The women's gangs of India.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
July 19 2010 10:01 AM

Wear a Pink Sari and Carry a Big Stick

The women's gangs of India.

Sampat Pal Devi. Click image to expand.
Sampat Pal Devi of the gulabi 

In March, the Indian upper parliament passed a historic affirmative-action bill. If approved by the lower house, the law would reserve 33 percent of all parliamentary seats for women. You might think this would be well-received by rural women in India. But they long ago gave up on the government and have taken things into their own hands. India is witnessing a rise of vigilante groups, the most sensational of which is the gulabi, or pink gang, operating in the Bundelkhand district of the Uttar Pradesh state, one of the poorest districts of India. Some gangs have started what Indian journalists describe as a "mini-revolution" on behalf of women.

The founder of the gulabis is the fearless Sampat Pal Devi, 40, who was married off at the age of 12 to an ice-cream vendor and had the first of her five children at 15. The gulabis, whose members say they are a "gang for justice," started in 2006 as a sisterhood of sorts that looked out for victims of domestic abuse, a problem the United Nations estimates affects two in three married Indian women. Named after their hot-pink sari uniforms, the gang paid visits to abusive husbands and demanded they stop the beatings. When obstinate men refused to listen, the gulabis would return with large bamboo sticks called laathis and "persuade" them to change their ways. "When I go around with a stick, it's to make men fear me. I don't always use it, but it helps change the mind of men who think they are more powerful than me" says Pal. She has assumed the rank of commander in chief and has appointed district commanders across seven districts in Bundelkhand to help coordinate the gang's efforts.

Pal's group now has more than 20,000 members, and the number is growing. Making her way from one far-flung village to another on an old rusty bicycle, she holds daily gatherings under shady banyan trees, near makeshift tea-stalls selling the sweet Indian drink chai and other popular village hangouts to discuss local problems and attract new recruits.

Pal has a long list of criminal charges against her, including unlawful assembly, rioting, attacking a government employee, and obstructing an officer in the discharge of duty, and she even had to go into hiding.Her feistiness has secured notable victories for the community, however. In 2008, the group ambushed the local electricity office, which was withholding electricity until members received bribes or sexual favors in return for flicking the switch back on. The stick-wielding gulabi stormed the company grounds and proceeded to rough up the staff inside the building. An hour later, the power was back on in the village.

While the gulabi use a mild level of force, more violent strains of vigilantism have been reported elsewhere in India among dispossessed women. In 2004, a mob of hundreds of women hacked to death the serial rapist and murderer Akku Yadav, after the courts failed to convict him over a period of 10 years. After the deed was done, the women collectively declared their guilt in the murder, frustrating police efforts to charge anyone with the crime. This kind of violence has generated concern among some Indian commentators, who say that while many vigilantes have noble intentions, too many of them are brutally violent.

What's the context for this phenomenon? The Indian press often points to a host of ills plaguing modern India, such as honor killings, dowries, child marriages, and female feticide. These account for female despondency but not for the gangs as an outlet for it. In the past, many Indian women would have taken these pressures out on themselves, through self-immolation or hanging, for example. As women have gained political power, through initiatives like the affirmative-action bill, dispossessed rural women have realized that they can instead respond boldly and collectively to abuse. Why aren't they turning to political activism as opposed to vigilantism? To begin with, the gangs offer more immediate benefits than politics does. Another reason is that female politicians rising to power from the lower castes have been dismal role models. These politicians have the potential to inspire poor women more than dynastic leaders like Sonia Gandhi, but they have disappointed the women they claim to represent by being as corrupt and criminal as the male politicians they despise.

Take Mayawati, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and the first female dalit—the group at the lowest rung of the caste system—to have attained such a high office. As the leader of a dalit party, Mayawati, who is considered prime-minister material, is criticized for focusing only on dalit issues while ignoring the concerns of women more broadly. Mayawati is also conspicuously corrupt—she has appeared at public events with garlands of real money around her neck and has spent millions erecting statues of herself across Lucknow, the state's capital.

When Mayawati first heard of the rise of the pink gang, her first concern was not what she could do to help but whether it might pose a political threat. She tried to quash the group, then finally offered Pal the opportunity to run for local elections under her party's banner. Pal refused this offer, as well as others she received from major national parties. As long as corrupt practices persist among both male and female politicians in India, many vigilantes will feel they have more to gain by staying out of politics than entering the fray.

The silver lining here is that while Indian democracy is too weak to deliver on the gender equality that is inscribed in its constitution, it is strong enough not to crush movements like the pink gang. This is also thanks to the free media, which has boomed since the '90s and which glorifies the work of the gulabis. There is now a chapter of the pink gang in France. Cécile Romane, the head of the Paris gulabi, says that she has worn her sari in the city's streets but has not yet needed to discipline men with her bamboo stick.

Even in the badlands of Bundelkhand, the gulabis are reaching for the bamboo stick less frequently these days, but for different reasons. "My real strength is not in the stick, it is in numbers," Pal told the Hindustan Times. "And one day, we will be big enough to shake up Delhi, too." She might just be right.

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Amana Fontanella-Khan is a Brussels-based writer. She is the author of the forthcoming book Pink Sari Revolution (W.W Norton, August). Follow her on Twitter @AmanaFK.