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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Sport
Bradford City's reward for their memorable win over Chelsea is a trip to face either Sunderland or Fulham (Getty)
football
News
Lars Andersen took up archery in his mid thirties
video
Voices
Focus E15 Mothers led a protest to highlight the lack of affordable housing in London
voicesLondon’s housing crisis amounts to an abuse of human rights, says Grace Dent
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

£38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

£35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

£15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea