Bandit Queen of Indian politics is gunned down

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The Independent Online

India's most celebrated case of upward mobility, the Bandit Queen who defied male brutality and caste taboos to become a twice-elected MP, was murdered outside her Lutyens bungalow home in the heart of Delhi yesterday.

Phoolan Devi, MP for Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh, was driven the short distance from parliament to her home at 44 Ashoka Road for lunch, arriving at 1.30pm. As she stepped out of the car with her single armed guard, three men jumped from a car parked close by, ran up and fired three bullets into her head and two into her body. She was dead on arrival at hospital. The masked killers fled in their stolen car and have yet to be traced.

So ended a life that was saturated with violence until her existence was bizarrely transfigured five years ago into one of chauffeured cars and starchy parliamentary protocol. There are no clear clues to the killers of Phoolan Devi, though she had complained more than once in parliament during recent weeks of threats to her life. There can have been no shortage of old enemies itching to take long-delayed revenge.

She was born into one of India's hundreds of untouchable castes, and her early life was a demonstration of how crippling low-caste status remains in much of rural India. At the age of 11 she was forced to marry a much older man who beat, raped and starved her. Higher-caste boys tried to force her to have sex and when she refused they persuaded the local court that she was a prostitute and had her run out of town. In another incident, an upper-caste gangster she had angered stripped her naked and forced her to parade through the main street under the eyes of the silent villagers. But the decisive trauma of her life happened when, at 22, she was kidnapped and gang-raped first by bandits then by an entire village of upper-caste Hindu men over several days. For most women that would have been the end of resistance, but Devi found a spark of vengeful fury in the middle of humiliation.

She became the leader of her own gang of dacoits, retreated to the snake-infested ravines of Madhya Pradesh and began a life of violent crime: looting villages, kidnapping the sons of rich landlords and hijacking lorries.

Finally, in 1981 she returned to the scene of her village gang-rape, and took a spectacular and bloody revenge. She is said to have killed 22 upper-caste men, but she consistently denied doing the killings herself. She surrendered to police in 1983, bowing before a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of non-violence, while thousands of her supporters roared support.

She spent the next 11 years in prison but was never brought to trial, and, in a 1994 political fix, the charges against her were dropped and she was freed. The same year the film Bandit Queen was released, spreading her fame far beyond the shores of India.

The film was attacked by writer Arundhati Roy and others for explicitly depicting the gang-rape, thereby abetting the violence already done to her by the rapists. It was banned in India after only a short run. But Phoolan Devi owed her final apotheosis to her celluloid fame. In 1996 she stood for election as a candidate of the low-caste Samajwadi Party in the carpet-weaving constituency of Mirzapur, and won. Defeated in 1998, she staged a comeback to win a second term in 1999.

She has sporadically made headlines since: once when threatening to immolate herself on the steps of parliament, after she had been accused of murder and once when Mildred Gordon, Labour MP for Bow, proposed her as a suitable candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, to the apoplectic outrage of the high-caste Hindus who dominate Indian public life.

They could never quite stomach the spectacle of this tiny, swarthy, plebeian figure sashaying through the corridors of power, though she put rings on her toes and rubbed skin bleach on her face and moderated her language.

But yesterday, her fellow MPs stood for a one-minute silence in her memory.