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'God punished Phoolan for her sins'

BEHMAI, JULY 26. `Some good news at last, the Bandit Queen is dead.' This is how the people of the remote village of Behmai saw the murder of Phoolan Devi, the brigand-turned-MP who they believe led a grisly massacre of their menfolk more than 20 years ago.

``God punished her for her sins,'' said Ms. Santoshi Devi, who watched her upper-caste husband and neighbours fall in a hail of bullets on February 14, 1981. Ms. Santoshi Devi is one of the 12 surviving widows of the carnage in a village which rejoiced to hear of the parliamentarian's death. Nearly everyone in the village who owns a firearm fired shots into the air to express their jubilation and many placed special earthen lamps in their windows as night fell. ``I have no shame in admitting that we were delighted to hear about Phoolan's end in this manner. After all, I am among those who have suffered in the 20 years that have gone by since that woman pumped bullets into my father's chest,'' said a 21-year-old college student.Phoolan Devi denied leading the killers but her career of crime was driven by her need for revenge after a series of rapes she said upper caste men had subjected her to as a young woman. Behmai lies some 100 km from the city of Kanpur, a faded industrial hub of Uttar Pradesh. There is no power supply and no water supply in the village.

But Behmai was a name on everyone's lips after the massacre as it secured the notoriety of a lower caste woman who at the age of 22 became known as the `Bandit Queen'.According to a biography of Phoolan Devi by Ms. Mala Sen, 22 men were gunned down, at almost point-blank range in Behmai. ``They had been lined up along the banks of the Yamuna river, ordered to kneel and were then shot in the back in a thunder of bullets that resounded in the village where their mothers, wives and children cowered in doorways,'' Ms. Sen wrote.According to the villagers and police, two men survived the attack and 20 died, all but three of who were Thakurs, upper-caste warriors.Phoolan Devi surrendered to police in a ceremony before thousands of people two years later but maintained her denial of leading the gang.Born into a low-caste boatman community, she was sold in marriage at 11 to an older man who became her first rapist in a series of assaults. Wearing a bandana and fatigues, she assumed control of a gang which was responsible for robberies, hijacks, kidnappings and Robin Hood- style handouts. For years, she was feared and revered as a foul- mouthed outlaw and a champion of the downtrodden.The taboos prescribed by the complex system of castes have governed the lives of people for thousands of years. Much of the structure has fallen away after the practice was outlawed, but its grip has not completely relaxed in some areas.Mr. Vakil Singh (70) says he was one of the survivors of the Behmai incident. ``She took me to be dead as I lay motionless after falling under two other dead bodies,'' he said. ``And that is what has kept me living today to narrate the horror of that fateful afternoon.''There were no takers in Behmai for the story that Phoolan Devi was goaded into violence by a group of Thakurs whogang-raped her and paraded her naked through their village.``How can you believe what has been projected by some stupid film-maker,'' asked Mr. Singh, referring to the disturbing movie `Bandit Queen' which shocked audiences around the country.

- Reuters.

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