Once a bandit ...

Phoolan Devi, India's 'Bandit Queen', is in trouble again. But this time, as she hears herself accused of murder, she is sitting in a seat in parliament.

In Phoolan Devi's front garden, a group of her supporters - large men with large moustaches - are arguing about the wording of her political posters and trying to map out a strategy for her. A muscular lad wearing a stained vest and a loincloth blocks the way to her front door and introduces himself as "Phoolan's slave, her loyal follower and protector". Inside, Phoolan's husband, Umaid Singh, is making appointments with local television and radio crews on a mobile phone. There are no female party workers to be seen.

In the three years since Phoolan Devi, India's former Bandit Queen, was paroled from prison, she has become sophisticated at handling publicity. Now a member of parliament, she no longer relies on a hand-held loudhailer to taunt her enemies, but can easily summon a press conference or sell television soundbites. And what she wants to tell the world now is that she has been betrayed.

Phoolan Devi became known as the "Bandit Queen" and "the terror of the Chambal badlands" after her alleged spree of killing or castrating her enemies. She surrendered to police in 1983 under an amnesty deal offered by the state of Madhya Pradesh. She was never tried but spent 11 years in prison before being released on bail when the socialist state government of Uttar Pradesh dropped all charges against her, saying she had suffered enough. Riding on a wave of popularity among low-caste voters, she won a seat to the federal parliament in last year's election.

But in January she was accused of the 1981 massacre of 22 higher caste landowners in the village of Behmai in Uttar Pradesh, an attack allegedly carried out by Devi and her gang to avenge repeated rape attacks and the murder of her lover. A judge in Kanpur ordered her arrest in response to a petition by a resident of Behmai who maintained that her parole granted by the Supreme Court had ended in December. On 4 February, Devi ignored a summons to appear in court, and her name once again rose to the top of the most wanted list.

In spite of constant police surveillance meant to protect her from potential enemies, Phoolan Devi managed to vanish. Then, last week, after her lawyer managed to stall any new proceedings until the closing of the present parliamentary session on 20 March, Devi suddenly resurfaced in Delhi and denied that she had ever intended to become a fugitive. Eyes still defiant and voice strident, she walked into parliament and took up her seat again. She grinned at a scrum of press photographers who jostled her: now an international feminist icon, she revels in the attention. She considers herself a caste warrior, pledged to punish injustice, and is furious about renewed legal proceedings when she has just been nominated for the Nobel peace prize.

Phoolan Devi is used to being exploited for political ends. Charges against her were dropped three years ago for reasons of political expediency by Mulayam Singh Yadav, the former chief minister, who wanted to use the Bandit Queen to lure low-caste voters. By putting her on parole, he enabled the ex-outlaw to run for office and gambled that her supporters would outnumber her enemies. But when Yadav was appointed defence minister, Phoolan Devi was left exposed to upper-caste resentments and plots to curtail her new status. The home minister, Indrajit Gupta, complained in parliament that Uttar Pradesh is now close to "anarchy, chaos, and destruction", and there are moves to sack the governor.

This is a face-saving explanation which spares the police close scrutiny for allowing her to remain at large. "When Delhi doctors failed to diagnose the pains in my stomach, I went to see a specialist near Bombay," she explained. "I am afraid of cancer, it was hurting so much. I was unaware of the other problem." Devi did remain underground and incommunicado until the court ruled to defer the new warrant because, she says, she wants to carry out her duties as an MP. Her supporters explain, with a head waggle, "The Bandit has a mandate." The Bandit Queen's objective now is to push for a 50 per cent women's quota in parliament during this session. Setting aside seats for low-caste women within this quota is a priority. She rubbed shoulders with a maharajah's sister, who represents the Hindu fundamentalists, and other elite VIPs during a women's caucus on the controversial bill last week.

When pressed, Devi admitted "I was a little bit worried about going back to jail before I had done my job for the voters." Speaking at her official residence, which is located nearer to parliament than the suburban house she bought with proceeds from two book deals and the film of her life, Phoolan Devi railed against "two-tier Indian justice based on caste and power" and announced, "I have the dignity of an MP and must trust what the court orders. But I can always challenge it."

She is especially indignant that the government jailed her for 11 years, three years longer than was specified in her surrender terms, while other ex-bandits - who had more money and influence because they came from higher castes - were freed early. "These cases should have come up while I was out campaigning, not now," she complained. "Why did they wait so long? Once again I am being treated unfairly." If Phoolan Devi can make her way through the legal maze, she may earn respect for political savvy. But if the establishment succeeds in sending the charismatic politician back to prison, the pace of Indian justice is so slow that she may be sidelined for years. During India's 50th anniversary of democracy, her plight may be taken up by international pressure groups. This would point up embarrassing inequities in the system, something upper-caste politicians would prefer to avoid.

She says that charges are often trumped up against the underclass if they oppose anyone powerful. "Rich men used to beat me up for daring to raise my eyes. If you go against such people, they pay for you to get caught. I was not a lawbreaker for personal gain: I redistributed wealth. I made others experience what humiliation is. Now I want to organise the backward classes and fight in the pukka legal way for poor people and labourers."

Phoolan Devi, the MP, scarcely resembles the scrawny girl bandit with the fierce face who fought viciously against humiliation and surrendered in a public spectacle that became legend. Re-entering parliament last week, she wore a garish sari of parrot green, with bangles jangling at both wrists, and looked more like a plump housewife who had wandered in by mistake. But her loud voice and crude bandit slang are unmistakable.

Although still illiterate, Phoolan Devi credits her survival to an ability to read people's characters through their faces and gestures. Her knack for choosing allies has surprised political analysts in New Delhi, who were confounded last spring when she won her seat in Mirzapur.

Many upper-class Indians disapprove of her fame abroad and were irked when Mildred Gordon, Labour MP from Bow, recently proposed Phoolan Devi as a possible Nobel peace laureate. She described the Bandit Queen as "a symbol of the struggle to remove caste, gender, and class oppression from Indian society. The early part of her story - born into poverty, sold into virtual slavery, abused and repeatedly gang-raped while still a child - is sadly the everyday story of millions of the poor in contemporary India."

Meanwhile, Phoolan Devi dreams of an even bigger power base in India. "Some day I may be the prime minister," she mused. "Now that would make those rich men's moustaches droop"

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