Transcript: 55. The Bandit Queen (Phoolan Devi) | India

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Warning. This episode contains descriptions of sexual violence against women. It may not be suitable for all audiences. Listener discretion is advised.

Phoolan Devi was only 11 years old when she confronted her cousin, Mayadin, for taking her family’s land in a small village in rural North India. She would not relent and kept pestering him, shouting profanities when she saw him walking in the village. One of their confrontations ended with Mayadin hitting Phoolan over the head with a brick, causing her to lose consciousness. 

Phoolan recovered and made it clear that she was not about to give up the fight. Her constant harassment annoyed Mayadin and he came up with a plan to get rid of his little cousin. He knew that her parents were desperately poor. If he found the right man, he could arrange a marriage and send Phoolan off to live with her husband.

It wasn’t unusual for impoverished families to marry off their daughters, but the average age for this kind of arrangement was usually 14 or 15. When Mayadin made the proposition to Putti Lal, a man in his late thirties who lived about a hundred miles away, he agreed to take the 11-year-old Phoolan as his wife. 

Her father felt that Phoolan probably needed to go, as she was unruly and caused problems for the family with her volatile temperament. Phoolan’s mother was against the marriage and demanded a guana. This is a hold of sorts, a period of time during which a young bride lives with her family before moving in with her husband. Putti Lal initially agreed to a three-year period, but a couple of months later, he changed his mind. He did not want to wait and insisted on consummating the marriage as soon as they were married. He threatened to cancel the agreement and the dower, if they didn’t comply to his wishes. Putti Lal knew that this would convince the family to send his new bride to him.  

Phoolan’s parents agreed. Putti Lal brought the dower: a cow, an old bicycle and 100 Rupees. Ushering the cow into their yard, Phoolan’s family waved their 11-year-old daughter goodbye as she left to start a new life with her husband.

Phoolan would later say that Putti Lal was not a man, he was a monster. Her life was a living nightmare. Her husband raped and abused her. Every time Phoolan managed to escape, villagers would find her and return her to her husband. He punished her with severe violence. 

Sadly, this was only the beginning of Phoolan’s exposure to violence and sex. But she had inner-strength, likened to the warrior goddess Durna. This is the memorable story of Phoolan Devi, India’s Bandit Queen.

>>Intro Music

Phoolan Devi was born on the 10th of August 1963. Her name meant ‘Flower Goddess’ – a suitable name for a beautiful girl. She was the fourth of six children of Moola and Devi Din Mallah and they lived in rural North India. Two of her siblings passed away when they were only infants.

Phoolan was born into the Mallah community, a low-caste group of boatmen. They lived in the small village of Ghura Ka Purwa in the region of Uttar Pradesh, India. The Mallahs worked the land owned by upper-caste Thakur landlords. Thakurs were typically landlords or businessmen. In the 1970s, the Mallahs were repressed and abused by the Thakurs. 

The caste system is a hereditary social class system in India that was introduced over 2,000 years ago. One’s caste determined your standing in the community, and there was no way of ever crossing over to a different caste. It locked a person into a social class for life. Marriage was permitted only between people of the same caste. Your caste locked you into a specific set of rules, down the very last detail: what a family ate, the length of the women’s saris, what work one was allowed to do, which temples one was allowed to enter… 

Although Independent India has ended the traditional caste system, discrimination still occurs to this day. Especially in rural areas where patriarchs value tradition.

The Devi family of Ghura Ka Purwa had three daughters, which was a curse to a poor family. A peasant woman’s only worth was to bear sons or to work the fields for a pittance. They would be the last in the family to eat, they were given the least food and had they no privileges. Devi Din felt the burden of having so many daughters rested heavily on him.

He owned a small piece of land, about an acre in size (that’s about half a hectare). On the property was a Neem tree, which is deemed to be very valuable, as Neem Tree Oil is used for medicinal purposes. Devi Din tended the tree and hoped that he would be able to pay his daughter Phoolan’s dowry with money earned from the tree. 

