Phoolan Devi: Perceptions of Power
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 fearless bandits with the crack of her whip. Did they really serve her because of her power over them, or did they work under her employ because the myth of Phoolan worked to their advantage as well?
In each of these cases against her possession of power she is argued to be a tool to focus power rather than the real source of the power itself. Does the source of power really matter as long as one retains the ability to wield it? There is no simple answer. The answer to the question "How do you calculate absolute power" is that you can not. It is an objective phenomenon based primarily on the two factors discussed at the beginning of this paper: belief and perception. The amount of power held by Phoolan Devi is largely dependent on the amount of power that she is perceived to possess. As long as Indian officials continue to see her as a figurehead of her caste, she will continue to have political power. As long as she is perceived as an icon of the rights of the oppressed, she will retain the power to inspire.
1974 Public and Private Politics: Women in the Middle Eastern World. American Ethnologist 1:551-563
Internet Newsgroup: Soc.Feminism 1/6/97 Posted by: [email protected]
Bandit Queen Directed by Shekhar Kapoor 1996
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