Gender as Political Construct: The Phoolan Devi Experience

Abstract: Phoolan Devi has been proclaimed a perpetrator of crime and violence and hence declaimed by the masses in India. An interesting fact is her establishment as a favourite cult figure and her deification as a reincarnation of Durga and Shakti. This paper argues that Phoolan Devi can be viewed only as a victim of gender discrimination interlocked with caste oppression and sexual abuse. Aspects of gender and caste are discussed, not based on any theoretical stand but from a perspective based on her autobiography I, Phoolan Devi.

Keywords: violence/ crime against women, patriarchy, discrimination, dalit rights, caste/class exploitation, Phoolan Devi, sexual abuse, women rights, dalit movements

There are two basic evaluations of Phoolan Devi’s life. One is that she is a perpetrator of crime and violence and hence declaimed by the masses in India. The other is her establishment as a favourite cult figure and her deification as a reincarnation of Durga and Shakti. However the contention of this article is in opposition of these two claims. My argument is that Phoolan Devi can be viewed only as a victim of gender discrimination interlocked with caste oppression and sexual abuse. In this article I will consider aspects of gender and caste not based on any theoretical stand but from a perspective based on her autobiography .
I, Phoolan Devi, I will also discuss issues closely intertwined with gender namely caste and sexual violence.

Hailing from the Chambal Valley of Uttar Pradesh, Phoolan Devi, a victim of caste and gender exploitation tried to negotiate her way in a world where the issues between men and women are complicated and highly entrenched. My argument is that the recurrent acts of exploitation, discrimination and inhumanity that Phoolan Devi was subject to and the total apathy of the administration which always favoured the powerful induced her to take law into her own hands.

In spite of deification, Phoolan Devi’s story is one of social inequities and injustices within the existing patriarchal system. The main source of this article is her autobiography I, Phoolan Devi published by Marie Terese Cuny and Paul Rambali which throws light on the atrocious acts of crime committed against women like Phoolan Devi in rural areas of India. Her whole life seems to have been a political construct.

Gender discrimination in India has been an intrinsic part of norms of the Indian tradition. The oft-quoted and most authoritative Hindu law book, the Code of Manu declares woman to be deceitful, evil and prone to immoral behaviour and therefore in need of severe disciplining at every stage in her life from a close male relative. Furthermore, the status of women as a whole is clearly defined, for they are unambiguously equated with the Sudras as for example in Manu, XI, 153. Even the Gita places women, Vaisyas and Sudras in the same category and describes them all as of being of sinful birth. Hence woman has always been relegated to a subservient position and status as her husband’s ward and property. This view of female sexuality was closely interrelated with four conceptually separable dimensions. First woman’s uncontrollable sexual desire was assumed to awaken at puberty and had to be harnessed into a legitimate sphere through marriage. Second women’s consent in the choice of her partner was immaterial. However the husband’s polygamous options and extra marital sexual freedom was unquestionable. Third the woman was an object of sexual gratification–her consent to sexual intercourse being implied in the act of marriage. Fourthly the woman was also an instrument of procreation and this sacred duty was enforced through rules mandatory for sexual intercourse immediately on the girl attaining puberty (Uberoi 267). The first two of these dimensions, namely child marriage and abuse and lack of choice in the selection of a mate, are central in Phoolan’s case.

Male gender identity is not only sexist but also rapist and women in India have been the victims of patriarchal sexual practices whether it is through the exploitation of landlords, caste atrocities or in marital rape. The history of patriarchal gender construction maintains a status quo in which women are confined to a rigid code of conduct and any attempt to challenge this is considered deviant behaviour. Women like Phoolan often bear the violent marks of caste, ethnic and national imaginations since the system to which she is exposed is violence generated–a corollary of a hegemonic monolithic structure. As Nadine Taub has argued ‘rules formulated in a male oriented society reflect male needs, male concerns and male experience’ (Menon 218).

