The movie Bandit Queen brought the personage of former Indian MP Phoolan Devi to the world's attention. The film followed the life of this young woman, who born into India's untouchable class and married off as a child bride. She ran away, back to her family, but was later kidnapped and raped by daloit bandits. In an unlikely twist of fate, Devi became head of this group of bandits, and became renowned throughout India as the queen of daloits and a manifestation of the goddess Durga, Hinduism's fierce, all-powerful mother goddess.
Although something of a celebrity as the bandit queen, this career too was marred with rape, as well as murders. Outcry from the latter eventually resulted in Devi turning herself in to authorities, whereupon she was jailed for more than a decade.
When released, Devi ran for Parliament and won, becoming one of a handful of Indian MPs from the untouchable caste. Devi sued the movie's producers over charges of inaccuracies - no one consulted Devi regarding the film - but the charges were later dropped. Ill health and political intrigues stymied her political career, and she claimed that election irregularities robbed her of a second term. She was between elections when she was murdered in July, 2001.
I interviewed Phoolan Devi when she was visiting Japan in January, 1999, giving an address at Kyoto's Seika University.
When I first met Ms. Devi I was struck by her diminutive stature, she was physically a tiny person. With a big presence. She had a gentle, melodic voice, an easy smile, and a pronounced sparkle in her eyes. Devi was a little plump and dressed in a lavender blouse and a matching pastel sari, with a pale yellow jacket over it all - it was hard to imagine her wielding a gun. As a first impression, she didn't look hardened. Sturdy, but not hardened. There were glimpses of feistiness.
Devi wore golden bangles, a necklace, earrings, and a diamond nose ring. Not made up, her hair was somewhat messy. But she was very relaxed and comfortable with her own appearance, and possessed a quiet dignity. Devi became very focused and sharp from time to time, and it was then clear that she was a force to be reckoned with.
Although uneducated and illiterate, Devi was never at a loss for words, and knew exactly what she thought, how she felt. Though she complained of her health, she gave an impression of being strong.
Perhaps it was most surprising to find Ms. Devi charming, even somewhat cute. Instead of the coldness I'd anticipated, she emanated warmth, and her face at rest had a slight smile.
AkasaMedia: What was the best thing that ever happened to you?
Phoolan Devi: The day I was released from prison was the best day of my life.
AkasaMedia: If you could change one thing about your past, what would it be?
Phoolan Devi: Before, when I was in my previous stages of life, I was always getting angry very quickly and was not able to adapt to society. If I could have done that differently from the very beginning, I could have stopped to talk to people, make room for people's differences, and live in society peacefully without being angry, with love in my heart. I really wish that I had never hurt anyone.
AkasaMedia: When I was preparing for this interview, I was looking on the internet, and I was surprised and disappointed, there was more information on the movie "Bandit Queen" than about the real woman. So my question is, how do you feel-it's like there's two people, the real woman, and then this creation-how do you feel about that?
Phoolan Devi: It's unfortunate that they don't talk much about me, they don't write much about me, the real Phoolan Devi. Of course the movie is also a part of the story of my life, but it's not the real thing. I wish they could have done it more realistically. I also wonder why they focus so much on the movie, instead of on the real person.
AkasaMedia: I read that before there was some legal, some lawsuits with the movie, is that still continuing?
Phoolan Devi: The case is over, I've withdrawn it. What I wanted was that, in India, they shouldn't show four scenes of the movie. One was the rape scene. They should not show that, because people feel very disturbed about it-society can't take it.
AkasaMedia: And why did you withdraw the case?
Phoolan Devi: There's a lot of pressure from many people, many sources, they wanted me to withdraw the case. So we signed an agreement in court, that I would withdraw the case on certain conditions: They would not show four scenes that I specified; at the time they were planning to produce another series about me, and they also agreed to stop that; and also they agreed not to write anything further about me without my permission.
AkasaMedia: So the four scenes were deleted?
Phoolan Devi: Yes, so I didn't continue fighting this case.
AkasaMedia: I understand that you are now a Buddhist-is that correct?
Phoolan Devi: Yes [smiling brightly].
