Can the Bandit Queen sway the polls?

Phoolan Devi's stand in today's elections has exposed India's faultlines, says Tim McGirk
Click to follow
The Independent Online
On a crumbling cliff above the Ganges river near Mirzapur lies an ancient Hindu temple devoted to Kali, the goddess of Destruction. Black with big devouring eyes, the idol of Kali is covered with chains of marigolds, as if her devotees wanted to keep Kali from springing into a dance of death.

It was here at this temple, in past centuries, that the notorious thuggees, "users of the noose", would pray to Kali before waylaying and strangling travellers. It was here, too, that Phoolan Devi - India's most famous outlaw, the "Bandit Queen", who is accused of massacring 22 high-caste Hindu men - gave an offering to Kali before embarking on her election campaign to become the next Honourable Member of Parliament for Mirzapur.

"We spent years chasing Phoolan Devi through the ravines, now she's a candidate and we're supposed to be giving her protection," a senior police officer said ironically.

It would be wrong to suggest that Phoolan Devi, or Kali herself perhaps, is the new face of Indian politics. But the general elections, which begin today, have shown that Indian society is splitting dangerously along the vertical fault lines of religion and caste. In this upheaval it makes perfect sense for a woman bandit, who can't read or write, to run for parliament.

Born into a lowly fisherman's caste, Phoolan Devi at age 11 was forced to marry an older man who beat her and starved her. At 22 she was kidnapped and gang-raped, first by bandits and then by an entire village of upper- caste Hindu men. Up to then, Phoolan Devi's fate was depressingly similar to that of many exploited and abused countrywomen. But such hardship brought out hidden strength, a ruthlessness, in Phoolan Devi. She rose to become leader of her own gang.

From a hideout in the Chambal, a labyrinth of thorny ravines fit only for snakes and jackals, she and her men lashed out; they hijacked lorries, abducted the sons of rich landlords and looted villages. Finally, it was alleged that in 1981 Phoolan and her gang crept back to Behmai village where she had been gang-raped and took revenge. Twenty-two high-caste Thakur men and boys were lined up and shot in the back at close range.

Phoolan surrendered in 1983, laying down her .303 rifle before a portrait of the goddess Durga which, like Kali, is another avenging female deity. Her revenge against the Thakur village had transformed her into a folk- hero, a revolutionary Robin Hood and wrathful Kali. Books were written about the Bandit Queen, and films were shot, spreading her fame beyond India.

Phoolan was released in 1994 after serving 11 years in prison (Phoolan demanded - and was given - permission to spend most of her term inside the same cell as her male gang members). The Bandit Queen, who once allowed she was only good "for cutting grass and using a rifle", was immediately courted by various political parties. It was thought that her Kali-esque reputation as a slayer of high-caste Hindu landowners would surely win votes among those at the bottom of the social hierarchy - the fishermen, the potters, the labourers.

She was persuaded to run in Mirzapur, which owes its prosperity, indirectly, to bandits. Legend has it that 300 years ago bandits attacked a camel caravan going through Mirzapur and killed everyone except for a Persian weaver who fled. A family gave him refuge, and in thanks the Persian taught them how to weave carpets.

I caught up with Phoolan Devi's campaign trail at their Mirzapur headquarters, a few rooms that were empty save for some rope cots and a telephone. Her police escort, tall, sweaty men with Sten guns and pot-bellies that wobbled uneasily on their thin frames, lazed around. From behind a closed door, Phoolan could be heard, high and rasping. Curses flew. Umaid and his mates had made off with her air-conditioned Honda four-wheel drive, forcing Phoolan to ride for seven hours in a cramped, slow Ambassador car.

Scarcely five feet tall, she has traded in her bandit's running shoes for ankle bracelets and toe rings. She no longer wears khaki and bandoleers but a billowing pink and gold sari. Moon-faced and swarthy, moods play across her face like mercury rising. Smiling one instant, her expression changes into a vexed scowl. "Every woman knows the pain of being a woman. They'll all vote for me, even the [high-caste] Brahmin and Thakur women," she says.

I ask what her morning programme is. She doesn't know. The Bandit Queen plunges into her handbag, looking for a note or something. She dumps the contents of her handbag on the bed (I see lipstick tubes and a compact but no revolver), gives up her search, and then curls up on the bed in a jangle of ankle bracelets. She sighs languidly. The interview is over.

Even though the lower-castes and the Muslims outnumber the higher-caste Hindus in Mirzapur, Phoolan is not assured of victory. She made a possibly fatal mistake on her first trip to Mirzapur. She visited a rich carpet- owner, Nannu Khan, local boss of her Samajwadi Party. Several weeks before, one of Mr Khan's weavers had dared to ask for a loan and some days off for his daughter's wedding. A simple "no" was not good enough for Mr Khan: his goons tied up the weaver, took him to a room inside the rug factory, doused him in kerosene and set him on fire. It might have ended there. But perhaps the weaver's agony gave him a burst of strength, or perhaps the fire burned loose his cords, but the weaver escaped. He ran screaming, enveloped in flames, out of the factory compound. He died in the road and a huge, angry crowd gathered around his smouldering corpse. The carpet exporter used his political connections to avoid arrest.

Fraternising with a factory owner who burns alive his workers did not exactly endear Phoolan, "champion of the oppressed", to the poor of Mirzapur. And the ghosts of the Behmai massacre are pursuing her. Her upper-caste opponent, Birender Singh, from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, is an ex-wrestler and a Thakur himself. Just before polling in Mirzapur, he plans to arrange a showdown between the 22 widows of Behmai and the Bandit Queen. Even the goddess Kali may not be able to help Phoolan.