Phoolan Devi: Bandit Queen, Activist, Goddess

The Dalit leader instilled fear in men and fought for her beliefs. So why do many depict her as a victim?

GettyImages-2989093 phoolan devi
MIRZAPUR, INDIA, 24 April 1996, Phoolan Devi, backed by a bodyguard and supporters, stops during her political campaign to be photographed. (RAVEENDRAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Vaishnavi Naidu


April 15, 2024


14 min

When Phoolan Mallah was born in 1963 in Uttar Pradesh, her father and mother considered her a great misfortune. She was their second girl, with no boys in sight (a boy would come, but only after the fourth girl). And so, her father Devidin lost some 14 of his 15 acres of land to his elder brother and nephew, Maiyadin. Maiyadin and his father felt Devidin wouldn’t protest since he had no strong, older son and only girls.

But they didn’t expect Phoolan’s wrath. As young as age 7, she publicly berated Maiyadin, a man in his 20s, and organized a sit-in on the disputed land. Maiyadin tried to drive her away, but she refused. He had to pick up a brick and beat her unconscious, sealing her fate. Many would try but fail to curb the multitudes of the stubborn girl with a strong sense of right and wrong. She would become India’s most notorious outlaw, a member of parliament, and a champion of Dalit and women’s rights — all within her short 37-year life.

Join today to read the full story.


Already a subscriber? Log in