AkasaMedia: How long have you been a Buddhist?
Phoolan Devi: Since 1994. Soon after I was released from prison.
AkasaMedia: And I understand that many people from India's lower castes have converted to Buddhism. Do you feel that this is a successful way for them to leave some of the difficulties of the caste system?
Phoolan Devi: Though it can't solve all the problems, at least people who have been discriminated against-for example, they haven't been allowed to go to the temples where the higher caste go--at least they have their own god, their own faith, their own belief. They have the freedom to choose the god that they want to worship. And they want to worship and share those temples or shrines with people, regardless of their caste. As a Buddhist, the power of the higher castes over people from lower castes is decreased.
AkasaMedia: So there's freedom within the religion, not within the larger Indian society so much? Or does it help within the context of the caste system also, outside of religion?
Phoolan Devi: (vehemently) No. If Buddhism could succeed in changing Indian society, I would be very happy, but it is impossible. Because the roots of discrimination according to the caste system are very deep. It has become a mess.
AkasaMedia: Even though you are a Buddhist, do you still consider Durga to be your protector and guide?
Phoolan Devi: [Quickly, smiling vibrantly] Yes, I worship Durga.
AkasaMedia: So Buddhism in India is very open, it's also possible to worship, for example, Durga and other deities
Phoolan Devi: It is not allowed. But I don't worship other Hindu gods, only Durga (laughing). I allow myself that.
AkasaMedia: While you were in government, do you feel that you were able to achieve something, any of the goals that you went there to achieve?
Phoolan Devi: No, no, no, I couldn't achieve them. It was only one and a half years. I wanted to do a lot, but I couldn't. I managed to do a few things. But, first of all, there was a legal case against me at that time, and also my health was not so good. And there was a warrant out for my arrest during that time.
AkasaMedia: From Uttar Pradesh?
Phoolan Devi: Yes, for two or three months. Also I was operated on three times during my term, for stomach problems, for gall stones.
AkasaMedia: You said you were able to achieve a little bit - what were you able to achieve?
Phoolan Devi: I was able to provide some comfort for people in small villages, like the one where I am from. I was able to set up some schools. In some villages, we were able to provide drinking water, or build some roads. It was really very little, although the people were very satisfied with what we managed to contribute.
In my home village, there are no production lines or industries, though there are some handicrafts, people make things like carpets and saris. I had hoped that two or three factories would be built there so that people could be employed there, to solve the unemployment problem they have. But unfortunately it was impossible.
AkasaMedia: In your opinion, why was your re-election campaign unsuccessful?
Phoolan Devi: Those days the BJP [editor's note: the Bharatiya Janata Party-an "extreme right-wing" party, according to India's Business Standard newspaper] were in power, and they manipulated a lot of things. Allegedly there were a lot of ballots missing, 70,000 ballots were reported missing. But it was not so. The ballots were seized and used by the BJP candidates, counted several times over as votes for them. These were votes that I'd gotten, but they were used by the BJP candidates. The BJP said the ballots were lost, but they weren't, really - they got their hands on them and manipulated them, used the votes for themselves. They seized many ballot boxes.
AkasaMedia: Are there any legal implications for this?
Phoolan Devi: It's all illegal. If you have manpower and gun power, you can do anything you want in Uttar Pradesh. That's the main way of doing things there. I'm still fighting this case now; it's reached the high court. I was fighting in my own parliamentary district.
There's mafia in Uttar Pradesh, and many scandals going on. Three people, three of my party workers were murdered in my district during the elections. There's so much injustice there. The BJP have burned and looted many villages, and raped many women from my side. But since the government was dominated by the BJP, nobody can do anything. Because the BJP has the power.
AkasaMedia: So the BJP are the ones who do the investigating?
Phoolan Devi: Yes, and they end up manipulating the case, because all the high-ranking officers are from that party. .
AkasaMedia: What about the press? Does the press, the media cover this kind of thing in India?
