charges, and released Phoolan. A movie, “Bandit Queen,” was released, and was considered a loose portrayal of her life. 

Phoolan then began pursuing politics. She was twice-elected to parliament as a member of the Samajwadi, a Democratic socialist party. 

In 2001, Phoolan was gunned down in front of her home in New Delhi by former bandit rivals. She was just 37 years old. 

The main gunman, Sher Singh Rana, was convicted in 2014. The other ten accused walked free. 

For the month of May, we’re talking about Mavericks and Legends. We’re highlighting women who went against prescribed gender norms to make a name for themselves -- for better or for worse. Some of these women did incredible things for society and should be celebrated, others had a big impact that was not quite so rosy. The collection of women we’re featuring this month is complex and nuanced, much like all women are. 

For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our newsletter, Womannica Weekly. You can also follow us on facebook and instagram @encyclopediawomannica, and you can follow me directly on twitter @jennymkaplan. 

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator, and to all of our womanniacs out there. If you want to become a Womanniac, join our brand new Encyclopedia Womannica membership program! You’ll get access to weekly events with the team behind the show and you can help us choose future themes and women to feature. Go to glow.fm/womannica. That’s g-l-o-w.fm/womannica. 

Talk to you tomorrow!