Though women’s movements in India have been actively agitating against sexual violence by demanding more effective legislative reforms, they have been partial and conservative and serve only to support patriarchal power structures. My point is that the law needs to reflect on a serious basis on the reality of women’s experiences.

She claims in the foreword of the autobiography I, Phoolan Devi that the book is the first testimony that a woman of her community had succeeded in making public her experiences. She states, ‘It is an outstretched hand of courage to the humiliated and downtrodden, in the hope that a life like my own may never repeat itself ’ (Cuny et al Foreward). Phoolan Devi’s life delineates that in spite of the formal equality enshrined in the Indian Constitution, the lives of Indian women continue to be one of pervasive discrimination and inequality. Article 14 of the Indian constitution ensures equality before the law and equal protection under the law. Article 15 (1) prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex and place of birth. The focus ‘on the grounds only of sex’ has been used primarily to uphold legislation that provides preferential treatment to women. Ratna Kapur and Brenda Cossman point out that the law dealing with sex discrimination raises its own issues. The notion of equality based on sameness has led to the focus of gender difference based on three approaches which in itself depict the problematic nature of difference. The protectionist approach emphasizes the weakness of women and reinforces their subordinate status. The connective approach specifies special treatment for women while the sameness approach validates that women be treated the same as men (Kapur & Cossman qtd in Menon 197-219). Hence all three approaches only serve to perpetuate the difference.

Article 15(3) provides that the state is free to make any special provision for women and children. Hence in such an environment women can survive only if they conform to male values and standards.

Gender discrimination is evident at all stages in Phoolan’s life. As an unwanted daughter her status in the family was downgraded. Girls in rural North India are denied any formal education and so her life was one of relentless toil in the fields and at home and for others in the village including the Pradhan. Madhu Kishwar states in her book Off the Beaten Track , ‘the family as an economic unit sees these daughters as burdensome on account of dowry and the limited employment opportunities for women’(87). Belonging to the Shudra sub- caste of boatmen, her family was constantly at the mercy of the upper class Thakurs who persistently tormented them. Attention must be drawn to the fact that the father, a weak and submissive man had internalized the social hierarchy and yielded before the caste Hindus. This shows that the psycho cultural acceptance and observance of caste distinctions proves more powerful than the physical force of the upper castes. Terror and violence constituted Phoolan’s childhood and it is to her credit that she has survived the cruel poverty and degradation of her circumstances.

Since Phoolan’s caste mandates that women are mere instruments of procreation she was married off at the age of eleven to Putti Lal, a widower in exchange for a cow and a paltry sum. Since then she became the property of the man–a girl who hardly knew what marriage meant. Phoolan ‘a rag doll at his mercy’ was thus exposed to a life of rape and violence. She is unable to protest since in Hindu custom, marital rape does not exist. In India rape by the husband is not taken cognizance of since the woman is her husband’s property. Sexual performances in which people are involved against their will are traumatic as depicted in Phoolan’s life. The laws, which are coded to protect women’s rights are completely misogynist and fail to comprehend what sexual assault means to a woman. One of the leading activists against rape, Flavius Agnes has pointed out ‘in the condition of rape women stand outside the power equations between the state and the accused’ (Menon 213) and hence the need for a new definition of rape. Menon in Gender and Politics states that in the laws on rape and marriage, women’s rights to property etc, the Indian state reveals itself to uphold patriarchal values(16). Violence is made possible because the woman in Indian society has always been viewed as an object of enjoyment.

The various feminist movements in India have been successful in effecting some legislative changes but punishments in rape cases are very few. These movements have recognized the need for the law to focus more on the reality of women’s experiences and to understand the body as a natural and physical object and sex as a phenomenon that exists prior to all discourse(Bose 201). Phoolan Devi as a woman positioned at the bottom of India’s caste and gender hierarchies is helpless to protest at the indignities heaped on her since her husband employs rape as gender cleaning.

