India's Bandit Queen Died As She Once Lived

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RAVEENDRAN/AFP

India's "Bandit Queen"

Phoolan Devi's life, as dramatized in the movie "The Bandit Queen," was an extraordinarily violent Indian Cinderella story. But when the laws of probability finally caught up with Devi outside her New Delhi home on Tuesday, its fairytale ending was rewritten. The film helped propel the brutalized teenager-turned-brutal avenger into parliament as a champion of India's marginalized "untouchable" caste. But the real life "Bandit Queen" died Tuesday in a hail of bullets fired by unknown assassins.

Despite the national outrage and anguish — parliament suspended its proceedings, and even long-time foes lamented the failure of India's security services to properly protect a duly elected national legislator — Phoolan Devi would have lived much of her life expecting a violent death.

The crowning of a bandit queen

Born into the grinding poverty of a lower-caste family in Uttar Pradesh, she was married off to a widower at age 11 who beat and tortured her. She ran away from him but was shunned by her village elders, and spent her early teenage years in the violent world of the Dacoits — the storied bandits who roam the desolate plains of northern India. Devi exploded into the national consciousness in 1981, as the 21-year-old leader of a Dacoit gang that massacred 21 men of the Thakur landowning caste in the village of Bhemai. The massacre was a brutal revenge attack — Devi had been held prisoner and repeatedly gang-raped by upper-caste men of the village earlier the same year. And while it established her notoriety as one of India’s most-wanted bandits, in the eyes of millions of Dalits it also turned her into an icon of resistance against caste abuse. And she burnished her legend by eluding capture in the rugged mountains of Uttar and Madya Pradesh.

In 1983, Devi surrendered to the authorities at a bizarre ceremony attended by much of the region's political elite and some 8,000 adoring Dalits. Although she went on to serve 11 years in prison, she had negotiated tough terms for turning herself in — she was never charged for the Bhemai killings. And two years after her release from prison in 1994, she was elected to parliament as a champion of the Dalits.

'If you're going to kill one, kill twenty…'

Her triumph at the polls may have capped a Cinderella story, but the real world is never that simple. She lost her seat two years later, although she regained it the following year. Some were not entirely impressed at her efforts to represent India’s poorest — a prominent human rights group slammed her for siding with carpet manufacturers in her constituency in a fight to overturn a ban on child labor.

There was some suggestion that her assassination may have been rooted in political intrigue, with Devi set to play a key role in the lower-caste Samajwadi Party's bid to win control of Uttar Pradesh in state elections later this year. But many Indian commentators suspected her death may have been an act of vengeance by the families of some of her own victims.

According to the legend of Phoolan Devi in the villages of northern India, her lover and Dacoit mentor Vikram Mallah had taught her, "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." The Bandit Queen’s story certainly bore out that maxim. But the maxim has a corollary: The more people you kill; the wider the clamor for revenge.