Phoolan Devi

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The Independent Online

Phoolan Devi, bandit and politician: born Shekhpur Gudda, India 10 August 1963; twice married; died New Delhi 25 July 2001.

Phoolan Devi – known as the "Bandit Queen" – was one of India's most famous outlaws, implicated in one of the largest gang massacres in modern Indian history.

In a remarkable transformation, after spending more than 10 years in prison, in 1996 she was elected to the Indian parliament. There she tried to establish a reputation as a champion of the oppressed in India: she said that she represented people who like herself were exploited and abused by their social betters. Devi's criminal record and subsequent rehabilitation was made into a successful feature film, Bandit Queen (1994) in India (under the title Phoolan Devi) and the West.

She was born in the north of India into a poor and low-caste family. She married at 11 to a man three times her age but was abandoned by her husband and her family after the marriage broke down. By the time she was around 20 years old, she had been subjected to numerous sexual assaults and turned to a life of crime. She led a gang of robbers – or dacoits – that carried out a series of violent robberies in rural areas of north and central India in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Her supporters say that she targeted high-caste families and shared the spoils with the lower castes, but the Indian authorities insisted this was a myth.

Nevertheless she acquired a Robin Hood reputation as a robber of the rich to help the poor. At the height of Phoolan Devi's fame she was glorified by much of the Indian media which wrote tirelessly of her exploits. A doll was even manufactured in her honour, clad in police uniform with a bandoleer of bullets strapped across her chest.

Perhaps the most notorious incident in Devi's life took place in 1981 when her gang stormed an isolated village with the intention of carrying out a robbery. Details of what exactly happened are unclear, but during the course of the raid, she is reputed to have recognised two men who earlier had sexually assaulted her and murdered her lover. In retribution she ordered around 20 high-caste men to be dragged from their homes and shot them dead in what became known as the Saint Valentine's Day massacre. The press described it as the largest mass killing by bandits in Indian history.

Afterwards police launched a huge manhunt using helicopters and thousands of men, but Devi's high reputation among the poor was enhanced as she frequently out-witted them and evaded capture. Sightings of her were few and far between. She surrendered to the authorities in 1983 in poor health – after most of her gang members had died – in a deal with the Indian government which allowed her to escape being hanged.

After serving her sentence she insisted that she was a reformed character and that she had escaped from her past: but it looks as if the circumstances of her death meant her past had not escaped her – she was shot by masked gunmen outside her home in New Delhi.

The manner of her death will no doubt provide further material to build the mythical status of a woman who captured the Indian public's imagination over two decades. No-one yet knows the motive for the attack, but during her time as an outlaw Phoolan Devi had made plenty of enemies, not least among influential high-caste Indians.

Alastair Lawson-Tancred