Rape is used as a weapon of domination and repression whereby she is allocated to her proper place. The intended effect of rape is always the same: to utterly break the spirit of the rape victim, to drive her out of her body and out of her mind so as to render her incapable of resistance. Unable to withstand the abuse and violence, Phoolan broke the code of conduct prescribed for an Indian woman and returned to her village. However here too she was ostracized and shunned as an errant woman since she had broken the normal codes. Phoolan declares in her autobiography ‘I was discovering piece by painful piece how my world was put together, the power of men, the power of privileged castes, the power of might. I didn’t think of what I was doing as rebellion, it was the only means I had of getting justice’ (Cuny et al 154). An online edition of the Hindu states ‘Thousands of Phoolans are being raped by upper caste men every year especially in Northern India and the police cannot take action against them because they are landlords and have close contact in Delhi’ (Yadav para 2).

Phoolan’s second protest, again concerning territory, led to her gang rape at the behest of her cousin Maiyadin in front of her parents. Considered a promiscuous woman and a dacoit by the villagers she was persistently tormented by her cousin and arrested on charges of robbery. Repeatedly beaten and raped while in custody, she had to take resource to anger as her weapon to outwit the violators. Hers is not a singular case since Dalit women like Phoolan are frequent victims of custodial rape.

The extreme vulnerability of Dalit women to violence is rooted in the structural precariousness of their social, political and economic positions. Section 376 (2) of the Indian Penal Code mandates minimum sentence for agents who rape women in custody but loopholes in law allow the judiciary to sidestep the mandatory sentencing. Women are faced with daunting obstacles in prosecuting cases of rape since the judicial system is not easily accessible to them. According to Human Rights Watch World Report 2000, violence against women in India has continued. The judgments are based on patriarchal notions of a woman’s virtue and chastity. Feminists have formulated their own definition of rape whereby i) rape is violence, not sex, ii) rape is violence, but a unique form of violence because of its sexual character and iii) rape is violence and violence precisely is sex (Menon 204-205). Amendments to the Rape law was carried out in 1993 on behalf of The National Commission of Women taking into account the full range of crimes against women. However it needs to be pointed out that such crimes fall within the jurisdiction of the state and are not civil cases. This naturally means apathy on the part of the Government and the possibility of misinterpretation. Hence the failure of the judiciary to protect the rights of women like Phoolan. People respond to rape in different ways and Phoolan adopted what is termed in psychology as the ‘fight or flight method.’ Since she could not avoid her molesters she could only strike back in anger and hence was forced to don the garb of a dacoit in the Chambal valley. There is an urgent need for redefinition of laws since women in Indian society are still not considered as individuals with a right to bodily integrity but mere pawns to perpetrate patriarchal systems of property and descent.

Through this article my efforts are directed to create a space in which the voices of women, especially the voices of oppressed Dalit women like Phoolan Devi may be heard. Born a female into a poor low caste Mallah family in 1963 in Gurha-Ka- Parwa in Uttar Pradesh, her life centred round a series of protests. Her story reflects the continuation of Dalit slavery and the failure of the Indian state to implement land reforms and give land to the landless. Anupama Rao states that both caste and gender are involved in the formation of intimacy and desire among other things and indicate how the political life of a citizen depends on deeply personal issues of the body and its expression. I firmly believe that Phoolan’s story is a significant site for understanding the operation of Brahminical male power in modern India The preamble to the National Federation of Dalit Women at the World Conference against Racism held in South Africa in 2001 specially emphasizes the need for an articulation of the specific rights of Dalits, indigenous peoples and other minorities in an increasingly hostile environment where the majority communities hold sway.

The women experiencing caste-based discrimination within South Asia and India in particular declared that state and non -state factors including family structures perpetuate this condition. They recognized the intimate connection between gender and distinct forms of racism in the Asian and Indian context in the treatment of Dalit women and other indigenous minorities. In India gross violence has been legitimized in the name of hindutva that has seriously eroded the functioning of the Indian Constitution (Rao 364-366). Hence the violation of the values enshrined in the constitution makes one of the largest democracies in the world under the threat of subversion.

