Bandit Queen broken by jail

PHOOLAN DEVI, the gun- toting 'Bandit Queen' of India, scourge of high caste Hindus and darling of the country's rural downtrodden, walked out of court in New Delhi yesterday a free woman. She had been in jail for 11 years, awaiting trial after giving herself up.

She was released after the government of Uttar Pradesh - the north Indian state where her most infamous exploits took place - decided to drop all charges against her. The chief minister, Mulayam Singh Yadav, who like Devi is a member of a lowly caste, said she had suffered enough. On Friday the Supreme Court ruled that she be freed on parole.

Devi, 37, was the stuff of legend. Like Robin Hood, she was loved by the poor and feared by the rich. She roamed the countryside, usually on horseback, exacting retribution and revenge from wealthy landowners whom she believed tormented and exploited their tenants. She dressed romantically in khaki jodhpurs and shirt, a bandolier across her chest, a shotgun resting on her shoulder and her hair wrapped in a red bandana. Thousands of police were despatched to hunt her down over the years, but she always evaded them.

When she stepped free from the courtroom to cheers from several thousand supporters her flamboyance had gone. She looked frail and ill. Doctors said she would need an operation to remove a tumour. In jail, where she awaited trial on 70 cases of murder, robbery, extortion and kidnapping, she was described as a model prisoner, docile, reasonable and non-demanding. She learned to read and write and to knit. Asked what she would do now, she said: 'Whatever God wills.'

Devi was born to a small farmer and his wife who were thrown off their land by a higher caste landowner. She said she became a bandit to settle scores. She had two failed marriages. Among the score-settling was the alleged massacre in 1981 of 18 high-caste Hindus to avenge the killing of her lover and her own mutiple rape.

To protect her from revenge attacks she was given a police bodyguard and urged not to return to Uttar Pradesh. Her family said that they feared she would be killed.

(Photograph omitted)