The Pink Sari Gang

Northern India's Female Revolution

The Pink Sari Gang

Crimes against women in India are on the rise. The rape of a 23-year-old physiology student late last year laid bare the failure of the Indian state to carry out its most basic duty: the protection of its female citizens. It is no surprise that women are looking for solutions outside of the government and are turning to vigilantism to protect themselves. Journalist and author, Amana Fontanella-Khan, investigates the Gulabi Gang—the band of female activists who are behind North India’s 400,000-strong Pink Sari Revolution.

The population of Uttar Pradesh matches that of Brazil and is considered to be India’s version of The Wild West. It has been written off as “lawless” by the central government. Despite being run between 2007-2012 by Kumari Mayawati, a lower-caste woman, Uttar Pradesh has remained a dangerous place for women: feudal rape is widespread and lower-caste women remain the most vulnerable to sexual violence.

It is in a bandit-plagued region of Uttar Pradesh called Bundelkhand, located in the southwest of the state, that one of the world’s most successful women’s vigilante organizations, the Gulabi Gang (known as the Pink Gang in English) is based. The group, named after its hot pink sari uniform and pink-painted bamboo sticks, formed in 2006 and is now reported to number 20,000 women — double the size of the Irish Army and eight times the estimated number of Al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan.

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The gang founder and self-appointed Commander-in-Chief, Sampat Pal, is an illiterate woman who was married off at the age of twelve and bore the first of her five children at the age of fifteen. Despite her humble background, Pal’s spartan two-room office in the dusty town of Atarra sees a steady flow of visitors from sunrise to sunset who are seeking solutions to problems that range from domestic violence and rape to crimes like “dowry deaths” — a widespread phenomenon whereby brides who do not offer a high-enough dowry after marriage are murdered by in-laws who seek more money.

When new cases arrive at her door, Pal asks detailed questions about the alleged incident and then makes sure to hear the other side of the story, often gathering the entire village together to determine the truth of a claim. Then, Pal will either seek a resolution in an Oprah-Winfrey-style group discussion or, if that is not possible, she will accompany women to the police station to help them file a formal complaint (this is, by far, one of the gang’s most subscribed services).

According to Human Rights Watch, 87% of Indians mistrust the police. Despite the fact that virtually all complaints in India are made by visiting a police station (as opposed to calling an emergency hotline) many hesitate before doing so. Registering what is called a First Information Report (FIR) is a fraught process. Often, citizens are turned away because stations are short-staffed and lack the necessary paperwork. It is common for police, who are underpaid and overworked, to demand bribes in return for registering a complaint. If a case is brought against a powerful person such as a politician or well-connected businessman, police will often shoo away petitioners because they are under the wrong-doers’ patronage.

Apart from rampant corruption, women face an additional barrier when approaching the police. Most Indian women will not enter a police station on their own, especially at night, given the numerous cases of custodial rape that have taken place directly inside the stations. Before the recent gang-rape case in New Delhi, the last time mass protests were held in response to sexual violence was in the 1970s. Back then, Indians took to the streets to decry the rape of Mathura, a teenage tribal girl, by police officers in the state of Maharashtra. The protests successfully resulted in the reform of laws pertaining to custodial rape, but despite the advances made since the Mathura case, such crimes remain widespread. The policing problem is particularly bad in Uttar Pradesh, which boasts the world’s largest police force under a single command. A.N Mulla, an Indian High Court judge, once described the Uttar Pradesh police force as “the biggest criminal organization in the world.”

Despite this, Pal and her women do not fear the police. In August of 2006, Pal stormed the police station in Atarra that claimed she was illegally detaining a man and, after a stand-off with the sub-inspector, Pal assaulted the police officer with her bamboo stick weapon. She and two other gang members were charged with numerous offences, including rioting, obstructing a public servant in discharge of public functions, and criminal intimidation, but she only spent one night in jail for the misdemeanors. The incident helped catapult her and the organization into local lore. In other instances, the gang stormed the Banda District Hospital in the city of Banda for refusing to treat a rape survivor. They also leapt in front of oncoming traffic to halt trucks that were transporting stolen grain from local government-rationed food stores. Bloomberg estimated that $14.5 billion worth of government-rationed food has been stolen in Uttar Pradesh over the past decade before it could reach the plates of the hungry.

Mob justice is common in India, a country where the courts suffer from a perpetual backlog of cases and where the police are considered too corrupt to effectively facilitate the justice process. A common form of street justice is called gherao in Hindi, whereby disgruntled members of the public surround a corrupt government establishment — an electricity office, a police station, a welfare store that distributes rationed food — and insist that the establishment gives in to the people’s demands for fair and efficient services. Sometimes, these types of protest end in bloodshed. On several occasions in the past few years, labour disputes in India have led to the murder of Human Resources managers on the factory floors. In 2012, at a Maruti Suzuki plant in the town of Manesar, workers set fire to their factory after they killed an executive.

