Born around 1962 to a very poor family in Uttar Pradesh, northern India, Phoolan Devi rose to fame as the "Bandit Queen of India" in the early 1980's. She was celebrated as the incarnation of two Hindu Goddesses, Durga and Kali, by sadhus and by members of the lowest castes of India, especially by mallah women like herself. Many Indians respected her for fighting back against the upper-caste men who had raped her and generations of other poor women, for stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, and for escaping numerous times from the police sent to capture her bandit gang ("dacoits"). Her gang hid out during the late 1970s and early 1980s in the jungles and wild ravines of the "badlands of Chambal", where the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh come together.
Phoolan Devi's story starts in the village of Gurha Ka Purwa, where the Nadi flows into the Yamuna River, close to the towns of Orai and Kalpi, off the main road that runs from Lucknow in the north, to Jhansi in the southwest, in India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh (population 200 million). Her family spoke Bhundelkhandi (Bundeli), a dialect of Hindi. As mallahs, Phoolan Devi, her parents and her sisters were treated as servants, slaves or worse by landowners (or by those of higher caste, such as the thakurs, a sub-caste of kshastriyas). Because Phoolan's father lost all his land in a dispute with his brother, Phoolan grew up in the midst of a family feud, which her anger, and that of her mother, helped to fuel. Phoolan's father, who worked as an itinerant carpenter and bricklayer, was famously meek and obedient and spent much of his tiny income on lawyers in attempts to recover his land.
At age 11, Phoolan was married off to a much older man, Putti Lal, who raped her soon after the wedding. Her marriage had been engineered by her powerful cousin, Mayadin, to get her out of the village, where she was already rebelling against his "theft" of her father's land. Phoolan Devi soon fled from her abusive husband in Maheshpur and returned to her parent's home. She started working as a laborer with her father and sister, and she became known as a tough negotiator who demanded pay for the labor they had done. At one point a man refused to pay them for a house they had built, so in the middle of the night she destroyed the house.
When she was about 15, Phoolan was gang raped in her home by village leaders (with her parents watching), and soon after, the police at the Kalpi Jail did the same thing to humiliate her and silence her. This, however, was not enough to shut her up or cool down her anger, so, finally, the leaders of the village hired a bandit gang to kidnap her and permanently remove her from the village and district.
The strategy backfired, for the bandit gang had two leaders, with opposing factions, and both of them desired Phoolan. Soon Vickram, one leader, killed off the other, Baboo, to claim Phoolan as his bandit wife. She grew to love him and claimed in her autobiography that Vickram "was the first man to treat me like a human being, not a slave, or a piece of flesh." Some months later, Vickram Mallah, Phoolan Devi and their gang returned to her home where she was greeted with a parade of a hundred or so villagers who garlanded her as a "goddess" and asked her to "bless our village"
Within about a year, Vickram was killed by another bandit and Phoolan Devi became the leader of her own gang. In total, she spent five to six years of her life as a bandit in the badlands of Chambal, becoming infamous for castrating upper-caste men who had raped girls and poor women.
On Feburary 12, 1983, Phoolan Devi and her gang surrendered, in a ceremony attended by thousands, to the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Arjun Singh, in the city of Bhind. She was taken to the prison at Gwalior, where her jailers charged gawkers ten rupees to see her. Eventually, she was moved to a more humane prison, Tihar, in Delhi, from which she was released in February 1994, after 11 years in prison. A trial against her was never held.
In 1996, Phoolan Devi was elected M.P. for Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh and entered India's Parliament as a member of the Samajwadi Party. This was a party of untouchables and low-caste Indians founded by the Home Minister Malayam Singh Yadav, her sponsor. On July 2001, Phoolan Devi was assassinated in Delhi by a man who claimed to be avenging the massacre at Behmai, where 22 thakur men had been killed by her gang.
In Phoolan Devi's region of India, currently, there is a group of women known as the "pink sari gang", who have taken the law into their own hands, and who go about with stout sticks beating men who abuse poor village women. This gang of women, wearing their pink saris for visibility, are transforming a tradition that reaches back through Phoolan Devi all the way to the goddess Durga, famous for killing demons and drinking their blood. Phoolan Devi said of Durga: "Like the goddess, I was driven by my hunger for justice, for revenge over demons... When the rich did bad things, our duty as dacoits was to make them pay."
By Jeff Hush