Arrow-right Camera


‘Bandit Queen’ Leads In Election In India Lower-Caste Candidate Phoolan Devi Was In Jail For 11 Years

Sat., May 11, 1996

From lawbreaker to lawmaker - India’s Bandit Queen has nearly completed that rough and twisting journey.

“It has been a very long struggle, and I am tired,” Phoolan Devi said Friday as she watched her lead slowly widen in India’s parliamentary election. Final results were expected Saturday.

“She cried when voting trends started coming in,” said Nizam Khan, a supporter in Devi’s district, Mirzapur, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. “They were tears of joy.”

Devi’s exploits as a bandit have become legendary - the subject of books and movies.

Devi, 35, who was released in 1994 after 11 years in jail, has portrayed her criminal career as part of a struggle between low-caste Hindus like herself and the upper castes.

Her campaign for the Samajwadi Party adopted the same theme, as a struggle for social justice for the traditionally deprived classes in the Hindu social structure.

Devi watched much of the counting herself, fearing that her upper caste rival from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party may manipulate the vote count.

“We came to know that they have bribed counting agents,” Khan alleged in a telephone interview.

“We sent 1,000 men to the counting station today and told the administration that if any attempt is made to cheat, Phoolan Devi will set free these men to do whatever they want,” Khan said.

“They got the message,” he added. “She is totally against violence now, but the time comes when you need to give some threats. It works.”

During campaigning, upper caste men fired shots at her motorcade, blocked her with burning tires and organized demonstrations by widows of men her gang allegedly murdered.

Devi was accused of massacring 20 upper caste men in 1981 in the village of Behmai, where she had earlier been held prisoner and repeatedly raped. She became a heroine of lowcaste women for standing up to her tormentors.

Devi was born to a poor farmer whose land was stolen by upper caste men. Her father sold her into marriage at age 11 to a man who brutalized her.

Still a teenager, she ran away from her husband and fell in love with a highway robber. The lover was killed by the men of Behmai who took her captive. She escaped from Behmai and formed her own gang. Then she took her revenge.

Devi has never admitted shooting anyone, but she does not deny that she was there during the killings.

Two years later she struck a deal and surrendered. She was freed on bail in 1994, though none of her cases had come to trial. Charges against her were dropped by the Uttar Pradesh state government, but she has 70 cases of murder, robbery and kidnapping pending in other states.

Click here to comment on this story »