Phoolan Devi, the "bandit queen" of the lawless Chambal Valley in central India, surrendered herself and seven gang members today in an elaborately staged ceremony witnessed by several thousand cheering peasant admirers.
Devi, whose partly apocryphal criminal and sexual adventures have titillated the Indian public ever since she was accused of participating in a massacre of 20 local landlords to avenge the murder of one of her gangster lovers by rival bandit leaders two years ago, formally gave herself up on a college campus stage in Bhind, 45 miles north of Gwalior, in Madhya Pradesh state.
In a uniquely Indian public spectacle, the short, 27-year-old dacoit (bandit) leader laid her .315-mm Mauser rifle at the feet of Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Arjun Singh, thereby ending a colorful chapter of rural Indian banditry.
Wearing blue jeans and a stolen police officer's blouse, her chest crossed by a belt of cartridges, Devi smilingly acknowledged the thunderous applause from an appreciative crowd, according to Indian news agency reports from Bhind.
She was followed onto the platform by her paramour, Man Singh. Another Chambal Valley gang leader, Baba Ghanshyam, 33, and 12 members of his band of outlaws surrendered along with Devi and members of her gang.
Police officials said that the surrenders had dealt a severe blow to lawlessness in the border area between Madhya Pradesh and the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh, where gangs have roamed freely, plundering villages and murdering.
Devi, whose name means "flower goddess" has been charged in 70 cases of banditry and is suspected of involvement in about 50 murders, putting her close in importance to her two more notorious predecessors, Putli Bai and Hasina, women dacoits who were both killed in shootouts with police.
So much of Devi's life has been obscured by fanciful accounts in the free-wheeling Indian newspapers that it is difficult to separate fact from fiction. One extraordinarily detailed--and prurient--account of her life was offered last year by the respected editor of the Hindustan Times, Kushwant Singh, who traced a harsh and violent childhood for Devi in which the peasant woman apparently developed a deep hatred for the landed Hindu castes.
The second daughter of a family of six of the lowly Mallah (boat people) Hindu caste, she was married off at the age of 12 to a 45-year-old farmer, repeatedly ran away from him and finally was dumped back on his doorstep by her family even though he had taken another wife.
Disgraced in her own village for leaving her husband and also for reputedly promiscuous behavior with many married men in the nearby lentil fields, by the age of 18 Devi was a discarded woman who reportedly said she once was urged by her mother to commit suicide by throwing herself in the village well.
In 1979, she disappeared with a local bandit chief, Babu Gujar, and eventually attracted the eye of a junior gang member, Vikram Singh, who, according to Devi lore, resented Babu Gujar's practice of raping Devi in front of other members of the band and sharing her with them. Vikram Singh is said to have shot his chief while he was asleep, taking over both the gang and Devi and teaching her to shoot and plunder during frequent raids of surrounding villages.
But a year later, two rivals for gang leadership and Devi's affections, brothers Sriram and Lalaram Singh, killed Vikram Singh, took Devi by boat to Behmai and held her captive for four days before she escaped, vowing revenge on the brothers and the Thakur caste village that she thought had sheltered them.
She got her revenge on the afternoon of Feb. 14, 1981, when, according to police accounts, she and a gang of 40 dacoits wearing stolen police uniforms crossed the Jumuna River and surrounded the dusty village of 50 families, most of them landlords.
Police said witnesses told them that when the gang was unable to find the Singh brothers, it herded 30 local men to the river bank and shot them. Twenty died.
In April, 1981, Devi and her newest bandit lover, Man Singh, eluded one of India's most massive antibandit manhunts, escaping into the hills of Uttar Pradesh after a 15-hour gun battle that left five of the gang dead and four policemen wounded.
The Associated Press reported that since 1981, Devi had lost 17 of her men in shootouts with police in Uttar Pradesh state and feared she would be slain if she tried to surrender there. She told reporters that she had agrreed to surrender in Madhya Pradesh in exchange for guarantees that she would not be sentenced to death and would receive good treatment in prison. AP quoted a police official as saying she had been promised only that she would receive "humane treatment" and that "the legal process will be followed."
Banditry in central India has its roots in the 12th century, when Anangpal, a Tomar king of Delhi who was ousted by his cousin took refuge in the Chambal Valley ravines and made frequent raids in an effort to reoccupy Delhi. With the decline of the Mughals and the annexation of Gwalior by the Marathas in the 18th century, lawlessness in central India increased, and even the British Army was unable to control it.
However, since 1960, the Indian government has mounted extensive antibandit operations in the harsh terrain, conducting massive and much publicized manhunts and occasionally arranging elaborate surrender ceremonies like today's.
Many peasants do not consider banditry to be heinous. The bandits are often called baghis, or rebels, and are romanticized in Hindi films.