Friday, May 04, 2007

Reformed bandit queen runs for parliament

By Kathy Marks, Asia-Pacific Correspondent

Published: 04 May 2007

Seema Parihar was one of the most feared bandits in northern India. Then she became an actress, starring in a film about her life. Now she wants to be a politician, and is standing for parliament in a by-election this week.

Ms Parihar, who faces 29 charges of murder, robbery and kidnap, has a famous role model: Phoolan Devi, the "Bandit Queen". Devi became a member of parliament in 1996 after a long career roaming central India's desolate valleys.

Devi stole from and killed wealthy, upper-caste landowners who she said exploited impecunious landless farmers. She was murdered in 2001, while still a politician.

Ms Parihar never met her, but her example inspired her. "I want to be another Phoolan," she told the Associated Press. "She had done a lot for the poor and downtrodden."

Born into a poverty-stricken family in Uttar Pradesh state, Ms Parihar was abducted by a gang of dacoits, or bandits, at the age of 13. Raped repeatedly and forced to marry a much older gang member, she spent nearly 20 years living in the ravines bordering the Chambal river, Devi's former territory. Eventually she became gang leader, before surrendering to police in 2003.

Although still awaiting trial, she is eligible to contest the by-election to represent the Bhadoi district in India's Lok Sabha, or lower house. Only convicted criminals are disbarred from office, and the backlog of cases means it could be years before she goes to court.

At the height of her dacoit days, Ms Parihar reportedly killed 70 people, kidnapped 200 others and looted 30 houses, according to the Indian media. She was equally at ease handling a .303 revolver and an AK-47 assault rifle.

Now she is a reformed character, she says, and preaches a message of peace. " I have seen violence in my early days. This has not helped anyone," she told an election rally in Bhadoi, 185 miles south-east of Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh. "We want peace and justice for all."

Ms Parihar, a candidate for the Indian Justice Party, says that she gave herself up because she was fed up with a life of violence. She also had a son.

"I laid down my arms for my son," she told Indian media. "I didn't want my son to grow up in a hostile environment and turn into an outlaw like me."

Now she wants to help other female dacoits. No woman embraces that life voluntarily, she says. Most were abducted or lured into the jungle by their boyfriends.

The constituency that she hopes to represent was held by Devi until she was killed by one of the upper-caste Hindus against whom she fought in her bandit days.

Ms Parihar said: "Had Phoolan Devi still been alive, she would still have been representing this seat in the Lok Sabha.

"To be honest, I have not come here to take her place, but merely to complete the works left unfinished by her."

The seat fell vacant after the last incumbent died.

Ms Parihar's past may not be held against her. In the state legislature in Uttar Pradesh, where elections are taking place, about 100 members face criminal charges. Many Indians are already familiar with her story, thanks to the 2004 film, Wounded, about her life. Shooting of the film was delayed because Ms Parihar was in jail, and the director, Krishna Mishra, had to appeal to the Supreme Court to get her released on bail.

Ms Parihar says that if she is elected, she will start a rehabilitation programme for former dacoits.

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