While men are most often behind mob violence, there have been several high-profile cases of women taking the law into their own hands. In 2006, a mob of around 200 women in the city of Nagpur brutally murdered a man who was accused of having terrorized, raped and humiliated an entire community of women who lived in a local slum over the course of several years. Armed with vegetable knives and chilli powder, they descended on him at a local district court, leaving a bloody, dismembered body in their wake.

The recent gang-rape, which sent a one-billion-strong nation into a deep state of soul-searching, further revealed the appeal of raw street justice within the country. Following the attack, the Shiv Sena, an extreme right-wing regionalist party, said it distributed 21,000 knives of three inches long to women to provide them with a method of protecting themselves during attacks. “Don’t be afraid of using this knife if someone attacks you,” Ajay Chaudhari, leader of the knife campaign, was quoted by the party newspaper, Saamana, as saying. “We have set up a team of nine advocates to protect you from any potential court cases that may arise,” he added. The Shiv Sena has a women’s wing, called the Mahila Aghadi, that patrols slums in Mumbai and punishes men who sexually molest women. Women in Delhi are also taking security into their own hands. In the two weeks following the Delhi gang-rape case, the percentage of women applying for gun licenses shot up from 22% to 35%.

The Pink Gang, despite being armed with sticks, tend to eschew violence. Although they gained notoriety for beating men who had abused their wives, the gang is now deemed so powerful that a cautionary housecall suffices to put wayward husbands back in line. Now, a mere phone call from a senior Pink Gang member will prompt police to initiate an investigation into a case that authorities had previously refused to register.

Demand for interventions by the Pink Gang has grown so rapidly that Pal now has eleven “District Commanders” who handle local cases. “Since we have formed the Pink Gang, many people ask us for help. They have no faith in the police. These people were not getting justice earlier. They used to get tired of the court cases without getting justice. But now they get justice. Now even the police gets scared if [I] get information about a case. As the Pink Gang is getting famous, we also get some fake cases. We first scrutinize the case. We investigate it properly before taking action. We hear both sides before arriving at the decision. But if they are right, they get justice. They don’t need to go to police again,” says Pal.

The Gulabi Gang during a protest in Northern India. Photo by Torstein Grude.

Women join the gang for numerous reasons, but mostly they become vigilantes after having experienced abuse firsthand. One district commander, Geeta Singh, runs the Pink Gang operations in the city of Chitrakoot. She narrowly fled child marriage and being murdered by her own single mother (who was suicidal after not being able to provide for her daughters). Fearing that she would be married off to an older man (her uncle had attempted this already in the past), Singh eloped against her family’s wishes.

Singh first heard about the gang in 2010 when a TV news channel covered the gang officiating a “love-marriage”. In India, the majority of marriages are arranged by one’s family — “love marriages” are taboo in tradition-bound villages and couples who marry for love are often harassed and sometimes even fall victim to honor-killings. Singh admired what the gang was doing and decided to become a member. “It feels good to fight other’s fights and to stand-up against injustice. To fight against the police is a good thing because they do all the wrong things,” Singh says.

Today, women come to her one-room flat with their problems on a daily basis. Singh takes women who have been injured by abusive husbands to the hospital, helps them register their cases with the police and organizes protests if justice is not delivered swiftly. She has also helped runaway couples whose lives were being threatened and has organized Pink Gang “love-marriages” for them.

Another District Commander, Mitu Devi, who is based in Banda, approached Pal after the state refused to give her the pension benefits of her late husband. Devi, who calls herself the “Lion of Banda”, has received death threats for standing up to local gangsters but she remains committed to the gang’s fight for justice. “They are the ones who are afraid of us,” she says.

Pal’s own path toward vigilantism was a long one. After moving to her in-law’s village, Pal constantly fought against their insistence that she do labor-intensive work like grinding wheat. “I was very young and not very good at it,” she says. She also fought for her refusal to cover her face with a veil, following a practice called purdah. Her in-laws often accused Pal of only being able to birth girls (it was only after four daughters that she bore a son), and after much tension, Pal threatened to leave her husband if they didn’t move out of his parents’ house: a bold demand in a country where most women live with their in-laws and follow their rules for life.