When Phoolan was 11, both her paternal grandparents passed away. Her uncle, Bihari, who was Devi Din’s older brother, took the entire inheritance by falsifying village records, leaving Phoolan’s family in poverty. Devi Din was crushed but decided not to confront his brother about the issue.

Although Phoolan was young, she was outraged at the injustice done to her family. Bihari’s son, Mayadin (Phoolan’s cousin) was instrumental in his father’s plan to take everything the family had. Mayadin decided that the Neem Tree was no longer producing anything and removed it from the property. He sold the wood and kept all the profit.

Realising that her father was too weak to defend his family, Phoolan took it upon herself to confront Mayadin. She staged a dharna, which is a sit-in on the land. She refused to eat until such a time that the matter was resolved. Phoolan only relented once the village elders dragged her back to her own home.

But it was far from over. Phoolan publicly humiliated Mayadin, shouting in the streets, calling him a thief. It went on for weeks and ended in the physical altercation during which Mayadin hit Phoolan over the head with a brick. Even this was not enough to stop Phoolan, she kept pestering him. What he did was wrong and she would not let him get away with it. Wanting to get rid of his tiresome cousin, Mayadin arranged a marriage for Phoolan. 

Phoolan was only 11 years old when she left her home to go and live with her ill-tempered husband, Putti Lal. 

After Phoolan tried to escape many times, Putti Lal grew tired of his disobedient wife. He returned her to her family, saying that she was too young to fulfil her wifely duties. Her family was appalled that she had come back as it brought disgrace to their family. Her mother was so disgusted, she told her to drop dead and seriously suggested she ended her own life. Phoolan was only 12 years old at the time.

Phoolan considered jumping into the village well to drown herself but decided against it. She felt she was not quite done with this world. She had unfinished business with her cousin and would not rest until her father’s land was returned to their family. 

Her battle against Mayadin continued. Phoolan, who was now 15, took Mayadin to court for stealing her father’s land, but she lost. Mayadin was smug, which only fuelled the fire inside of Phoolan more.

In January 1979, after another year of confrontations and fights, Mayadin reported Phoolan to police, claiming that she had stolen small items from his home. Phoolan was arrested and taken to jail. While she was locked up, police officers took the opportunity to rape her. Phoolan was completely defenceless against the attacks and had no one to help her. She was bailed out after three days by Thakur men who owned the land her father farmed. As compensation, the men wanted sex and proceeded to rape her repeatedly.

Because of her time in jail, her family did not want anything to do with Phoolan anymore. It was the last straw – she had humiliated them too much. They decided to send her back to her abusive husband, Putti Lal. Phoolan kicked up a fight, but she was just a young girl and was powerless against the will of her father and her lawful husband. 

When she returned to her marital home, she learnt that Putti Lal had taken a second wife. But instead of having an ally in his new wife, Phoolan found yet another person out to make her life a living hell. Both Putti Lal and his wife treated Phoolan like their slave. She worked in the house and on the land and was only given scraps of food, causing malnutrition. Phoolan grew increasingly terrified of the sexual encounters with her husband. She wailed every time he came near her.

Eventually Phoolan managed to make her way back to her family home, but again, it was not a joyful return. Leaving one’s husband was NOT a done thing in rural North India and Phoolan became an outcast. She was seen as filthy and shameful and men in the village indulged in the fact that she was a broken woman. They sought her out for sexual favours, none of which she consented to. Phoolan was so young and had nobody to protect her against the multitude of men who forced themselves on her. 

She left her village for a short time and entered a relationship with her cousin, Kailash. He was a married man and the relationship with Phoolan did not last long. She returned home once again, if possible, even more disgraced than before.

One day, after working with her father on Thakur land, the supervisor said that he was ordered by Mayadin to withhold their wages. Something exploded within Phoolan. She marched to her cousin’s house and shouted. She said she had a rifle and threatened to kill him in front of the whole village. Later on, Phoolan recalled that this was somewhat of a turning point in her life, she said:

"From that moment on, I began to breathe again. I walked through the village without shame. I went to the river to bathe whenever I wanted. I had no more fear. I told my parents their daughter was dead. My father was alarmed. I told him not to worry, I wasn't going to drown myself.”