Phoolan Devi: The media really wrote the truth, they wrote about all the incidents and all the ballots that were lost, everything. But what happened? Nothing, because of the government holding power. In India the media only covers what happens amongst high-caste peoples. A partiality between the high and low caste peoples still exists there, and the media are paid to maintain that. They're paid to write only about those high-ranking peoples. That's a big problem that we have.
AkasaMedia: But this is a case that's in the courts now?
Phoolan Devi: Yes.
AkasaMedia: Do you expect to win this case?
Phoolan Devi: [Decisively] I expect justice from the courts. AkasaMedia: Are you able to return now to Uttar Pradesh? Phoolan Devi: Two months ago, after twenty years, I was able to return to UP for the first time. All the villagers, men and women, were crying. Even my enemies came and shook my hand. AkasaMedia: Even though the court case is not finished, you can still go back? Phoolan Devi: Yes, the case is still running, but I can go back. I wasn't banned from returning by the government, but it was just too dangerous for me to go back.
AkasaMedia: What is it you hoped to achieve in Parliament? Do you plan to run again?
Phoolan Devi: Of course! I want to fight, and follow my goals and aims. The things that only the rich and privileged have enjoyed until now, those things should also be given to the poor. That's what I want to achieve, that's my main goal.
AkasaMedia: What do you mean, specifically, what kind of things?
Phoolan Devi: For example, drinking water, electricity, schools, and hospitals. There should be at least one hospital for twenty small villages. Right now, there's only one hospital for an entire district, so only the wealthier people who live in the big cities have the privilege of using those facilities. The poorer rural people don't. That's what I want for people.
AkasaMedia: So how many of India's people are still living in these small villages, about what percentage?
Phoolan Devi: According to books, 70 to 80 percent of the Indian population still lives in such villages.
AkasaMedia: And your home state of Uttar Pradesh is made up mostly of such villages? Or also big cities?
Phoolan Devi: UP is the biggest state in India, and the population is too great, compared to other states. This, however, gives UP a high number of seats in Parliament. Most of the people in UP live in villages.
AkasaMedia: While you were in Parliament, there were a number of other parliamentarians from the lower caste as well. Do you feel that you were able to make some progress during that time, on the issue of caste?
Phoolan Devi: No, no one could do that, because most of MPs are of the higher caste. Together, all the lower caste parliamentarians only make up 17%. So the higher castes are all trying to keep their status there. Though I and the other people are of the same idea--we want to just eliminate the caste system. For example, I could go to your house -you're of higher caste, but I could go and eat with you and you could eat with me. I could marry your daughter or son, and you could marry my daughter or son, this kind of inter-caste marriage, or eating, or mixing. We want that, but we can't achieve it. There's total resistance, because people have their own interests at heart.
AkasaMedia: And how about for women? There are a lot of articles in the international media which say that, with capitalism, the status of women is rising in India. How do you feel about that?
Phoolan Devi: It's still a male-oriented society, so women are kept under the veil and inside the house, and they have not been given equal status in society. What I want is that there should be reserved seats for women in government posts. And women should be educated at schools. People should not force them to get married at a very young age. In India there's child marriages, even girls as young as only 10 years old are married off to someone! That system should be abolished. They should be educated and they should be brought up in such a way so that they can stand on their own and decide their future for themselves. Whether they are a boy or a girl, they have the full right to decide their own future.
AkasaMedia: Are many people receptive to your ideas, these ideas, or are you still in a very small minority?
Phoolan Devi: There are people supporting the same ideas, but still there's really a lot of reservation. If five to ten per cent of people support these ideas about women, and fight for them or speak loudly about their beliefs, other people will say, "He's out of his mind." In the big cities now, changes are happening and women are beginning to get better status, but not in the villages.
AkasaMedia: But sometimes even women don't have the confidence. They have trouble believing, "Yes, I can decide my own future." So it's difficult for them to make their own lives, even if it's possible. So what kind of advice would you give to such women?
Phoolan Devi: In India, if, for example, a limited number of girls get educated and start working, then people start making stories about them: "Look, they're messing around." So my advice to such women is: don't be afraid of such rumors-face it boldly and bravely.
AkasaMedia: But some women give up, because it seems so difficult. So what is your advice for such women?