Her next step toward independence came a few years later. Having taught herself how to sew as a child, Pal had a life-skill that would enable her to become independent in her twenties. Given the rarity of Pal’s situation, she was “scouted” by a local NGO that was looking to hire more women. Through her social work, Pal came into contact with multitudes of oppressed women who were living in small villages and when, in her forties, she became increasingly frustrated with the limitations of social work, she suggested that women form groups and gherao police stations when facing injustice. It was then that the Pink Gang was formed.

Since the mass-protests in New Delhi swept across the city following the gang-rape, many have suggested that the power to change India lies within the power of the country’s urban, rapidly-expanding middle class. Common headlines related to the protests read: “India’s Emerging Middle Class Awakens”. The assumption was that rural, poor women could not be true agents of change. The Pink Gang has belied that notion.

Despite not being connected via Twitter and Facebook, the Pink Gang has ensured that its message is heard across the country and even internationally. When the Indian reality TV show, Bigg Boss, invited Pal to participate in the show in 2012, she agreed because she believed it would allow her to raise awareness amongst millions of viewers. As a result, Pal and the Pink Gang became household names.

The success of the Pink Gang can be attributed to several factors. For one, Indian police generally exercise more restraint when controlling protests that are led by women (as opposed to men’s protests, where it is common for officers to violently break up crowds with batons). The Pink Gang has also effectively managed to harness the power of India’s burgeoning media that rushes to cover the protests of the colorful, photogenic women. Given that the Pink Gang has the media on its side, officials are now quick to respond to their demands.

Today, Pal wants to do more than petition against those in power: she wants to replace them. Many believe that politicians are one of the main obstacles in achieving greater gender equality. Following the Delhi rape case, politicians revealed just how out-of-touch they were when it came to women’s issues. Mohanrao Bhagwat, the head of the extreme Hindu nationalist group, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, responded to the attack by saying, “Such crimes hardly take place in ‘Bharat‘,” — the Hindi word for India — “but they occur frequently in ‘India’”. Bhagwat was drawing a distinction between the traditional “Bharat” of the countryside and liberal, westernized “India”. Vibha Rao, the chairperson of Chhattisgarh State Women Commission, made an equally controversial statement saying that women were “equally responsible” for rape. “Women display their bodies and indulge in various obscene activities. Women are unaware of the kind of message [their actions] generate,” she said.

Some comments by politicians have fuelled protests. Abhijeet Mukherjee, a member of parliament and also the son of India’s President, described protesters as “dented and painted” women — a reference to second-hand cars — and claimed they were on the streets because it was “fashionable”. Mukherjee’s statement was reflective of the government’s tone-deaf response to rape. When the government did finally acknowledge the severity of the problem, it was criticized for pushing through “quick-fix” solutions like fast-track court dates, naming new rape laws after the victim and seeking the death penalty for the alleged rapist while doing little to address deeper-rooted problems.

This state of affairs has fuelled the Pink Gang’s quest to enter politics. In India, a criminal record does not impede electoral success. Indeed, 47% of legislators in Uttar Pradesh face criminal charges. Sometimes, even outlaws have had successful forays into politics. Phoolan Devi, also known as the “Bandit Queen”, is a prime example. Despite having been convicted of the slaughter of twenty-two men in a village where Devi was allegedly gang-raped by upper-caste men, she went on to become a member of parliament in 1999 after serving an eleven-year sentence.

The Pink Gang is making steady strides towards the halls of political power. In August 2010, Sonia Gandhi, head of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty and leader of the ruling United Progressive Alliance, invited Pal for a one-on-one meeting in her New Delhi residence. A year later, Gandhi offered Pal a ticket with the Indian National Congress Party to run in the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly elections, which she accepted. In 2012, Pal contested in the seat of Manikpur, a constituency that, at the time, was run by a legislator who was behind bars for allegedly murdering a political opponent. Despite managing to attract more votes than any other Congress Party candidate contesting elections for that seat in recent history, Pal lost. Shortly after her defeat, she vowed to run again and win.

“The Pink Gang is very good, but we don’t have the law with us. The Pink Gang is certainly big, but we only fight with sticks,” Pal said in an interview, explaining why she wants to become a politician. “It is very important for good people to enter into politics. Unless good people get into politics, [the government] will distribute spoils amongst themselves and sell off the country,” says Pal.

As national frustration with the government soars, the Pink Gang offers an alternative that is appealing to many. Unless the government addresses the many short-comings that the Delhi rape case laid bare, it may have to guard itself against up-starts like the Pink Gang who think they can do a better job.

Further Reading:
Pilgrims of the Sacred River: Harvard professor John Macomber travels to Allahabad in Northern India to investigate the urban infrastructure behind the Maha Kumbh Mela: the largest human gathering in history.