Phoolan Devi’s life delineates the intimate connection between caste and gender codes. In India where everything revolves round the Hindu Brahmanical social dispensation, caste gives rise to dissension and division. The Dalits or Varna Sankara are outside the system. A victim of triple jeopardy, Phoolan Devi was alienated from society by caste, class and gender.

The noted Indian historian Uma Chakravarty in her pioneering essay ‘Conceptualising Brahmanical Patriarchy in Early India’ argues that patriarchy in the Indian context has to be situated in its relationship to other structures and within a historical context. Taking her cue from Gerda Lerner she claims that gender roles and identities emerge from and in turn constitute the social context of caste society. The control of women was secured through a mixture of coercion and consent.

Women had to observe their dharma, failing which their essential animality, their wild nature would take over their lives.(Chakravarty qtd in Geetha 92-93)Prof. Romila Thapur states, ‘It is interesting to note that whereas these texts (Dharma Sastra and similar literature) take great care to classify men with a minutiae of distinctions, women are generally treated as a unifirm category. It is revealed that Dalit males are refuters of Manuism but are followers of Manu in the matter of women.

The de facto position of Dalit women show all the advocates of being faithful followers of Manuism. Though the Indian Constitution has declared equality as a fundamental right we find the Dalit women are still the most economically deprived section of Indian Society( Pal167). Besides the civil rights violation and sexual exploitation, Dalit women in many parts of India also are denied educational and political rights. The mere granting of rights does not help to alter people’s attitudes and perceptions regarding those they consider inferior.

Branded a low–caste woman, Phoolan Devi’s life was ‘one of neglect in the feudo-patriarchal rule of landlords’ (Aujla.para 27). Always aware of the injustices meted out to her family and others, she is coerced into silence by the tenets of the superior caste system. Deprived of land and proper wages her family endures perpetual poverty. The people in this part of India live miserable, crushed, poverty ridden lives where caste is the defining parameter of social mobility and women are treated as mere chattel . Dietrich in her article ‘Dalit Movements and Women Movements’ claims that women were and are the gateways to the Caste system. She states ‘It is true that both the elite and populist currents of Hindu opinion and sensibilities regarding women carry a deep impress of mother goddess cults and forms of worship. But at the level of social reality, Hindu religion has so far functioned within the context of a caste society’ (Dietrich qtd in Bhagat para 1). Dalit literature has constructed dalit women in the similar patriarchal framework of ‘glorification of motherhood’ and overall subjugation of women. Her repeated rape, stripping and parading around naked and other forms of humiliation are gendered practices of sustaining the hegemony of caste, though Section iii(1)(xii) notes that the forceful attempt to dishonour a Dalit woman’s modesty constitutes an atrocity. Phoolan the dacoit, is thus forcibly born out of such denigrating circumstances of womanhood. Abducted by a gang of dacoits at the age of fifteen she was sucked into the brutish existence from which no release could be sought.

One can only assume that her proclamation of herself as Durga was a mask donned by her in order to escape the repeated ostracism by society. Kishwar states that one of the characteristic features of our culture is that men in India are habituated to faring and respecting strong female figures. The all-pervasive religious folklore of India has made available to women of India certain powerful forms of social protest which includes the socially and culturally sanctioned right to assume the Durga/Chandi type of deity. Men in India are trained and conditioned to accept and fear this aspect of women especially in a patriarchal religious tradition(171). By proclaiming herself a Durga, Phoolan probably desired to restore righteousness and order in her village. Durga in Hindu Mythology, the consort of Lord Shiva and the beautiful and ferocious embodiment of Shakti is the most important goddess of the Hindus. As Sati and Parvathi she is the perfect wife and as Kali she is the hideous personification of death. In all her forms Durga encompasses the essence of salvation and the inherent dynamic energy through which the Supreme Consciousness manifests itself. In the Sakta Tantra women share with the goddess a continuity of being since the Tantras do not contain gender discrimination and women are not subordinate to men(Bose14). They are all addressed as Ma or Devi which protects them from being looked down upon as sex objects. Through the narrative the text reverses the role of the Hindu woman and violates the model ascribed to her. Durga is never portrayed in a domestic context but as a battle queen playing a male role.