The old Phoolan was dead. She was sick of being alone and vulnerable. A bitter hatred towards all men grew strong in the teenager who never seemed to stop fighting. 

Phoolan was known to bathe in the nude in the sacred Yamuna River. She became a siren, men desired her and when they had half a chance, they tried to have her. Phoolan refused to become a whimpering victim and even at that young age there was something fearless and intimidating about her. She chased the men away, asking them if they would like to see their wives, sisters or daughters treated the way they treated Phoolan. ‘Go home,’ she shouted for everyone to hear.

But she was not always able to fend off the men and despite her efforts continued being sexually assaulted in her own home. At times in front of her family, who were all too scared to come to her defence.

In July 1979, Phoolan’s life changed forever when she was abducted by a gang of dacoits, or bandits. This may sound like something out of a Western film, a notion from a long time ago. But in the 1970s and 1980s baagees as the bandits called themselves, were very common in rural North India, patrolling the Chambal Valley. They saw themselves as protectors of the low caste people, who would stop at nothing to make sure the upper caste tribes did not abuse their social standing. They did this through violence and spreading terror.

How it came about that Phoolan joined the gang, has been a point of much contention. Some sources say that the leader of the gang, Baby Gujar had heard about the feisty girl who had been sexually active and decided to abduct her and have her to himself. Other sources say Phoolan joined the gang as she was desperate to get away from her village and ready to take up arms against the upper caste. Phoolan’s sister claimed that the gang actually came for her brother. Phoolan wanted to protect her younger brother and said that the gang should take her instead.

She was the only woman in the gang and the leader, Babu Gujar felt she was rightfully his for the taking. He raped her and made the other bandits watch as he did so. One of his men, his lieutenant, came to Phoolan’s defence, killing Babu in his sleep one night.

The man who saved Phoolan, was Vikram Mallah. He was from the same caste as Phoolan and for the first time, Phoolan fell head over heels in love. With Babu dead, Vikram became the new leader of the gang, with Phoolan by his side. Vikram had a specific code of honour. He believed that:

"A Mallah could loot a Thakur if he was rich and punish or kill him if he was a rapist. If the Thakur was honourable, then the Mallah would respect him. Vengeance could only be exacted on behalf of someone of your own community...he couldn't take revenge against someone of his family or his community."

Vikram taught Phoolan how to fight, how to use a rifle and how to navigate her way through the ravines. Vikram did not only protect her, he also helped her to protect herself. Where other men took all of Phoolan’s power away, Vikram was the only one who made her more powerful. Phoolan later said this about her relationship with Vikram:

“He was the first man to treat me like a human being, not a slave or a piece of meat.”

Within the gang, Phoolan was more than just Vikram’s girlfriend. She played an active role and took part in many robberies and kidnappings of upper-caste landowners. The area of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh lived in fear of the gang, who seemed to have no restraint. The gang hid out in ravines of the Chambal Valley and police could never track them down.

But not everyone feared the gang. There was a Robin Hood element to their crimes, going after the wealthy and protecting the poor from exploitation.

Phoolan explained how they operated:

“I’d send my men out during wedding season. 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.”

She felt justified in her criminal activities and after every crime, she would visit a Durga temple and thank the goddess for protection. In return, she promised to protect young village girls who were sold into young marriages by their desperate families.

In later years, Phoolan told her biographer, Mala Sen, that she went to villages and asked local women if there was a rapist from the upper-caste. With the help of her gang, she forced the accused rapist to march through the village, stark naked. Typically a crowd would gather and she would ask the women whether he was a good man or a bad man. If the women agreed that he was a bad man, she would have one of her dacoits cut off the man’s penis, for everyone to see. While the man was reeling in pain, she would take a needle and thread and make a kind of necklace, forcing the castrated villager to wear his severed penis around his neck. Phoolan never showed any remorse for these acts as she genuinely felt that she was performing a service for the greater good of the community.

