Trusted friend confesses to 'revenge killing' of Bandit Queen

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The prime suspect in the murder of Phoolan Devi, the "Bandit Queen", was arrested yesterday, amid police claims he had confessed to the killing.

Officers in in Dehra Dun, north of Delhi, apprehended Sher Singh Rana, who, under the name of "Pankaj", had frequently visited the high-profile gangster-turned-MP's home in Delhi, and, on Wednesday morning, drove her to parliament in his green Suzuki.

Hours later, the same car was used by Ms Devi's killer to flee from the scene, according to police in India.

Mr Rana, who owns a dairy, told officers that he had murdered Ms Devi in revenge for the most notorious act in her criminal career: the alleged killing of 22 upper-caste men in the village of Behmai.

And, as India continued to debate who Phoolan Devi really was and what her life amounted to, another famous and controversial Indian woman has told The Independent about the Phoolan Devi she got to know well, during "a year of almost daily meetings". Arundhati Roy, the novelist and social activist, encouraged Ms Devi to sue the producers of the film about her life, Bandit Queen, and spent a year accompanying her to court to translate from English and explain the proceedings to the illiterate former outlaw.

At the end of the legal proceedings, as Ms Roy recalled, Ms Devi "took money from the producers behind my back", making an out-of-court settlement said to have been worth in the region of £40,000.

In 1994, when Phoolan Devi came out of prison after 11 years, by coincidence a short while before Bandit Queen had its Delhi premiere, Arundhati Roy was a little-known screenwriter whose script Electric Moon had been filmed by Channel 4. Ms Roy was also working on another project for the television company and was invited to the première of Bandit Queen, a Channel 4 production.

Ms Roy said: "I saw it, and I came out feeling very disturbed and angry. Then I started reading in the papers every day Phoolan Devi making statements saying they'd refused to let her see the film.

"All the beautiful people in Delhi were at the première but they didn't let her come, even though she lived literally across the road. I read in the papers that she was saying, 'They haven't even met me, they haven't got my permission, and this film is like being raped all over again'."

Ms Roy then read the book by Mala Sen on which the film was based. She said: "I got so upset at the way they had concocted all the rapes. Unbelievable stuff they had done."

Under the heading The Great Indian Rape Trick, she wrote two incandescent articles for a magazine, the Delhi weekly Sunday. Accusing the film's makers of "loutish arrogance", she wrote: "They never met her once. Not even to sign the contracts. They reinvent her life. Her loves. Her rapes. They implicate her in the murder of 22 men that she denies having committed. Then they try to slither out of showing her the film!"

The core of Arundhati Roy's outrage was the film's relentless focus on the long sequence of rapes to which Phoolan Devi was supposedly subjected. "For me, the issue was that nobody has the right to portray the rape of a living woman without her consent. On what basis are you saying, 'Come and buy tickets and watch the show?' The genteel among us will say, 'How terrible, how upsetting'. The others are whistling in the gallery," she said.

Now Shekhar Kapur version of Phoolan Devi's life has become the one that everyone knows and believes. Even though she was alive until Wednesday, her life had already taken on the simplistic lineaments of legend. Ms Roy argues that the scriptwriters cut all complexity away from Ms Devi's life story: the fact, for example, that the initial injustice she suffered was nothing to do with sexual abuse. Rather, that her cousin had stolen her father's land.

When Phoolan Devi was a young child, she protested vigorously about the injustice, but she was beaten unconscious with a brick. None of this finds its way into the film. Instead, her story is reduced to the twin abuses, rape and caste. "Rape is the main dish," Arundhati Roy wrote in 1994, "Caste is the sauce that it swims in."

Ms Roy said: "Through her, I saw the obscenity of the Indian middle class. People used to come to me and say, 'She looks like a servant, why do you have anything to do with her?' and those same people would see the film and say, 'Oh, it's terrible'. The film makers themselves at film festivals would talk about caste oppression – but in court they were saying, 'She's a bandit, you can't trust her, she's illiterate'.

"She was not what the myth wants to make her out to be, this pure kind of animal feminist. She couldn't trust anybody. She used to tell me that when she was living in the ravines, 'I wouldn't even eat the food my mother had made for me unless someone else had tasted it first.'

"But she won her case. Now there is a judgment in India that says no one has the right to portray a living woman's rape without her consent."

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