Story of THE BANDIT QUEEN'S METTLE: India's Famed Outlaw

Date: Mon, 26 Dec 94 22:20:44 EST From: Baj, dtn:381-2851 26-Dec-1994 2158 WP 12/25 THE BANDIT QUEEN'S METTLE; India's Famed Outlaw ...
THE BANDIT QUEEN'S METTLE; India's Famed Outlaw is Out to Ambush a Controversial Film on Her life By Molly Moore Washington Post Foreign Service NEW DELHI
Contents:[Lost Girlhood] [A Bandit's Journey] [Prisoner of Attention]
Phoolan Devi was born dirt poor, low caste and female. She grew up hard and fast in rural north India: married at age 11, abandoned by her husband, jailed, raped, kidnapped by bandits.

By the time she was 20, Devi turned outlaw. And in the inhospitable desert ravines of her native land, Phoolan Devi became a legend. She was feared and revered as the "Bandit Queen," leader of a gang of dacoits -- robbers -- that plundered and murdered, often stealing from the rich higher castes and sharing the spoils with the poor lower castes.

She made international headlines when she was implicated in the largest gang massacre in modern Indian history, reputedly an act of vengeance for the murder of her bandit lover and for her own gang rape by upper-caste landowners.

Her story is the stuff of movies: Modern-day Indian Robin Hood and Bonnie Parker, with a touch of Gloria Steinem, all rolled into one. But "Bandit Queen," the movie -- India's nominee for next year's Best Foreign Film Oscar -- has become one of the most controversial motion pictures ever to come out of Bombay's "Bollywood" studios.

The conservative Indian film censor board has barred release of the movie because of its violent rape scenes, nudity and depiction of sensitive political issues. Devi, who cannot read or write and was only recently freed after serving 11 years in prison, has filed a court suit to keep the film out of Indian cinemas, charging that it is an unauthorized invasion of her privacy.

"They are raping me all over again and selling me on the screen," says the 32-year-old woman whose life has become a frenetic media whirl since her release from prison in February. "They are selling my honor."

The debate over "Bandit Queen" has dominated Indian newspaper headlines and titillated a public that has been forbidden to see the movie even as it has been shown at the Cannes, London and Toronto film festivals. Some news organizations, including The Washington Post, have been allowed to view the Hindi movie at select screenings.

But the rancor over "Bandit Queen" goes far deeper than the usual censor board debate over sex and violence. The movie offers a brutal view of the way women are treated in poor rural Indian society. It is a story of social inequities and injustice, of discrimination and desperation. It rips open some of the ugliest wounds of Indian society, wounds that middle-class Indians would prefer remain closed and forgotten.

"Her personal story, extraordinary as it is, reflects many aspects of life as experienced by thousands of women in rural India who continue to strive against a feudal order that persists in a `modern' society, a society in which peasantry collides with capitalist markets and technology," Devi's biographer, Mala Sen, writes in her introduction to "India's Bandit Queen: The True Story of Phoolan Devi," from which the movie was adapted.

Of the movie, Sen told reporters during the London Film Festival: "The violence and brutality depicted in the film is happening in India every day. . . . It's about time that we opened our eyes and looked at this reality."

Seema Biswas, the 29-year-old actress who plays Devi in the movie, said she found the role so traumatic and draining that she suffered a near breakdown by the time the filming was complete.

The movie, like the reality that Sen and the film's producers say it depicts, is disturbing to watch. The real Bandit Queen's story is no less disturbing to hear.

Lost Girlhood

"I was married when I was 11," Devi begins, swathed in a white cotton shawl that swallows her now-frail 4-foot 10-inch frame. "If I hadn't gotten married at that young age, my life would not have been ruined."

Devi has agreed to speak with a reporter at her rented New Delhi apartment, where she is attempting to begin a new life with a new husband. She shifts uncomfortably beneath the shawl. In her native Hindi dialect, she says softly, "Even now I fight with my mother about it."

She tries to rationalize her parents' decision to marry her off to a man three times her own age -- in much the same way that modern India wrestles with the child bride phenomenon, which remains prevalent in rural villages despite laws intended to curb the practice.

One of six children born to a poor north Indian farmer who scratched out a living by working other people's rocky, arid land, Devi said her parents struggled just to feed their offspring. When a relative found a prospective groom for young Phoolan, whose name in Hindi means "flower goddess," her parents agreed to the match. The man gave Phoolan's family a cow, as was customary in marital arrangements, and took the frightened child bride home with him.

