In 1992 I did a very strange thing. I wrote to the 'Bandit Queen,' Phoolan Devi, who was languishing in an Indian jail. She had surrendered under a deal that should have led to her release the previous year. Although illiterate, she dictated a reply and we corresponded regularly. I gave her some help and advice. Phoolan was finally released in 1994. I met with her in India that year and we became friends. On my many visits to India in the following years I stayed and travelled with her. To further her desire to help the poor, and to improve the lot of women, she became an MP. I was able to gain an unusual insight into Indian society and its politics. Above all, though, this is the story of a friendship.
Phoolan Devi's life before her surrender was extraordinary. She was the second of six children born to poor low-caste peasants in the north central state of Uttar Pradesh. Unable to provide an attractive dowry, her parents married her off at the age of eleven to a much older man in a distant village. Although she had not reached puberty, he raped her. When she fled back to her own village she was forced to return to her husband. Meanwhile he had taken a new woman. The two of them kept Phoolan in slave-like conditions for several years. She escaped to her own village again. Although allowed to remain, she was the 'fallen woman.' Richer villagers propositioned her. When she refused, they arranged for her kidnap by bandits.
The gang leader wanted Phoolan as his mistress. Another bandit, from the same caste as Phoolan, killed him and he became her lover. Eventually Phoolan joined in the Robin Hood-like gang activities. Operating from the wild ravines of the Chambal Valley, they took from the mostly upper-caste rich and used some of the proceeds to buy support from the mostly lower-caste poor. They became heroes of the poor. Then they encountered an upper-caste gang of bandits. Phoolan's lover was killed. She was confined in an upper-caste village and raped by many men. She escaped and then assembled her own gang.
The gang became the scourge of the rich. They carried out many successful raids and evaded the police. Phoolan Devi became a legend. In 1981 some of her gang went back to the village where Phoolan had been held and raped. Twenty-two village men were killed. In the subsequent operation 2,500 policemen were deployed. Phoolan, with her knowledge of the ravines, and with herself and her gang in police uniform, avoided capture. Eventually, politicians offered her a surrender deal, under which she would spend no more than eight years in prison. She surrendered to the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh and, without trial, was incarcerated in Gwalior jail.
Holi festival of colour, 1994