Hence it was a convenient role for Phoolan to cast off the aspersions of caste and gender through which she could project some of the fiercer aspects of womanhood and avenge her oppressors. Carol P Christ in an article ‘Why Women Need the Goddess’ states that spirituality can be deployed to affirm essential difference in a patriarchy and stresses the importance of women qua women. She points out that the four aspects of the Goddess is an affirmation of female power, the female body, the female will and women’s bonds and heritage. Considering these aspects Phoolan might have established herself a Durga to assert the legitimacy of female power as a beneficent and independent power. She might have been proclaiming that the saving power was within herself and men should no longer be looked upon as saviours. A second important implication of the Goddess symbol is the affirmation of the female body and the life cycle present in it. Another inherent meaning for Phoolan in her choice of Durga might have been the association with spell-casting and rituals. The goddess is the center or focus of power and energy that flows between beings in the natural and human world. She is also significant as a revaluation of woman’s bonds and heritage. Hence it may be deduced that by carrying a small idol of the goddess Durga Phoolan might have been struggling to get rid of ‘the powerful and, pervasive and long lasting moods and motivations of female power, denigration of the female body, distrust of female will and denial of women’s bonds and heritage that have been engendered by a patriarchal culture’(Christ qtd in Woodhead and Heelas127).

The Durga image continued in the ravines of the Chambal where she became the mistress of Vikram Mallah the dacoit leader.

The dacoit code gave credibility to Phoolan as the reincarnation of Durga to continue the saga of rampage. She states, ‘like the goddess Durga, I was driven by my hunger for justice, for revenge over demons. That was what gave me my strength’(Cuny 272). Her intuitive powers and her ability to read signs had many a time saved the gang from danger convincing everyone that she indeed was the reincarnation of Durga. In this role many paid homage to her including her cousin Mayadin. But she knew that it was all a farce and that the villagers ‘were afraid of power-any kind of power. That was the only thing they truly worshipped’ (Cuny et al 309). In spite of her status as a goddess there were moments when Phoolan felt insecure in the hierarchy of caste. She remarks, ‘I was lower than all of them, and the demons I had to slay were more devious. Whatever caste they belonged to they were all men’ (298). However the venomous anger surging within her urged her on in the acts of retribution.

Discrimination and injustice motivated Phoolan Devi to be implicated in the biggest gang massacre of twenty Thakurs–an act of vengeance for the murder of her paramour Vikram Mallah. Though she denied having led the gruesome charge she could never escape imprisonment. She learnt about the compromises one had to make with justice. Her surrender was extracted by cutting a deal with her and even in this public show of surrender she took care to bow before the portraits of Gandhi and Durga . By that time Phoolan had come to realize that nothing on earth would afford her peace.

Her imprisonment in jail for eleven years when cases were filed repeatedly against her by the upper caste Thakurs reveals the tenacity of caste and patriarchal rules. Luckily a minister came to her rescue and granted her pardon in 1994 withdrawing all criminal cases pending against her.

Her conversion to Buddhism in 1994 after her release must have been motivated by the desire to escape into a life of freedom from the nefarious caste system. Conversion is a symbolic act to define oneself, to assert oneself and to show that one does not accept what has been handed down. Buddhism is viewed as a rational religion without much emphasis on the centrality of God and the other world but stresses the importance of the human being and his problems. It arose as a challenge to Hinduism with its emphasis on ritual purity and the stratification of society. Phoolan felt that as a Buddhist the power of the upper castes over the lower castes is decreased.

