India's `Bandit Queen' backs child-labour firms

INDIA'S "BANDIT Queen", the dacoit-turned-politician Phoolan Devi who won back her parliamentary seat in Uttar Pradesh in the last election, is known as a champion of the most oppressed people in India - people like herself, exploited and abused by their social betters.

But yesterday Ms Devi was accused by a prominent human rights activist of having become a mouthpiece for the carpet manufacturers in her constituency of Mirzapur-Bhadoi, who illegally employ tens of thousands of small children to weave carpets, 98 per cent of which are exported.

Born into a humble fisherman's caste, Phoolan Devi was married at 11 to an older man who beat and starved her. When she was 22 she was kidnapped and gang-raped, but fought back, becoming a bandit gang leader to gain revenge.

After giving herself up in 1983 she served 11 years in prison but was set free before her cases came to court, and has never stood trial for her alleged crimes, which include more than 20 murders. Her life story was the subject of the 1995 film Bandit Queen.

Phoolan Devi's struggle against the medieval forces still preying on the weak in India is a living legend. But now, it is claimed, she herself has become a hostage of those forces.

Her constituency, near Benares on the Ganges, has only one flourishing industry, carpet-weaving. The South Asian Coalition against Child Servitude (Saccs) claims 300,000 children work illegally in the carpet belt around Mirzapur, 100,000 in Ms Devi's constituency. Some of the children are as young as six. Their small fingers, it is said, are perfect for tying the thousands of tiny knots in a carpet.

Even more to the point, their labour is practically free. Kailash Satyarthi, the founder of Saccs, says they are forced to work up to 20 hours a day, and viciously beaten if they cry or complain. Many have been lured from their dirt-poor villages in the state of Bihar, and are forcibly prevented from returning.

It is one of India's most egregious injustices - but the Bandit Queen has come out on the side of the carpet manufacturers. She has denounced Mr Satyarthi and his organisation, and called for the repeal of the Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act, which proscribes bonded child labour.

Mr Satyarthi and his colleagues have succeeded in obtaining the release of hundreds of children around the country who are illegally forced to work. But Ms Devi was reported as telling journalists in Benares that the only purpose of the legislation was "to harass the carpet manufacturers". Mr Satyarthi told The Independent yesterday: "All her election expenses were paid by the town's carpet mafia. She also used the manpower and the offices of the carpet industry in fighting her campaign."

Phoolan Devi was in her constituency yesterday and could not be reached for comment. But in Delhi her husband, Umaid Singh, said: "We have not taken any money from anyone - go to Mirzapur and see for yourself. There are no underage children working in the carpet industry - it's just that the village boys look younger than they really are.

"Perhaps some of them work for an hour or two after school instead of playing - where's the harm in that?"

During Ms Devi's election campaign, she told a reporter: "I am learning the tricks of the trade. After winning this election I will be the perfect politician." Her winning margin was 84,000.