Remember Bandit Queen, that much-touted Indian film about the life and crimes of dacoit Phoolan Devi? Publicized as one woman’s rebellion against the depredations of caste and class, it was banned for a while in India, won several awards abroad, and went to video. The real life devi (“goddess”), meanwhile, became a member of the Indian Parliament after serving a shortish sentence, the cushy terms of which she had negotiated as part of her surrender over a decade ago. She still makes headlines. Most recently, it was because she forced a train to make an unscheduled stop by having her goons threaten the operator dacoit-style, knife blade to throat. And she still makes drawing-room conversations: My father’s book club met last evening to discuss literature; they discussed Phoolan instead. Phoolan, and one Veerappan, who’s well on his way to becoming India’s next bandit-export.
Veerappan’s beat covers about 4,000 square miles of forest spread over three South Indian states. He started his criminal career in the 1970s as an elephant poacher, then graduated to sandalwood smuggling. Credited with committing hundreds of murders and buying passels of politicians, he even looks the part: swarthy, wild-haired, mightily mustached.
Talk of his surrender has been rife since Veerappan and his gang kidnapped nine forest officials five days ago. Twenty-four hours after the abduction, he sent two of the three state governments a tape-recorded list of 11 demands, giving them eight days to respond. Weirdly, brilliantly, the list hinges on his surrender, to the terms of which he tied the hostages’ release. It is clear, moreover, that he aims to trump Phoolan: He will turn himself in, he says, but only to the president of India (the devi settled for a state chief minister). Among his other demands: VIP prison digs, an unconditional guarantee of safety, full freedom to market his life story, government recognition of his claim to a stash of poached ivory in his possession. And so on. The press ridiculed him for two days; last morning, the two governments accepted his surrender. They haven’t conceded his demands, but the buzz is that they will, soon.
There was much table-thumping here last night. The consensus: The two state governments’ willingness to negotiate proved their venality, period. You could rationalize the rather generous terms of Phoolan’s surrender by extrapolating a social message from her story of rape at the hands of the village aristocracy. But Veerappan wasn’t raped–or, if he was, he isn’t telling. And what he does tell–a story of his having taken to crime after being wrongly accused of poaching–no one believes anyway. So what’s the deal?
India celebrates 50 years of independence next month, and the government is milking the occasion dry. The media are inundated with unnecessary details of preparations being made, and there is no escaping tall tales of progress. Increased access to goods and services in my country means that I can buy a Pepsi at the local betel-nut vendor’s, something I couldn’t do when I left several years ago. But the Pepsi Index falls short, you know. Our willingness as a people to Phoolanize politics proves only that we’ve lowered the bar. We’ve been down the peace-at-any-cost route already. Pax Britannica.