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Indian church deplores killing of former bandit queen

India's Catholic Church has joined the country's other leaders in mourning the death of low-caste woman Phoolan Devi, a parliamentarian who became a symbol of the struggle for justice and gender equality.

Devi's 'conversion' followed a deprived childhood and criminal career. She was assassinated last week near her New Delhi home by three unidentified men, while she was returning from the parliament house for lunch. Members of he party suspect high-caste leaders.

Fr Donald De Souza, chief spokesman of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, expressed the Church's sadness following the murder "in a high security area".

"She had a violent past, which the Church cannot and does not justify," he said, while noting that "many perceive her as a liberator of oppressed low castes."

In a statement on Devi's death, Indian President K.R. Narayanan said her story, which became the subject of several books and the movie Bandit Queen, was one of "rebellion and successful defiance against oppression and exploitation."

Poohlan Devi became known by the media, after being accused of the murder 23 upper-caste Hindus in 1981 in a remote village of Uttar Pradesh. Devi denied the accusations, although the men had repeatedly raped her. Following an 11-year jail sentence, Poohlan Devi became involved in politics and was elected to the Lower House of the Indian Parliament.

Catholic Bishops' Conference of India
India's Bandit Queen (The Atlantic)