She believed that she was in service of the goddess Durga and that Durga protected her. She referred to Durga as God and felt that ‘God’ sent signs to show her the way. One night, as the gang was sitting at their campfire a snake slithered up Phoolan’s leg. She threw it aside, but because she believed it was a bad omen, she commanded the men to leave the site as quickly as possible. They ran away and when they reached a vantage point ten minutes later, they saw that a squadron of police officers had arrived at their camp. Durga had saved them.

Phoolan felt she had a personal score to settle in life. Together with her gang, she went to the village where Putti Lal lived and Phoolan attacked her husband with a knife, stabbing him multiple times. But she didn’t stop there, she dragged his body into the village and left him for dead by the side of the road. There was a hand-written note with the barely living Putti Lal, warning older men who wanted to marry young girls. Putti Lal recovered, but became a complete recluse and was never seen around his village again. Nobody visited him either, as they feared the dacoits would come for them too.

She also visited her family’s village and found one of the policemen who raped her while she was in jail. She shot him and left a note on his body claiming responsibility. Fearing for his own life, her cousin Mayadin gave the gang some money and begged for mercy. Phoolan was not interested in the money, she wanted to kill her cousin for all the grief he had caused her family. But Vikram took her rifle and convinced her to take the money instead. 

For a while, Phoolan and her gang lived like this: they robbed trains and villages, kidnapped members from the upper-caste and used the money they stole to get by. Phoolan loved Vikram and together they were fierce and invincible. There was an honour in being a dacoit, dividing loot and giving a third to the gods. It was violent and tumultuous time, but somehow, Phoolan was at peace. 

That is, until two brothers, Sri and Lala Ram who had left the gang years before, returned to the gang. In fact, Vikram used the money from Mayadin to bail them out of prison. The brothers were Thakur, the higher caste, and they saw themselves as superior to the Mallah gang members. They were outraged that Vikram, a low-caste bandit killed Babu and wanted to set things straight. Vikram suggested the gang split up, so the Thakurs could go with the Ram brothers and the Mallahs could stay with him and Phoolan. The brothers did not agree to this and tensions rose within the gang.

Sri Ram also made sexual advances on Phoolan, but Vikram intervened, forcing Sri to apologise, making it clear that none of the other men were allowed to touch Phoolan. This sparked so much anger in Sri, that from that moment, he plotted to kill Vikram and Phoolan. 

The couple realised that their lives were in danger and managed to flee. However, Sri and his men caught up with them on the 13th of August 1980. In the same way as Vikram had killed Babu, they shot him while he was sleeping next to Phoolan. Phoolan had lost the love of her life, the only person who had ever cared for her. Her fate was sealed too, as Sri and Lala abducted her and locked her up in Behmai village, on the banks of the Yamuna River. Here she was raped and beaten by several men, over and over again. Phoolan remembered her time as a hostage in Behmai:

They passed me from man to man, village after village. I was paraded in front of the onlookers. Sri Ram called me a Mallah whore.”

After three weeks of captivity, she managed to escape, thanks to the help of a low-caste villager in Behmai. She regrouped with some of Vikram’s men and their streak of robberies continued. The next significant man in her life was one of Vikram’s friends, Man Singh Mallah.

A year and a half after her escape from Behmai, Phoolan returned to the village to avenge Vikram’s death and take revenge on the men who raped and humiliated her during her captivity. 

On the 14th of February 1981, Phoolan and her gang, disguised as police officers, marched into Behmai. The Thakur villagers were all together, preparing for an elaborate wedding. Phoolan, wore a police officer’s shirt and blue jeans with her nails painted red and she had lipstick to match. She demanded her gang members brought the brothers Sri and Lala Ram to her. She also demanded they gathered up all the valuables in the village.