Her plunge into politics again emphasizes the overall patriarchal character of India. Caste assertion within the domain of politics exemplifies how central caste is to Indian politics. Prof Majumder, a professor at Duke University feels that Phoolan Devi was not what legend paints her to be. To him she was neither a martyr nor a murderer but a cornered cat. He stated, ‘Many people think of her as a modern day Robin Hood but that is not the case. Under any circumstances Devi would have led an innocuous life’ (Mallik para7&8). He feels that she was elected to parliament due to a confluence of factors. ‘She was a woman, she was a fighter and she was someone the media could easily relate to’(Mallik 12). The decision to field her in Mirzapur in 1996 was primarily motivated by caste arithmetic. The constituency’s desire to unite the Mallahs and Julahas together and thus defeat the Thakurs proved successful when Phoolan Devi won by a convincing margin despite the vidwa march taken out by the widows of the twenty Thakurs massacred in Behmai in February 1981. Though Phoolan lost in the next parliamentary election in 1998 she swerved back to power in 1999. As a parliamentarian, she was actively engaged in the issue of women’s reservation and was vociferous on the atrocities committed against low-caste women. She exhorted women to fight for their cause and eliminate caste.At the UN world conference on women in 2000 she had in a written statement stated that women constitute 50 per cent of world population and they are the worst sufferers of exploitation. However she had her own misgivings about the system and felt that the world of politics was not much different from the world of dacoits. She told her biographer Mala Sen that she often felt that she was still working with crooks and bandits (Bhagat para 10). On her domestic front she was trapped in a loveless marriage since a divorce would mar her public image. Her growing concern for reaffirming the principle of equal rights by linking women in parliament and gender justice offended the Indian misogynists. Her cruel end can only be viewed as the depravity of male cunning and power.

Phoolan’s gruesome murder on July 25th2001 at the hands of masked assailants seem also to be imbued with drama. Her murder right at her doorstep in a strictly protected area evoked a lot of sympathy and even those parliamentarians who had shunned her whilst alive paid her homage. Different segments claimed her as their own but these were all cleverly construed acts of politicians. These men who had treated her like dirt while she was alive were eagerly waiting to devour her legacy. However as Ms. Bhagat states ‘her memory should not be tossed around like a politicized football’(Bhagat para 12). The manner in which the funeral was highjacked and insisted on being held in Mirzapur was atrocious. Her death was thus used as a trump card by the politicians in order to win votes. In her death too she had become a victim of caste politics. ‘In death as in life, she is little more than a foster child for the ambitious men in her life,’ writes columnist T. V. R. Shenoy seeing her as the product of a violent society (Shenoy para2).

At the Phoolan Devi International Memorial Committee to the eighteenth national convention of BAMCEF, the All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees held at New Delhi, the chairman Mr.Vidya Sagar paid tribute to her as a martyr of the rights of Dalits, women and all the oppressed in India and throughout the world. He stated, ‘Phoolan Devi takes her place in a long line of heroines from Joan of arc to Rosa Luxembourg and Winnie Mandela, who not only reminded the world of the oppression of their sex but demonstrated forcefully and logically that the battlefield and debating chamber are no longer a caste and sexist monopoly.’ He claimed that Phoolan Devi’s ‘exemplary life and supreme sacrifice will inspire tens of thousands, if not millions to liquidate classist, racist and sexist hegemony’ (Anand para1)

I firmly affirm that Phoolan’s life was one of reckless injustice and retribution–of how the family,community and society mould and construct a woman according to their politics. Her life is indeed a critique of gender as well as caste relations which dis-empowered the lower caste women .Her story is a window to the predicament of thousands of poor and marginalized women for whom constitutional provisions remain a mere dream in a nefarious, patriarchal caste ridden society.


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