“The strength of a woman is not measured by the impact that all her hardships in life have had on her; but the strength of a woman is measured by the extent of her refusal to allow those hardships to dictate her and who she becomes.”
― C. JoyBell C.
Bundelkhand is one of the poorest parts of the Uttar Pradesh. It’s also one of the most populated areas of an already hugely overpopulated country. The inhabitants face a daily struggle for survival as they cope with infertile land, a corrupt judicial system, and India’s oppressive, outdated caste hierarchy. Domestic violence and discrimination against women is the order of the day. In the midst of this plight, a group of vigilantes who call themselves the Gulabi Gang is fighting, often literally, for equality. The gang is made up of over 10,000 women, all of whom wear the Gulabi uniform of pink saris. They specialize in the lathi, a traditional Indian fighting stick.
Sampat Pal Devi
Sampat Pal Devi is a 47 year old wiry woman, wife of an ice cream vendor, mother of five children, who set up and leads the “pink gang”. Her seeds of rebellion were sown very early on when in face of her parents’ resistance to send her to school, she began writing and drawing on the walls, floors and dust-caked village streets. She finally ended up going to school, but was married off when she was nine, in a region where child marriages are common. At 12, she went to live with her husband and at 13 she had her first child. To keep the home fires burning, Sampat Devi began to work as a government health worker, but she quit after a while because her job was not satisfying enough. “I wanted to work for the people, not for myself alone. I was already holding meetings with people, networking with women who were ready to fight for a cause, and was ready with a group of women,” she says.
“The word ‘gang’ doesn’t necessarily denote criminals,” she said. “It can also be used to describe a team, a crew. We are a gang for justice. In rallies and protests outside our villages, especially in crowded cities, our members used to get lost in the rush. We decided to dress in a single color, which would be easy to identify. We didn’t want to be associated with other colors as they had associations with political or religious groups. We settled on pink, the color of life. It’s good. It makes the administration wary of us” she added.
In June 2013, the ‘Gulabis ‘accomplished their biggest triumph. After receiving complaints that a government-run fair-price shop in Attara was not giving out grain as it should have been, Sampat Devi and her gang decided to keep a covert watch over the shop owner. The gang intercepted two truckloads laden with Below Poverty Line-designated grain on their way to the open market. Armed with this evidence, the gang members pressurized the local administration to seize the grain and hand over the shop owner to the police, but again the case wasn’t even registered. The angry gang members attacked and assaulted one of the police officers. Though no formal complaint has been made, the incident immensely bolstered the credibility of the gang in the region.
Some members of the local community compare Sampat Devi to the legendary Queen of Jhansi, Laxmibai. They show their gratitude by supporting the gang. Babloo Mishra allows the gang to use his premises for an office. “The best thing is that these women will take up anyone’s cause as long as it’s genuine, not only those of its members,” he said.
Claiming to be the commander of the Gulabi Gang, Sampat says “I started the association in the 1990s, but I named it the ‘Gulabi Gang’ in 2006. We aim to empower women, promote child education with an emphasis on girls, and stop corruption and domestic violence. I visit numerous villages every day and meet the various members of the gang. We have gang meetings where we decide the plan of action.” Elaborating the modus operandi she added “First we go to the police and request them to do something. But since the administration is callous, we often end up taking matters into our own hands. We first speak to the husband who is beating his wife. If he doesn’t understand then we ask his wife to join us while we beat him with lathis.”When asked about the success rate she said “Our missions have a 100 percent success rate. We have never failed in bringing justice when it comes to domestic problems. Dealing with the administration is the tricky part since we cannot always take the law in our hands. We did beat up some corrupt officials but we were ultimately helpless. The goons of the corrupt officials and the political parties constantly threaten me. ”
Sampat’s family didn’t always support her, but when she resisted and explained to her husband, he understood and supported her. Talking about her difficulties she said “I don’t have enough money. I travel everywhere on an old bicycle. Some of our supporters help us with small donations and charity.” When asked about the future plans she said “I want this movement to carry on and would like support from international or local agencies. I work on a grassroots level and want to set up a small-scale industry for the poor villagers whom I work with. We have talented young men and women who can make organic manure, candles, Ayurvedic medicines, and pickles. They could earn a decent livelihood. If I get funded, I can set up a stitching center for women who can then support their families.”
A great deal needs to be done in the region, and people like Sampat Devi are making a huge difference. Although some cases have been registered against the gang, she believes it is not about breaking rules; it is about standing up and fighting for your rights. “Village society in India is biased against women. It refuses to educate them, marries them off too early, and barters them for money. The girls should be educated and made self-reliant,” she says.
Last year, Sampat Devi contested the state polls as an independent candidate but could muster only 2,800 votes. “Joining politics is not my chosen way to help people. We will keep up our good work, so the state does not take us for granted,” she says. In the badlands of Uttar Pradesh where nothing seems to work for the poor, this itself is a laudable aim. The future of the Gulabi Gang is bright. It’s a people’s movement and will grow bigger and bigger in the future provided we get support from the local administration. The Gulabi gang is the subject of the 2010 movie ‘Pink Saris’ by Kim Longinotto as also the 2012 documentary ‘Gulabi Gang’ by Nishtha Jain.