A STEN GUN AND BRIGHT RED LIPSTICK

Just after lunchtime on a Wednesday afternoon in the monsoon season of 2001, a member of the Indian parliament arrived back at her bungalow in a leafy suburb of Delhi. As she got out of her car, three masked gunmen jumped out of a green Maruti sedan and opened fire with handguns.

The gunmen sped off, dumped their car in nearby Connaught Place, Delhi’s busy commercial hub and made made their escape in a black and yellow tuk-tuk.

The MP’s bodyguard raced her to the hospital, but she was pronounced dead on arrival.

News of her murder provoked outrage across the country because this was no ordinary politician. She was known across India as a champion of the poor, India’s own Robin Hood, the ‘Bandit Queen’.

She had also been directly responsible for murdering at least twenty-two people.

Who was she?

Phoolan Devi was born in 1963 in Gorha Ka Purwa, a huddle of mud huts on the banks of the Yamuna river; the place doesn’t even feature on the map. When she was 11, her father, who was from one of India’s lower ‘boatmen’ castes, sold her into marriage to a man three times her age. In return he got a bicycle and a cow.

Her new husband forced himself on Phoolan and beat her. In rural India, this is usual. What was not usual was that she wouldn’t tolerate it, and ran back to her family.

While she’d been away, her cousin had stolen her father’s tiny plot of land. When Phoolan confronted him, he knocked her out with a brick and had her arrested by the police, who then took turns to rape her.

When they’d tired of her, they sent her back to her husband, where she endured more beatings. So she ran back to her village again. But a runaway wife is taboo in India, and she became an outcast.

It made her easy prey for local dacoits – bandits – who kidnapped her. They took her back to their hideout and their leader molested her for the next three days. Then his second in command, Vikram Mallah, either out of pity or jealousy, intervened and shot him dead.

It gets worse.

Devi became Vikram’s mistress and the pair became an Indian Bonnie and Clyde. He gave her a rifle and taught her to shoot. Together, they blew up trains, ransacked upper-caste homes, and carried out a series of kidnappings and murders.

But two former gang members, incensed that someone from a lower caste had taken over their gang, shot him dead. Then they took Phoolan to their remote village called Behmai, where they lived. They invited a succession of upper-caste men to take turns with her.

After three weeks, she managed to escape.

Most women would have been broken by now. Not Phoolan. She formed her own gang, this time made up entirely from the lower castes. Legend has it that she and her gang only targeted the rich and shared their loot with the poor, but that’s probably a myth.

What is certain is that on 14 February, 1981, she came back to Behmai, and took a bloody revenge. She walked into the village with a Sten gun over her shoulder, wearing bright lipstick and blue jeans. She and her gang rounded up all the young men, marched them to the river and shot them.

She then hid out for two years in the wild Chambal river valley, a place of giant ravines, twisting fissures, and wild jungle. It took the police two years to bring her in.

Even then, she only agreed to lay down her arms on condition that neither she nor any of her gang would face the death penalty.

On a bitterly cold evening in February 1983, she and the twelve remaining members of her gang emerged from the ravines. Draped with bandoliers, and wearing a red bandanna, she strode into town, ascended a high wooden dais draped in colorful cloth, and laid her rifle before twin portraits of Mahatma Gandhi and the goddess Durga.

Madhya Pradesh’s chief minister was there to greet her in front of a crowd of ten thousand people. He had brought three hundred police with him to arrest her.

Phoolan’s trial was delayed for eleven years. She was finally released on parole after the government withdrew all charges against her. The decision sent shock waves across the country.

But Phoolan was soon part of the government herself. She formed a new party to represent the lower castes, and promised to fight for women’s rights. She was elected in 1996.

To the poor of India, she was the reincarnation of the goddess Durga, an icon of resistance to the ruling castes; Bollywood even made a film about her called ‘The Bandit Queen’. But to the landowners and privileged classes she was scum, a threat to an immutable social order. Was that the reason she had to die?

Only one man was ever jailed for her murder. He told ;police he did it in revenge for the killings of those 22 men in Behmai, but even they didn’t believe him.

More likely she was murdered because she had dared to politicize the ancient caste system and the savage treatment of Indian women. Read the latest international headlines (‘India: woman set on fire on way to testify against alleged rapists’) and it’s clear the outrage and rebellion she embodied within her vast and emerging nation is still very far from over.

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