Bandit Queen seeks to escape past with a gun and a prayer

THE Chambal River in central India is also known as the River of Revenge. It runs through a maze of ravines that for centuries has been the abode of marauding bandits. India's most notorious woman outlaw, Phoolan Devi, nicknamed the 'Bandit Queen', will soon be released from prison, and many fear the Chambal will again flow with blood.

When Phoolan Devi and her gang were busy in the early 1980s kidnapping rich landlords, raiding villages and robbing lorry drivers on the roads of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, she became a legend. She was supposed to be beautiful and fair, 6ft tall with blood-red hair. Phoolan Devi dolls, dressed in jungle khaki, were big sellers, and some worshipped her as an incarnation of Kali, the goddess of destruction. When the 24-year-old surrendered to police on 10 February 1983, before a gaping crowd of 7,000, many Indians were disappointed to find that the Bandit Queen was a squat, dark woman with a mean scowl, badly in need of a wash.

Even though she faced 55 criminal charges, including murder, the authorities agreed to release her after 8 1/2 years. More than 10 years have passed, and it was only last week that the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mulayam Singh Yadav, dropped all the charges against her. The Bandit Queen, he said, had suffered enough punishment. She will probably be free within a month.

Her original conditions for surrender were imaginative: she wanted to share the same prison cell as her male gang members, for the state to move her poor family (and their goat and cow) on to a new plot of land, and for her relatives to be given jobs as policemen. She also asked for permission to carry a gun once she left Delhi's Tihar jail. Many say that the Bandit Queen will need it.

Phoolan Devi said that on release she would like to spend her life as an ascetic, singing holy songs as she wanders the banks of the Chambal. But she is too feared, and revered, to be left alone. Her enemies are the state's powerful high-caste Thakurs, the landowners, who wish her dead. Phoolan Devi, who comes from the lowly Nishad caste of fishermen, was once captured and gang raped by dozens of Thakur villagers. She escaped and swore revenge. In February 1981, her gang allegedly returned to Behmai village and killed 22 Thakur men.

Phoolan Devi is dismissive of politicians, but her Robin Hood-like notoriety is a sure vote-puller among Uttar Pradesh's lower castes, who view her as a champion of the oppressed. Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, is controlled by a coalition of socialists and a party representing the outcaste Untouchables. For them she is a heroine, a wronged woman who dared to fight back against the ruling classes.

Several books and television documentaries have been made about Phoolan Devi; Bombay film offers abound, but her life is more sad than glamorous. From a poor family, she was married off at 11 to a sadist who traded her for a cow, beat her and abandoned her. She was kidnapped by bandits who were going to kill her but decided to keep her alive for sex and because she could cook. She survived longer than most male bandits of the Chambal ravines because she was clever and grew ruthless.

One of Phoolan Devi's jailers was quoted by The Pioneer as saying that, although illiterate, 'Phoolan is extremely intelligent . . . I am sure she will want to go abroad and will definitely join politics'. But the Bandit Queen may be a dangerous addition to India's volatile politics, already seething with religious and caste tensions.

(Photograph omitted)

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