South Asia

New book celebrates India's Bandit Queen

Roy Moxham (left) and Phoolan Devi
Image caption Mr Moxham and Ms Devi became firm friends

An intimate portrait of one of India's most famous outlaws has been published in Britain.

In 1992 author Roy Moxham began an extraordinary correspondence with bandit-turned-politician Phoolan Devi after reading about her imprisonment.

When she replied to his letter, Mr Moxham travelled to India and got to know Ms Devi and her family.

Phoolan Devi became one of India's best-known political figures after giving up years of crime.

She was shot dead at the age of 38 in front of her official residence in Delhi in July 2001.

Mr Moxham's book, Outlaw - based on his friendship with Ms Devi - was published at the beginning of June.

'Miscarriage of justice'

"She was an amazingly cheerful woman given all the trauma she had experienced in her life," Mr Moxham - formerly a conservator at Canterbury cathedral in England - told the BBC.

"She was always smiling and cracking jokes even though she had a harsh and poverty-stricken childhood and was the victim of what I believe was a serious miscarriage of justice - for which she spent nine years in jail."

Phoolan Devi was part of India's bandit folklore.

A member of the lower castes, she rose to notoriety in 1981 when she was alleged to have ordered the murders of 22 upper caste men on Valentine's Day to avenge her gang rape.

Image caption Phoolan Devi was one of India's most famous outlaws

She surrendered to the authorities in 1983 and remained in prison until February 1994.

Two years later she became a member of the Indian lower house of parliament. She lost her seat in 1998, but made a comeback the following year.

Her life was immortalised in the film Bandit Queen by Indian director Shekhar Kapur.

"That film showed her as being involved in the killings even though she always denied it and was not even even convicted when it came out. She always maintained she had nothing to do with those deaths and I believe her," Mr Moxham said.

"In fact Phoolan Devi had a real heart for the poor. When she was in prison she arranged for her food to be smuggled out so that it could be given to members of her family who lived in acute poverty."

After her release from prison and entry into parliament, he says that Ms Devi had none of the trappings of power shown by other politicians.

"I remember her on her knees cleaning her flat," he said, "because she refused to employ servants.

"She was also extremely charismatic - the sort of person who could walk into a room and instantly command attention.

"It may be an exaggeration to say - as The Times of London did in their obituary of her - that she was a latter-day Joan of Arc or Boadicea. But she was certainly a hero."

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