Her mother, asked by reporters several years later why she had married off her daughter at that age, replied, "Poverty is a terrible thing. We are forced to do many things because of it. How can I explain?"

"My parents had the best intentions for me," Devi now says. "They thought, `He's got money. My daughter will be married. She'll be happy.' "

Her large brown eyes harden. "No one knew that he was not a man, he was a monster."

Devi said that her husband took a second wife and that the two often beat her, treating her as little more than a slave. She ran away and returned to her parents' home. But they sent her back. Terrified of sex, she wailed each time her husband forced himself on her. Finally he abandoned her on a riverbank. Her parents, dishonored that their daughter had been kicked out of the house by her husband, farmed her out to relatives.

As a divorced, low-caste woman in a rural village, Devi encountered the wrath of conservative Indian society, which is ruled by a strict code of social separation. Her family was from a community called the Mallahs, low-caste fishermen and boatmen. Most of the Mallahs were landless peasants who worked the soil of the Thakurs, a higher caste of feudal landowners and businessmen. During Devi's youth in the 1970s, as in rural India today, the Mallahs often were repressed and abused by the Thakurs.

Devi, who was more outspoken than most of her fellow Mallahs, was the target of constant torment and harassment by upper-caste men in the village. Eventually she was jailed on charges that she'd stolen articles from the home of a cousin with whom her family had been feuding for years. After 20 days in the village jail, she was bailed out by the Thakurs who owned the property her father farmed. In payment, the men demanded sex from her, according to her biographer.

How Phoolan Devi ended up in the hands of outlaw bandits is murky. She has said she was kidnapped and physically abused by the gang leader. As to why she eventually gave in to the gang and its ruthless leaders, even when she had the chance to escape, Devi told her biographer, "A piece of property has no choice."

One fact is certain: In the early 1980s, in the rocky ravines of the rugged Chambral Valley in the state of Uttar Pradesh, the legend of the Bandit Queen was born.

A Bandit's Journey

For Americans, bandits robbing, killing and rampaging through villages constitute an image from another century. In rural northern India, that image remains a fixture of life.

But the gangs never flourished more than in the early 1980s. They ruled with abandon -- particularly the lower-caste bandits -- outwitting and outnumbering plodding local police forces, terrorizing the rich and offering a reverse form of protection for the poor, who were often abused by corrupt, higher-caste police. In return, many of the bandit leaders were idolized by the poor, who considered their banditry just another profession in a land where the poor had to fight for every rupee.

At the height of her fame, Devi was glorified by the nation's newspapers, which wrote tirelessly of her exploits. The Phoolan Devi Doll, clad in her signature police uniform with a bandoleer of bullets strapped across her chest, was one of the hottest-selling toys in India.

Devi, because of her own background, injected a signature twist into her banditry. She became a protector of young village girls who, like her, were sold into early marriages by destitute families.

"I'd send my men out during the wedding season," Devi says, smiling at the recollection. "Any time they found a young girl who was to be married, they'd let the wedding procession show up at her doorstep, then chase them away."

But just as the villages were divided by caste, so were even some of the bandit gangs. And thus, one day two upper-caste outlaws shot and killed the lower-caste bandit who was Devi's lover. To demonstrate their power over the gang and its leader's mistress, the killers took Devi hostage. In one of the most painful episodes of her life -- and one of the most brutal scenes in the movie -- Devi was taken to the village of Behmai and gang-raped by a group of upper-caste men.

"This is what we do to low-caste goddesses," one of the rapists hisses in the movie.

And in the scene that most scandalized the Indian film censor board, Devi is stripped and forced to walk naked through the village, fetching the men water from a well as the entire village looks on.

The moviemakers defend the scene, saying it is a common method of punishing women in Indian villages. In fact, in recent months, an increasing number of such incidents have been reported.

Devi, in an interview, did not deny the events occurred but said it was an invasion of her privacy to put them on display in movie theaters. "The most private and sensitive things in a woman's life have been portrayed in this film," she said.

"The film shows her being raped by her husband, by the police at the police station, being mass-raped by the Thakurs again and again," says Devi's lawyer, Praveen Anand. "She never wanted to talk about it, even in the book. It is extremely embarrassing for her to talk about this. Little did she want it to be filmed."

In real life and in the movie, Devi sought her revenge. On Feb. 14, 1981, her gang stormed an isolated village intending to rob wealthy Thakurs who were preparing for an elaborate wedding. Arriving at the village, Devi recognized it as Behmai, the home of the two men who'd murdered her lover and the site of her humiliation.