Phoolan Devi: I give this advice to such women: Just throw away the veil, come out! Fight until the end of your life! If the fight is against your father, then fight him. If it's against society, then fight society. If it's your son who will stop you, then fight against your son. Against anyone who will stop you, you must fight to the end.
AkasaMedia: So, freedom.
Phoolan Devi: If they want their freedom, they have to fight their family, and society.
AkasaMedia: I understand that one of your favored causes is safety of women, the protection of women against violence. What are your thoughts on this, especially for rural women?
Phoolan Devi: Women have to protect themselves. For example, if they are treated in a bad way, assaulted--sexually assaulted or assaulted in any way--they have to fight. They shouldn't keep quiet, they shouldn't think, "If I take my case to the police about this, if I go to court, people will say I'm bad." That's no good. Don't keep quiet. Get up. Fight for your cause, for yourself. Don't let other people snatch your freedom, snatch your dignity. You have to protect yourself. If you keep quiet, you can't. But if you fight, you can do it.
AkasaMedia: You also formed Eklavya Sena, an organization that teaches women and men of the lower caste self-defense. Does that organization still exist? Phoolan Devi: [smiling] Yes! It's still going on, the school teaches them boxing and lati, fighting with sticks. I can't spend a lot of money on the project, but in small schools in villages I'm trying to teach girls so that they can protect themselves. Also I've supported many schools in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, states that are running such programs. I also tell women to get themselves educated. I tell them that, when they get married, they shouldn't have many babies, just one or two, educate them well, and let them determine their own lives. AkasaMedia: And how do people respond to that?
Phoolan Devi: The response of the people is very good, very positive; a lot of people donate money and help us.
AkasaMedia: Do you feel that being a politician is the best way for you to work?
Phoolan Devi: It is not necessary, but if you are in politics, you're close to people, and things can be accelerated, your work can happen faster. But it's not necessary.
AkasaMedia: What would you like your legacy to be? What do you most want to achieve in this lifetime?
Phoolan Devi: For myself, I don't want anything; God has given me so much.
AkasaMedia: And if you could do something, of service?
Phoolan Devi: For people I really want, first of all, the most important thing is equality. So that people can get employment, they can get proper food and drink, and also to be educated. And especially women-now they are really treated as shoes! Very low, that is. They shouldn't be treated that way. They should be treated on an equal basis. And like other countries that have progressed and have comforts, I also want my country and my people to progress that way.
AkasaMedia: You've had a very difficult life and many bad things have happened to you. So how do you handle your anger, how do you keep from being angry and bitter?
Phoolan Devi: When I was a child, I was very simple. And in my later childhood, since I was treated very badly - at the age of ten I was married - I started fearing people, I was afraid of everything, men especially. Then that fear later on changed to anger, because I couldn't bear it anymore. Then I came to know that anger is bad, it hurts people, and it's a negative thing. Especially during the time when I was in prison, I said to myself, "No, I shouldn't hurt people. Hurting people, I give nothing. It's not good. I have to have contact with families, with people, with society, and look upon society in a positive way." Now, when I get angry, I just remember those times, those realizations, and I just overcome my anger.
AkasaMedia: Who is your inspiration, who are the people who give you inspiration?
Phoolan Devi: Inspiration comes from inside my heart, not from anyone or anything external. When I was a child, I spent all of my time inside the house, so I didn't know much about the outside world. And at the age of 16 I was kidnapped by the bandits, and then for four years I lived in the Chambral Valley. Then I was in jail. So I was not in touch with people, I had no chance to learn about people who I could look up to. So it's all from the inside.
AkasaMedia: How do you find that more privileged women in India, higher-caste women, more sophisticated women-in terms of education and wealth-relate to you? Now you're very famous, and you were born into a low caste. How do these other women treat you?
Phoolan Devi: Whenever they meet me, they are all smiles, and very polite, and treat me very well. They say, "You fight for women." But what they actually think, I don't know.
AkasaMedia: What do you feel they think?
Phoolan Devi: They think that I am also a woman.
AkasaMedia: So they respect you.
Phoolan Devi: Yes, they respect me.