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Wednesday, 25 July, 2001, 14:01 GMT 15:01 UK
Phoolan Devi: Champion of the poor
Lower caste women
Phoolan Devi saw herself as a lower caste champion
By South Asia analyst Alastair Lawson

Phoolan Devi, who was shot dead on Wednesday in Delhi, was one of India's most famous outlaws, implicated in one of the largest gang massacres in modern Indian history.

Life at a glance

Abused as a young woman

Disowned by husband

Joined bandit gang

Implicated in massacre of 22 men

Imprisoned for 11 years

Became an MP
But in a remarkable transformation, the notorious "Bandit Queen", was elected to the Indian parliament after 11 years in prison.

There she tried to establish a reputation as a champion of the oppressed in India.

She said that she represented people who, like herself, were exploited and abused by their social betters.

Phoolan Devi's criminal record and subsequent rehabilitation was made into a successful feature film in India and the west.

Low-caste origins

She was born in the north of India into a poor low-caste family.

Phoolan Devi
Her life became the stuff of legend
She married at 11 to a man three times her age, but was abandoned by her husband and her family after the marriage broke down.

By the time she was around 20 years old, she was subjected to numerous sexual assaults and turned to a life of crime.

She led a gang of robbers - or dacoits - that carried out a series of violent robberies in north and central India.

Her supporters say that she targeted high-caste families and shared the spoils with the lower castes, but the Indian authorities insisted this was a myth.

At the height of Phoolan Devi's fame, she was glorified by much of the Indian media which wrote tirelessly of her exploits.

A doll was even manufactured in her honour, clad in police uniform with a bandoleer of bullets strapped across her chest.


Perhaps the most notorious incident in Phoolan Devi's life took place in 1981 when her gang stormed an isolated village with the intention of carrying out a robbery.

Indian police
The police failed to track her down
Details of what exactly happened are unclear, but during the course of the raid, she is said to have recognised two men who earlier had sexually assaulted her and murdered her lover.

In retribution, she ordered around 20 high-caste men to be dragged form their homes and shot dead.

The press described it as the largest massacre by bandits in Indian history.

Afterwards, police launched a huge manhunt using helicopters and thousands of men, but Phoolan Devi's already high reputation among the poor was enhanced as she frequently outwitted them and evaded capture.

She surrendered to the authorities in 1983 in poor health after most of her gang members had died.

A deal with the Indian Government allowed her to escape being hanged.

After serving her sentence she insisted that she was a reformed character and that she had escaped from her past.

However, it looks as if the circumstances of her death meant her past had not escaped her.

See also:

25 Jul 01 | South Asia
'Bandit Queen' shot dead
29 Jun 01 | South Asia
Indian bandit offers to surrender
07 Mar 00 | South Asia
Court rules out caste differences
28 Sep 99 | South Asia
Dalits' political awakening
12 Oct 00 | South Asia
Analysis: India's criminal politicians
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