According to Sen's biography and newspaper accounts at the time, Devi ordered her men to sweep the town in search of the murderers. In all, two dozen upper-caste Thakurs were dragged from their homes and lined up on a riverbank. The bandits opened fire and left 20 men dead -- the largest massacre by a dacoit gang in modern Indian history.

Police launched the biggest manhunt ever conducted in the state of Uttar Pradesh, putting 2,000 officers and a helicopter on the trail of Phoolan Devi. In true-life adventures worthy of the Keystone Kops, Devi repeatedly outsmarted the police, once disguising herself in three different costumes in a village swarming with police.

While the national press and the poor villagers of the region delighted in the escapades of the Bandit Queen, she was no laughing matter for state and national politicians who were being depicted as fools by the media. The political pressure became so intense that V.P. Singh -- who would later become prime minister of India -- was forced to resign as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.

Finally, Phoolan Devi became such a political embarrassment that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi told law enforcement officials that if they couldn't catch Devi, they should cut a deal with her -- on her terms -- for her surrender.

In February 1983, with most of her gang members dead and her own health failing as a result of her harsh life on the run, Devi agreed to surrender on the conditions that she not be hanged, that her men serve no more than eight years in prison, that her brother be given a government job, that her father be given a plot of land and that her entire family, along with the family cow and goat, be escorted by police to her surrender ceremony in the neighboring state.

Her surrender was an extraordinary spectacle. She marched onto a stage before thousands of cheering peasant supporters, bent down and touched the feet of the chief minister and turned over 25 bullets and her gun. The dramatic surrender made front-page headlines from New Delhi to Washington.

Prisoner of Attention

"I brooded a lot," Devi says of her 11 long years in prison.

She was charged with 48 crimes, including allegations that she shot some of the 20 men killed in the Behmai massacre. But for 11 years her trials were delayed by changes in government and feuds between two neighboring states over where the cases should be tried. Finally, Early this year, when a lower-caste political party won election in Uttar Pradesh, the new chief minister ordered Devi released on bail, saying she had suffered enough.

"In jail, my only dream was to get out," said Devi. "I thought life would be easy once I was free. I didn't know I would have to continue my fights. The hardest battle is now -- with the urban, educated, city-bred dacoits."

Devi has been besieged by the Indian and international media since her release. She was so intimidated by the mob of reporters and photographers waiting outside Tihar Jail in New Delhi that she retreated to her cell and had to be coaxed out by the prison director.

Within weeks, the controversy over the movie created a renewed media feeding frenzy. The Indian press has reported her every move. Devi says that the first time she ventured to her neighborhood vegetable market she was surrounded by so many curious onlookers that she ran back to her apartment in terror. She has received death threats from people opposed to her release from prison, and the government has assigned bodyguards to her.

As for her legal situation, the movie couldn't have come at a more delicate time. There are still 48 criminal charges, including murder, pending against her. One of Devi's greatest fears is that scenes from the movie could be used against her if the cases are brought to trial.

The movie "shows her there at Behmai," says attorney Anand. "This will have an effect on judgment, on the witnesses and the media, and may incriminate her."

Devi has denied that she killed any of the men.

Even though she is now at war with her biographer, Sen, and received $13,000 for the rights to her story for a movie she now doesn't want released, Devi already has begun cooperating with a French author for a new biography.

But mostly, Devi says she just wants to move on with her life. She married a New Delhi business contractor just five months after she left prison. Now she says she would like to start a national social organization to help poor women, child brides and women newly released from prison.

The transition from ex-bandit and ex-prisoner to urban New Delhi wife has been far from easy. She is illiterate and finds city life alien. A friend had to teach her how to use a telephone when she moved into her apartment. She suffers from a range of health problems exacerbated by years of living on the run and in prison. She has an explosive temper, which she unleashes on everyone from journalists to family members. Even the Hindu goddess Durga, to whom she has built a small shrine in the corner of her living room, does not escape her wrath: "I even yell and curse the god when I get angry," she says.

But in moments of reflection she also credits the god with her survival through poverty, lawlessness, imprisonment and being born a low-caste female in rural India: "God has given me more strength to endure than he has given other women."

----- end of story ---
[Submitted by: India Network (kvrao@indnet.bgsu.edu) Sun, 1 Jan 1995 11:40:39 -0500 (EST)]

Return to Phoolan Devi's page