Phoolan Devi: Perceptions of Power


Oni Akuma
02/17/97

The purpose of this paper is to analyze and index gender and power as they
factor into the life of one Dalit woman, Phoolan Devi. Particularly, I have
chosen to examine the idea of whether or not she wielded real power. In an
attempt to make it more useful to speak of this slippery thing called power, I
would like to make some declarations and pose some questions about its\' nature.
Cynthia Emerson has suggested that power is ultimately based on dependency
relationships (Emerson 1962). It is important to remember that almost all
manifestations of power require a power holder and at least one other party that
believes that the first holds power. I would like to stress the word
"believes" in the previous sentence because I think it is one of the key
ingredients in understanding relationships of power. I realize that in many
instances the power of the first party may not be undone merely by the second
party ceasing to accept it, and that the power of one individual over another
may sometimes be physically or otherwise inescapable. Often, the belief follows
the direct experience of power, but regardless of the order in which it is
conceptualized, I feel the nature of power is inextricably founded in belief and
perception.

One of the most striking characteristics of Phoolan Devi is her refusal to
accept her power-deficient positions in her relationships. From the time that
she was a child, she seems to have refused to conform to her society\'s
hierarchical indexing. She resisted attempts to categorize and fix her into
typical gender, class, and matrimonial positions. This is not to say that her
resistance was always successful, but I am trying to show a lack of willingness
to conform and accept her positions in her power relations. Her belief that the
status that had been prescribed to her was unjust and her reluctance to accept
it are key factors that led to her gaining power and breaking from her power
deficient relationships. Her belief in her upward mobility made it possible.
This belief in her self and resistance towards accepting the power forced on her
helped undermine that same power. This is the one factor that makes Phoolan so
different from so many of her Indian sisters that are still living under the
thumb of Manu\'s Code.

Does Phoolan Devi possess real power? So far we have considered
theoretical power in relationships, but what about physical manifestations of
power? The first example that comes to mind is the fact that over two hundred
items containing references to Phoolan Devi come up on my screen when I do an
Internet search on her name. Photographs, newspaper reviews, magazine articles,
newsgroup posts, all proving her power to reach out across the planet and touch
people or infuriate them, depending on an individual\'s personal philosophies.
Through her story many have become more conscious of the plight of her caste and
gender in modern India. She has the power to inspire and inform. I have read
on the Internet that she has been invited to the White House by the Clintons and
that veteran British Opposition Labour Party MP, Mildred Gordon, has nominated
her for the next Nobel Peace Prize. Activities of this type are usually
connected with what we think of as powerful people. In addition, she has
clearly shown her political power by getting elected to India\'s Parliament.
Among other things, she is currently attempting to use the momentum of that
power to introduce laws preventing child labor in rug-making factories.

But does all of this constitute genuine power? One could argue that she
herself does not posses the power to inspire, that it is an indication of how
the inspired are seeking an icon, a champion of their cause. Does her
membership in a low caste reduce her power or is it the backing of her caste
that is the source of it? And if the latter is the source, does that means that
the power lies in the solidarity of her caste and not within her? It could be
argued that if she possessed so much power, why did she remain incarcerated for
such a long period? Every major event in her public life, from her surrender to
her release ten years later, seems in some way connected to the political
aspirations of the Indian officials manipulating these events.

And what of her gang? The movie and myth seem to conjure up imagery of an
iron fisted woman driving a band of