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'Bandit Queen,' a Heroine to Poor in India, Is Killed

Asia: Phoolan Devi, an outlaw-turned-lawmaker who fought caste discrimination, is gunned down outside her home.

July 26, 2001|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW DELHI — Phoolan Devi, the "Bandit Queen" whose fight to avenge discrimination made her a heroine to millions of India's poor, was shot dead as she came home from her seat in Parliament for lunch Wednesday.

Three masked gunmen opened fire on Devi, who claimed to be 37, when she got out of her car at her official residence shortly after 1:30 p.m., police said.

The lower-caste woman who had lived by the gun and was accused of massacring 22 high-caste men in revenge for her gang rape, died with three bullets to her head, and two more to her body. The killers, one of whom may have been wounded, fled first by car and then in a three-wheel auto-rickshaw.

The slaying in broad daylight of a member of Parliament who knew that she had many enemies caused many here to ask whether Devi was intentionally left vulnerable to a political hit, or a revenge killing.

Francis Mary Das, who was Devi's secretary for the last decade, said the lawmaker was in constant danger of attack and had tried to get government permission to better protect herself even though she already had 24-hour police guard, by order of India's Supreme Court in 1994.

In 1996, the same year Devi was elected to Parliament in a landslide, her contingent of bodyguards was reduced from at least 10 officers to one. The sole officer was wounded in a shootout with the killers Wednesday.

Devi's life was threatened "from the very beginning, but she was never afraid of such things," Das, 50, said in an interview.

Devi applied to the district magistrate of Mirzapur for a license to carry a handgun about 10 days ago, Das said.

"The district magistrate said, 'Considering her previous record, I will not be able to provide her an arms license,' " Das added. The magistrate said "if she, at all, requires an arms license, she should approach higher authorities," according to Das.

Widespread shock over Devi's slaying prompted eulogies from the highest ranks of the very establishment that once condemned her.

"Her life was a story of rebellion and successful defiance against oppression and exploitation," Indian President Kocheril Raman Narayanan, himself a member of a lower caste, said in a statement. "Having braved the prejudices that an orthodox society heaps on a woman--poor, backward and a social outcast--she rose to become a member of Parliament in her own right."

Devi was born into the deprivation of India's lower castes, in a windowless hut with mud walls and a straw roof.

When she was 11, her parents sold her into marriage to a man 20 years her senior. He paid a cow, a bicycle and 100 rupees, or slightly more than $2 at today's exchange rate.

The man was supposed to wait three years before taking his child bride, but he came for her after less than three months, biographer Mala Sen wrote in "India's Bandit Queen."

"I did not understand the meaning of 'husband,' and when he made passes at me, I would scream and shout, not knowing the meaning of these gestures," Devi said years later.

"My fear angered him, and he would hit me. He treated me like an animal." She later returned to her parents.

She had said that she was forced to join a gang of bandits in early July 1979 after they tied up her parents and dragged her off to the riverside, beat her and threatened her with a knife.

Armed with a Sten gun, Devi went on to become the leader of a notorious gang of seven men. She repeatedly evaded authorities, and the legend of the Bandit Queen grew with each botched attempt at capture.

Devi became the most wanted woman in India on Feb. 14, 1981, when she and her gang allegedly massacred 22 high-caste Thakur men in the village of Behmai, in her home state of Uttar Pradesh.

In one newspaper interview, Devi said she had to carry out the killings in revenge for the slaying of her lover, and her own rape, by upper-caste men from Behmai. But in other interviews, she denied having anything to do with the massacre.

Devi negotiated her 1983 surrender with a representative of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The key condition: neither Devi nor any of her gang would be hanged.

Devi also insisted that they would all get two square meals a day in prison, that they couldn't be held longer than eight years and that her goat and cow would be delivered to a new home for her family, Sen wrote.

After surrendering, Devi spent 11 years in confinement without a trial.

When a publisher approached her upon her release from prison in 1994 with an offer to print her autobiography, he first had to explain to the illiterate Devi what a book was.

She told her life story to a tape recorder, and two ghost writers shaped her words into "I, Phoolan Devi."

"It is an outstretched hand of courage to the humiliated and downtrodden in the hope that a life like my own may never repeat itself," Devi said in the dedication of the 1995 book.

"I should be dead today, but I am alive," she added. "I took my fate into my hands. I was born an underdog, but I became a queen."

When her story was made into a feature film, Devi's fame spread around the world. Esquire magazine called her "a cross between Angela Davis and Jesse James."

Elected to Parliament in 1996, Devi lost her reelection bid in 1998. She came back and won reelection the following year.

Devi's Samajwadi Party is expected to mount a serious challenge to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in Uttar Pradesh state assembly elections this year, and her supporters suggested a political motive behind Wednesday's slaying.

*

Times special correspondent Siddartha Barua contributed to this report.

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