By Anthony Bruno
Another St. Valentine's Day Massacre
On February 14, 1981, 18-year-old Phoolan Devi had only one thing on her mind: revenge. Waiting outside the remote village of Behmai on the Yamuna River in northern India, a band of about 20 dacoits (bandits) waited for her instructions. The dacoits were from three different gangs, but their goal was the same: to hunt down the treacherous Ram brothers, Sri Ram Singh and Lala Ram Singh. Sri Ram was a vicious gang leader who had spent time in prison. He was the focus of Phoolan Devi’s lust for justice because he had murdered her lover, Vikram Mallah, as she slept by his side.
Phoolan Devi wearing bandit gear
Slight in build but strong and agile, Phoolan wore a military-style khaki jacket, denim jeans, and zippered boots. Her dark, straight hair was cut short, ending at her neck. By some accounts, she was wearing lipstick and red nail polish. A wide red bandana—the symbol of vengeance— was tied around her head, covering her hairline and brows. She carried a Sten rifle and a bandolier across her chest. While she mourned for her lover, she did not want to be treated as a woman. She wanted her comrades to think of her as a man because she wanted the kind of revenge only a man could achieve in India’s caste-bound society. She had told them to call her “Phool,” the masculine version of her given name. She and her band of dacoits had spent the night in the nearby hamlet of Ingwi. As morning broke, Phoolan, her close lieutenant Man Singh, and Baba Mustakim, a fellow dacoit leader, planned their attack on Behmai. Most of Behmai’s population was thakurs, the land-owning caste and the second highest in the Indian system. Sri Ram was a thakur, and though he had once been allied with Phoolan and Vikram, he had always looked down upon them because they were mullahs, the fishermen’s’ caste and one of the lowest. Though just a teenager, Phoolan Devi had been victimized by the caste system her entire life, treated as either a servant or a sex object. Because she was so outspoken in her objections to the men who oppressed her, she had been frequently beaten, bound, imprisoned, and raped. A dacoit gang had kidnapped her from her village, but she soon became one of them, showing that she could be as ruthless and bloodthirsty as any man. But unlike the other bandits who infested the northern states of India, Phoolan Devi did not steal for her own enrichment. Like Robin Hood, she stole from the rich and gave to the poor, particularly poor women. Her inspirations were the Durga, the Hindu goddess of shakti, strength and power, and Mohandas K. Gandhi, the Indian statesman and humanitarian who had fought for equality among all people. Dacoit gangs have a long history of preying on travelers and looting villages in the northern states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, which borders on Nepal. The region is characterized by its wild and rugged landscapes—mountains, maze-like ravines, desolate valleys, and uncharted jungles. To this day, buses travel in armed caravans to fight off likely raids. Some believe that the bandits who thrive in these states have been driven to criminality by extreme poverty and the inability to overcome the strictures of the caste system. Others believe that they are just the dregs of society, criminals by nature that, like the Mafia, has learned the benefits of organization. But Phoolan Devi was unique. She was an idealist who sought to right the wrongs of society. She was also a passionate woman who had never known love or respect until she met Vikram Mallah. She swore never to rest until she avenged his murder. Now, after months of searching for Sri Lam, she had finally found him. One of her men had learned that he was hiding out in Behmai, and she was determined to capture him there. She and the other bandit leaders decided to split their force into three units. One would take the direct path to the village and attack...