What was I born of? An act of love or an act of violence?
A question actress Seema Biswas asks in the 1994 Bollywood movie ‘Bandit Queen’. A very pertinent question which, if each of us ask ourselves, regardless of gender, will definitely go a long way in eradicating domestic violence against women.
The movie was based on Phoolan Devi’s life. India’s original female bandit. The most glamorous of all bandits. But, I must add, she was glamorous only because she was portrayed as someone who suffered before she stood up for herself. When speaking to The Atlantic in an interview, she said she is falsely shown as “a snivelling woman, always in tears, who never took a conscious decision in her life.” In reality, she was an unapologetic woman who was driven by anger at injustice, self- protection and vengeance against her rapists. She inspires us to fight back.
She reminds us that we have the right to fight back.
I have always considered her as my role model. No doubt, the Dalits give her the status of a legend. But people in my small world were always shocked to hear a little girl of 10 (me) claiming that I want to be like Phoolan Devi. They chided me and encouraged me to change my role model to someone more inspiring, but I could never understand how anyone could choose role models on someone’s recommendation. It has to come from within. I wanted to be like Phoolan Devi, not for the experiences (obviously!) but for her attitude in dealing with her challenges.
Phoolan Devi first fought against injustice at the age of 10 when her uncle and his son tried to take advantage of her father in a land dispute. She was beaten unconscious with a brick. Next thing she knew, she was trouble for her uncle and at his insistence she was married off at 11 years to a man thrice her age. After bearing the physical and sexual abuse for some time, she ran back home to escape. She was asked by her own parents to drown herself, since was not a virgin anymore and had left her husband.
She kept her fighting spirit through it all. She led a colourful life unapologetically and went on to become a bandit when she was kidnapped by a gang of dacoits from Chambal Valley. After getting kidnapped, she was repeatedly raped by the leader of the gang till Bikram Singh Mallah shot the leader and became the head of the gang. Phoolan Devi considered him her only true lover. He was the only one who treated her like a human being instead of a piece of flesh. After murdering Bikram Singh, a couple of his gang members, Shri Ram and Lala Ram, took her hostage in the village of Behmai and paraded her naked, repeatedly gang raping her till she ran away from there and joined another gang, at age 17. That is where she decided to take revenge and led the massacre of Behmai where 22 men were killed.
She got the status of Goddess Durga as she was the first Dalit woman to be able to avenge herself, speak up and even enter the Parliament. She was a legend who hated that girls were subjected to child marriage, rapes and other atrocities.
In her own words, she never killed without reason. She always punished wrongdoers. She had cut one rapist’s organ so he could not take advantage of any more Dalit women.
That is strength for me.
When you fight against injustice, not only for yourself, but for others, it shows compassion and empathy for others. Though she took the law in her own hands at her own risk (and paid for it), she was brave enough to stand up for herself and other women.
By the high Indian standards decided for women, Phoolan Devi was no doubt colourful, had a lot of affairs and faced a lot of abuse. By general parlance, she is not the right person to look up to. But to me, she had the courage to stand up for herself. She never sold herself short because she was a woman or she was ‘low caste’ but stood up for her own beliefs. The right to fight back is not only for women who are ‘moral’ and ‘good’. It is for everybody. Empowerment is for everybody too, regardless of what anyone does once they have the power.
What decides our course of action once we have that power, is guided by our values. But that is a topic for another day.