Phoolan Devi was born to a low-caste family, endured rape and torture, went on to kill the men who hurt her and harbored her enemies, and then was elected to Parliament. So it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that many thought of her as an incarnation of Durga, a warrior goddess.
She was born on Aug. 10, 1963, in a small rural village. She was married at the age of 11 to a man in his 30s, and there are varying stories of what happened to her next. She was raped and abused by her husband, but Phoolan Devi managed to escape, to survive, and years later, to join a band of dacoits, a gang of rebels and armed robbers. She would ultimately lead this band.
When she was 18, a rival gang attacked her group, holding her hostage for weeks and brutally raping her.
But Phoolan Devi would have her revenge.
She led her dacoits to a village in Behmai, where Lala Ram Singh and Sri Ram Singh, leaders of rival dacoits were hiding. Armed with a Sten gun, bands of ammo across her chest and red nails, she issued an ultimatum: give them both up or die.
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Her men searched for an hour, but found no trace of the Ram brothers. Phoolan Devi warned the villagers one last time, then rounded up thirty men and shot them. Twenty-two were killed. It was the second largest dacoit massacre since the founding of modern India.
It was also led by a woman of a lower caste against men of a vastly higher one.
A price was put on her head but she evaded capture for two years until she surrendered on her own terms in exchange for the return of her father’s land, a job for her brother, and a reduced sentence for members of her gang. She was held without trial for 11 years before she was released.
But Phoolan Devi’s story was far from over.
“They wouldn’t let us live in peace; you will never understand what kind of humiliation that is. If they wanted to rape us, to molest us, and our families objected, then they’d rape us in front of our families,” Phoolan Devi told Mary Anne Weaver of The Atlantic in 1996.
She was angry — rightfully so — and she chose to use that anger toward a higher purpose.
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She chose to run for a seat in the lower house of the Indian Parliament — and she won. A woman and a member of a lower caste, she inspired the people of India who had long been oppressed. It was a new era in caste politics, but Phoolan Devi would not live long to see it.
On July 25, 2001, she was shot and killed by three masked men who were never caught, though it is suspected that they acted in the name of vengeance for Behmai.
Phoolan Devi is remembered as a powerful public speaker, a woman of unerring instinct, a cunning and charming politician, a leader, and a survivor.