Celebrating Dalit History: The Power of Phoolan Devi!

Today in Dalit history, we commemorate a Bahujan revolutionary — Phoolan Devi.

When Phoolan was in her teens, she was married off against her will. Escaping an abusive marriage and defying all patriarchal norms for women, she joined a gang of dacoits and rose to popularity as someone who fought in the interest of the oppressed Castes, as a vigilante justice-giver.

During this time, she experienced brutal sexual violence at the hands of the dominant Caste men. She escaped again and this time she retaliated by killing all the 22 dominant Caste men who had assaulted her. This act sent shock waves across the region. Even though what she did may be questioned — Phoolan was nothing if not a reinventor of the concept of justice for oppressed peoples. Women spoke of her with awe. Their references to her beginning in hushed whispers, but ending in loud slogans and chants!

Criminal cases came and went. She served 11 years in jail without even being charged. With the recommendation of some sympathetic politicians, all cases against her were withdrawn. The very next year, she stood for elections in her constituency and resoundingly won. Soon, she was serving as a Member of Parliament.

To capitalize on her popularity, several misrepresented versions of her story were told. This included the movie, The Bandit Queen which made a lot of money and won several national and international awards and acclaim for the filmmakers. But Phoolan categorically did not approve of the movie. She hated the representation of her rape which she had expressly prohibited. Phoolan took the filmmakers to court. The judge ordered that a ban on the movie be placed. Feeling threatened, the Brahmin director, Shekhar Kapur, continued to sell his movie with false sensationalization. He claimed that it was banned by the Indian state, not because Phoolan had taken them to court. The West, the liberal, and left elites bought this story.

This and other incidents led Phoolan to feel even more strongly about Ambedkarite politics. She officially converted to Buddhism at Deekshabhoomi in 1995.

But people were eager to dispose of her popularity. Her assaulters’ families had her assassinated in 2001 while she was still a sitting Member of Parliament. But Phoolan’s inimitable and unmatched spirit endures. She continues to be Bahujan feminist icon and an inspiration to countless young people in every new generation.

Phoolan Devi — Amar Rahen! Amer Rahen!

THIS POST WAS WRITTEN FOR DALIT HISTORY MONTH BY ANUSHA CHAITANYA

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Redefining the History of the Subcontinent through a Dalit lens. Participatory Community History Project

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