India's female outlaws queue to become the new Bandit Queen

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The Independent Online

The "Bandit Queen" Phoolan Devi's ashes have been scattered on the Ganges following her murder in Delhi last week. But while her husband, Umed Singh, and her family wrangle about who was responsible for her death – and who should inherit her property – in the harsh ravines on either side of the Chambal river, where she became a bandit, pretenders to her crown are reported to be thick on the ground.

Ms Devi, who renounced crime and became an MP of the lower-caste Samajwadi Party in 1997, after 11 years in jail, was shot dead outside her Raj-era bungalow last Wednesday. A man known to her, Sher Singh Rana, confessed to the killing, and two alleged accomplices have been arrested.

But the cycle of caste warfare that inspired her bloody career continues as viciously as it did 20 years ago, when she allegedly killed 22 upper-caste Thakur men. Two days before her death, five lower-caste people in the village of Karsena, two of them women, were abducted by a dacoit (bandit) named Nirbhay Singh Gujjar. The men were locked up and the women gang-raped over a period of 48 hours. When the women got back to Karsena, clothes torn and bloody, four youths, none older than 16, vowed revenge. "A new gang of baagis [rebels] was born," wrote Tapas Chakraborty in The Telegraph, the Calcutta newspaper.

The cause of the violence in India's Wild West is land ownership. On paper, so-called "backward" castes are entitled to own land. In practice, higher castes have always enforced their claims to ownership by violence and rape. In the village of Paharunge two years ago, five low-caste females, one a girl of 14, were raped by high-caste bandits; 14 of the low-caste families vacated their land overnight.

Chakraborty, who has spent some time tramping through these badlands, says banditry died down in the Eighties, when Phoolan Devi surrendered, but has picked up again since the mid-Nineties. About 30 gangs operate in the ravines on the border between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh and "at least five are run by women".

Lakshmi Tomar, a female professor of sociology in the nearby town of Gwalior, says it is no surprise that many rural Indian women are keen to assume Devi's role.

"The Phoolan legend has inspired them," she says. "All of them are victims of some form of social exploitation. Four of them took up arms after being raped or tortured."

The most formidable of the female bandits, Kusumu Nayar, is said to lord it over 16 villages, whose residents are proud to belong to "Kusumu's villages". Villages under threat pool money to float a gang that will protect them, and powerful gangs can take a number of villages under their wing.

The banditry is fuelled by a nexus between corrupt policemen and the bandits via middlemen who ensure a steady supply of guns. In some towns, according to Chakraborty, "There are more gun stores than tea stalls".

Lakshmi Tomar says Phoolan Devi is "worshipped" by backward castes as a heroine who refused to accept the use of rape and abduction as a way to settle caste scores. Now the Queen is dead she fears that more women bandits will seek to emulate her "glorious" achievements. The stakes are high: if a woman can make it through alive to surrender, as Phoolan did, a lucrative political career may beckon.