Legend has it that Phoolan climbed on top of the village well and shouted for the whole village to hear:

“Listen you guys! If you love your lives, hand over all of the cash, silver and gold you have. And listen again! I know that Sri and Lala Ram Singh are hiding in this village. If you don’t hand them over to me, I will stick my gun into your butts and tear them apart. This is Phoolan Devi speaking. Jai Durga Mata!”

Her famous chant translates to ‘Victory to Durga the Mother Goddess!’

When her gang could not find the Ram brothers, Phoolan snapped and gave the order to bring her all the Thakur men of the village, as Sri and Lala were Thakur. Her gang members rounded up the men and marched them out of the village, straight to the Yamuna River. The men from Behmai village insisted that they did not know the whereabouts of Sri and Lala Ram, but Phoolan did not believe them and was convinced that they were hiding the brothers in the village. 

Phoolan’s gang lined thirty Thakur men up on the riverbank, ordered them to kneel and opened fire. 22 men were killed and eight were seriously injured in the ferocious attack. Phoolan did not fire a single shot, but she felt that Vikram was avenged. This incident became known as the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre – not to be confused with the 1920 Mafia shoot-out in Chicago.

According to legend, Vikram taught Phoolan: 

"If you are going to kill, kill twenty, not just one. For if you kill twenty, your fame will spread; if you kill only one, they will hang you as a murderess.

Phoolan was satisfied with her revenge. After the massacre, one of the largest manhunts in Indian history commenced. 2,000 police officers were deployed to the area to search for Phoolan and her gang. A bounty to the equivalent of $10,000 was placed on her head. They had to find this woman who had caused so much destruction. 

Around this time, she was given the name ‘The Bandit Queen’. She became part of the folklore and women from the low-caste idolised her. Dolls of Phoolan Devi dressed like the Hindu goddess Durga were made and sold at markets throughout Uttar Pradesh and even the rest of India. 

Phoolan brought a romantic notion to the rogue life. But men still saw her as a woman with a reputation for being promiscuous, a dark shadow that she could never cast off. One police officer said: 

“For every man this girl has killed, she has slept with two. Sometimes she sleeps with them first, before she bumps them off.”

Her story became legendary. She was a black widow, a femme fatale. Many stories floated on the wind of the dangerous and beautiful woman, although no one had ever seen a photo of her. She was an enigma. Journalist Sunil Sethi wrote this about The Bandit Queen:

“Phoolan’s two great gifts are rabid cunning and fatal charm – an irresistible combination and a great achievement in a woman who is so brutal… It would have been impossible for Phoolan to be anything but an Indian, and she is tailor-made for the Indian imagination: since ancient times we have had an inordinate capacity to make a myth out of any story, and to demythicize the most epic into the most mundane. Phoolan is a do-it-yourself goddess who can rapidly demonize.”

Two years after the massacre, police had still not caught up with The Bandit Queen and her gang of dacoits. The Indira Ghandi Government decided that, instead of going after the most wanted woman in India with force, they would try and negotiate a surrender. On her terms. They realised that this would probably be the only way they would ever be able to catch her. To ensure she had no other choice but surrender, police imprisoned her family and destroyed their home.

Phoolan was in poor health and many of her gang members had died. She realised that her family and her gang were at risk of losing their lives and in February 1983, she agreed to surrender. But she had some conditions… 

Firstly, she said that she would NOT give herself over to the Uttar Pradesh police, because of how they treated her in the past. She claimed that if she were to be taken by Uttar Pradesh, she would be dead before she could stand trial. However, she was willing to surrender to the Madhya Pradesh Police. She would not give her weapons to police; she did not trust them with it. Instead she would only lay it down before the pictures of Mahatma Ghandi and the Hindu goddess Durga. 

Then came the list with four more conditions: She needed confirmation that neither she nor any of her gang members would be sentenced to death and hanged. Her gang members should not be imprisoned for a term longer than eight years. She insisted that her father’s land was returned to the family and that they were relocated there along with her cow and goat. She insisted that her brother was given a government job.

