Bandit Queen takes to the road again

India's notorious Bandit Queen, Phoolan Devi, is on the run again. The former outlaw, elected as a member of parliament from Mirzapur last year, went missing last week after mass murder, kidnapping and robbery charges against her were revived and her petition for advance bail was turned down.

Police now vie to be the hero who captures Ms Devi, though some officials from the state government of Uttar Pradesh are reported to have asked them to back off, given her privileges as an MP. But many officers remember repeated humiliations from this foul-mouthed woman who for years would taunt them through her megaphone, scatter stolen jewellery in their midst to distract them, then vanish laughing into the Chambal ravines until her next raid.

Ms Devi, now 37, eluded arrest so often that legends grew about her mastery of disguise. Her favourite trick was to don the cops' own khaki uniform, which she wore during her surrender ceremony in Madhya Pradesh state. When she volunteered to lay down her arms in 1983, the government accepted her terms, which included sharing a prison cell with her male gang members and freedom after eight years. She languished in jail for 11 years, long after her lieutenants were freed, but was never tried. Charges in an adjacent state were dropped by the then chief minister, Mulayam Singh Yadav, who draws broad support from low caste voters in Uttar Pradesh. He is now Minister of Defence.

While on parole, Ms Devi launched a justice movement aimed at uplifting women and eliminating caste prejudice. Crowds gathered wherever she went, and when she stood for parliament her celebrity was boosted further by screenings of Bandit Queen, Shekar Kapur's powerful film of her life story.

The Bandit Queen's supporters justified her outlaw days as a low- caste girl's only means to avenge atrocities committed against her. A massacre at Behmai, where 22 men died, was seen as taking justice into her own hands. Ms Devi claims she was repeatedly gang-raped by higher caste men in the riverside village, but says her followers did the murders, though her stories conflict. She told one biographer that she had killed two men, but then told another that she did not know how to fire a rifle.

Witnesses from Behmai filed charges against her last year, and, according to her attorney, Nand Lal Jaiswal, the present warrant lists 57 counts of murder and dacoity (theft at gunpoint). The former Bandit Queen was forced on the defensive while still a candidate and the state supplied bodyguards for her protection. Her eventual election triumph surprised most political analysts.

But it was Ms Devi's international fame that brought envy, and has probably contributed to the prosecution of charges against her. Signing autographs in Paris, then arranging to speak as a champion of women's rights in Britain, was seen as going too far.

After Ms Devi failed to negotiate a surrender scene at Kanpur courthouse last week, she ignored all advice from her husband and lawyers and simply slipped away. The dramatic life of India's Bandit Queen may be about to have a sequel.

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