In February 1983, Phoolan Devi, a young woman of 26 and India's most wanted bandit, laid down her weapons before portraits of Mahatma Gandhi and the goddess Kali, and embraced the feet of the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh in an act of negotiated surrender. This ceremony, which took place in front of a crowd of more than 70,000 people in a remote village in northern India, had been organized by the local chief of police with the full support of Mrs Gandhi, who was fighting her last election campaign. Basing her account on Phoolan Devi's diaries and letters, on interviews with her and her family, police records and eye-witness accounts, Mala Sen tells the story of Phoolan Devi's extraordinary life from defence of her father's land rights as a child, through arranged marriage at 11, revolt at 18 and kidnap and rape by dacoits (bandits) at 21, to her sudden emergence as a gang leader and a living legend. Operating from the ravines along the Chambal River - the river of revenge - Phoolan Devi had much to avenge.
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Born into poverty in the notoriously lawless Chambal Valley in Northern India, Phoolan Devi has become one of the most famous bandits in India's history, a living legend – 'The Goddess of Flowers', champion of the oppressed, revered by millions.
As a child of the lowly Nishad caste she fought for her father's land rights – an unprecedented action for a woman. Her subsequent refusal to tolerate an arranged marriage put her beyond the pale, and as a punishment she was kidnapped by a dacoit (bandit) gang. Many would not survive such brutality, but within a year Phoolan emerged as the leader of her own band, and soon became one of the region's most notorious bandits.
In revenge for the murder of her lover, and her own rape, she is said to have been responsible for the murder of 22 high-caste Hindu men. Phoolan made powerful enemies, and the police net closed in on her until she finally surrendered – on her own terms, in front of thousand of people – in 1983. She faced 55 criminal charges, including murder, and was sentenced to eight and a half years in jail. But she was now a political pawn, and it was not until February 1994 that Phoolan was finally released, to the discomfort of many high-caste Thakurs, and the unbounded joy of Uttar Pradesh's lower castes.
"Mala Sen's vivid account documents the extraordinary creation of a female outlaw and the failure of legal systems the world over to comprehend women offenders."
HELENA KENNEDY, QC
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