Her last demand was for her family to be escorted by police to her surrender ceremony. That’s right: the case had garnered so much media attention, that there was an actual planned ceremony for the moment of Phoolan Devi’s surrender. A crowd of 10,000 people came to witness their heroine-slash-villain surrender in the city of Bhind. 

Police officer, Rajendra Chaturvedi, who had been the main negotiator, met Phoolan at her hiding place in the Chambal ravines and accompanied her and 12 men as they made their way out of the ravine. As per prior arrangement, the officer was unarmed. On the other side of the ravine, six miles (or almost ten kilometres) away, 300 police officers waited for the 20-year-old Bandit Queen and her fellow dacoits. 

Phoolan’s gang and Man Singh were right behind her when they emerged, ready to surrender without a fight. She was beautiful, strong, graceful, standing less than 5ft tall: the most feared bandit in India.

At the surrender ceremony, Phoolan Devi wore a police superintendent’s uniform and draped a red shawl over her shoulders. Her .315 rifle hung over her shoulder, a bullet belt crossed her chest and a long knife was tucked into her belt. In a moment of defiance, Phoolan turned to the crowd and raised her rifle above her head. The crowd exploded with applause and approval.

Then she walked onto a stage where two large posters stood waiting. The one was a photo of Mahatma Ghandi and the other a picture of the goddess Durga. The crowd watched in anticipation as The Bandit Queen laid down her weapons in front of the posters, like an offering at an altar.

Phoolan Devi was charged with 48 crimes, including 30 charges of banditry and kidnapping. She spent 11 years in prison, awaiting trial. 

In this time she received medical care. She needed surgery for ovarian cysts, but, without her consent, the doctor performed a hysterectomy. When asked why he did it, he said:

“We don’t want Phoolan Devi breeding more Phoolan Devis.”

Phoolan was finally paroled in 1994, thanks to negotiations led by the head of the Nishidha fishermen community. Mulayam Singh Yadav was the newly appointed chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the state where the Behmai Massacre had occurred. Like Phoolan, the minister was from the low-caste and he saw her pardon as vindication against the upper-caste.  

Phoolan was pardoned and released in 1994. All of the members of her gang were released before serving eight years and all charges against them were dropped. No witnesses were willing to come forward and testify against them, still fearing that the gang would avenge them if they did. Ironically, many of the men in Phoolan’s gang were upper caste.

Five months after her release from prison, Phoolan married Ummed Singh – a New Delhi business contractor with political ambitions. In February 1995, Phoolan and her new husband both converted to Buddhism.

Later that year, in a surprising turn of events, Phoolan’s name made the news once again. This time, she announced that she would stand to be elected to the 11th Lok Sabha, representing the Samajwadi Party, helping the poor and oppressed. She became a symbol of avenging wrong-doings against women and people from the low-caste. Her story was the same story of many women, who were treated unfairly and abused by men from the upper caste.

With the protection of heavily armed security forces, she went to rural India to promote her campaign. The low caste made up 85 percent of her electorate, and they adored Phoolan. Finally someone they could trust was running for parliament – someone who was not afraid to fight and speak up for the down trodden. 

It was a landslide victory and Phoolan served as an MP for four years, before losing her seat. But, Phoolan was never one to stop fighting, and in 1999, she was re-elected as a sitting member of parliament. All of this, while she was illiterate. The only word she could write was her name, like the calling cards she left in her time as a dacoit. Her mentor in politics was the same man who had negotiated her release from prison: Mulayam Singh Yadav.

For Phoolan, politics was a whole new form of banditry. She took some time to adjust and said in an interview:

“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.”

Phoolan had a genuine mission to help the women as well as the low-caste men of rural India, but her life was cut short before she could really have an impact as a politician. On the 25th of July 2001, the 37-year-old MP left work after the morning session of Parliament. She arrived at her home at 44 Ashoka Road in Delhi at 1:30pm.

As she was making her way to her front gate, she was approached by three masked men, who opened fire and shot her. Three bullets hit her in the head and two penetrated her body. Her bodyguard, Balinder Singh, was also shot, but he survived. He returned fire, using his 9mm pistol, but to no avail. He saw the three men escape in a green Maruti 800, where a getaway driver was waiting impatiently, revving the car. 

The bodyguard raised the alarm and called for an ambulance. Phoolan Devi was rushed to Lohia Hospital but declared dead on arrival.

Police found the getaway vehicle, the green Maruti, abandoned only 500 yards from the scene of the shooting. Witnesses said that the men got out of the car and made their escape in a three-wheeler auto-rickshaw.

After her death, people close to Phoolan said that she felt that she was under threat. 

Despite her growing concerns for her safety, her security was scaled down in the weeks before her death.

Police were criticised for their poor handling of the case. Although they recovered the murder weapons from the abandoned Maruti 800, they lost it in the course of the investigation. There was confusion as to who had possession of the murder weapons, and they could never be located again. Vital evidence was lost forever. 

The man responsible for Phoolan’s assassination eventually gave himself up to police. Sher Singh Rana said that he killed her to avenge the Behmai massacre and all the other crimes committed against people from the upper caste. Sher Singh Rana was a member of the upper caste himself. He was imprisoned, fined 100,000 Rupees and given a life sentence. 

He escaped from prison in 2004 but was recaptured in Kolkata two years later. In 2016 he was granted parole and is currently a free man.

Phoolan’s sister, Munni Devi, said that she suspected Phoolan’s husband, Ummed Singh, to have been behind her murder. She even questioned the validity of their marriage, saying the family never attended a ceremony. According to Munni and her mother, Phoolan was afraid of her husband and planned to change her will the day before she was killed. Ummed responded with legal action, accusing Munni Devi of defamation.

Phoolan may have died, but her legend lives on. The Bollywood film, Bandit Queen, was inspired by the life and crimes of Phoolan Devi. It was released while she was still alive, in fact, in the same year she was released from prison. The film has graphic portrayals of all the times Phoolan was sexually assaulted. 

Phoolan did not approve of the film and took legal steps to keep it out of Indian cinemas, as she said it was a violation of her privacy. She said:

“They are raping me all over again and selling me on the screen. They are selling my honour.”

People saw Phoolan as a strong warrior woman. The trauma she suffered throughout her life is swept under the rug, because she managed to rise above it. She suffered hardship that would be enough to break anyone. But even though she chose to fight back, she was still damaged and scarred by a lifetime of violence. Phoolan could never forgive her parents for arranging her marriage to the violent Putti Lal. How could they trade their daughter for a cow and a broken bicycle? When Phoolan was a successful politician, her mother was confronted by the media about the arranged marriage. Moola Devi cast her eyes downward in shame and said:

“Poverty is a terrible thing. We are forced to do many things because of it. How can I explain?”

Phoolan tried to rationalise it and said that her parents probably thought Putti Lal was rich and that she would be better of living with him than in the poverty of their family home. However, it is something that she continued to question her mother about, even up to the time of her death.

Phoolan has inspired many low-caste women to speak up for themselves. She was idolised and adored and some believed that Phoolan Devi was the true incarnation of the goddess Durga herself. Durga is the Divine Mother Goddess. She is a warrior who fights evil and unleashes her anger on any being who wrongs another or who threatens peace. She brings calm where there is destruction. Durga ensures her followers that light and truth will always prevail over chaos and suffering.

Throughout her life, Phoolan always called on Durga for strength, even saying that:

"For centuries every dacoit has honoured the goddess Durga. And she is what sustained me: whatever she has, I have; whatever she wants, I want. And all of the men in my gang considered me to be a reincarnation of Durga."

While everyone accepted the status quo of violence against the low-caste in India, Phoolan Devi was the one who stood up and said that it was wrong. She fought back in a way that no woman in her country had ever done before. She refused to be destroyed because of adversity, instead she retaliated in a fierce and relentless manner. To the very end, Phoolan never stopped fighting. Where some see her as nothing more than a murderer and a villain, others hail her as a heroine and draw inspiration from her short-but-impactful life.

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