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Female vigilante tells Indian women to vote for her

Sampat Devi Pal is a sign of how things have changed in the badlands of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state

Leader of the Gulabi Gang, Sampat Pal Devi (C) gestures as she chats with members during a protest in New Delhi in 2009. The Gulabi Gang (Pink Gang), a group of women in rural India who strive for social justice, don pink saris and fight for women's rights and better conditions for the poor.
Leader of the Gulabi Gang, Sampat Pal Devi (C) gestures as she chats with members during a protest in New Delhi in 2009. The Gulabi Gang (Pink Gang), a group of women in rural India who strive for social justice, don pink saris and fight for women's rights and better conditions for the poor.

MANIKPUR, INDIA // When Sampat Devi Pal and her "pink gang" pulls into Ramnagar village, she steps out and the men scatter.

The leader of the Gulabi Gang, an all-woman vigilante group, is well known here for beating men who mistreat women.

She is no Phoolan Devi, Uttar Pradeshs's infamous Bandit Queen who was raped and then took to crime and killing before being elected to the national parliament, serving until she was assassinated in New Delhi in 2001.

But she is a sign of how things have changed in the badlands of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state and the centre of the country's Hindi "cow belt".

Ms Devi is here simply asking for votes. She is standing for the state assembly for the Congress Party that rules the nation. Ignoring the men, she goes instead straight to the village women sitting under a banyan tree and begins her speech.

"The other parties are corrupt. They have done nothing for you in all this time."

"Vote for me."

There is silence.

She immediately stops haranguing the crowd, and begins stroking the head of a little girl. Ms Devi fixes her piercing steel-blue eyes on an elderly woman.

"Do you want her to grow up and be a slave to our husbands like us?" she asks fiercely.

She has their attention. The women in the village stop pulling water from the well and gather around.

She breaks into a familiar folk song, with her own version of the lyrics. It's a song of an English-educated boy and his uneducated wife. The more she tries to please him, the more she fails. She mistakes his English words for Hindi. He asks for water, she hears "tomater" (tomato). She mistakes the sound of "good" for the Hindi word, gur, which means jaggery (cane sugar). She over-sweetens the tea. Frustrated, as the song ends, the boy whips the girl for being a failure as a wife.

"What I cannot say to a person's face I turn into a song," says Ms Devi.

This is only one of a wide repertoire of sassy songs with a lesson. She sings to break down traditional barriers and address the performance of the state's chief minister, Kumari Mayawati. She sings it to the tune of a popular Bollywood song and throws in a few expletives.

When she walks through Rajapur village, one of 516 villages that make up constituency in Manikpur district in eastern Uttar Pradesh, her supporters trail behind yelling: "Sampat, commander of the Gulabi Gang, Congress candidate, Zindabad! [long live]"

The Gulabi Gang dress in pink saris. They look tough. They carry long bamboo poles with which they threaten to, and sometimes use, on men who abuse their wives.

"I've saved a lot of girls by beating up a lot of men," Ms Devi says proudly.

She was forced into marriage when she was 12. She gave birth at 15, to the first of five children. She thinks she is now 47 or 48. There are no reliable records of her birth in India.

Ms Devi caught India's attention when she beat up a policeman in public in 2008 for the illegal detention of a villager.

She caught the world's attention after the 2010 release of The Pink Saris, a documentary, which chronicled her work in the poor and undeveloped region of Bundelkhand in eastern Uttar Pradesh, one of the poorest parts of one of India's poorest states.

Now, Ms Devi is hoping to turn her popularity into a seat in Uttar Pradesh's legislative assembly. She and 22 other candidates are vying for 280,000 votes in the Manikpur constituency. Some of her main opponents are from the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), headed by Ms Mayawati, the state's chief minister, and the Samajwadi Party (SP).

She has strong grassroots support, the villagers say. The results will be known next month.

The transition from gang leader and feminist campaigner to politician has not been easy for Ms Devi.

She struggles not to swear.

Being a tough woman in a country where women take a backseat is also not easy.

Ms Devi also tries to control her natural urge to settle problems with a stick.

On a recent night, she encountered a drunk while campaigning. She tried to explain to him the dangers of alcohol abuse.

"He told me that you're only lecturing me now because you're a politician," Ms Devi said. "I wanted to slap that man into sobriety," she said, gesturing angerly.

Ms Devi also has harsh words for her opponents. "They hand out alcohol to buy votes," she said.

With little development and few jobs, many local men become angry and restless. The source of the hopelessness is evident in the landscape.

Little grows here beyond crops of wheat and mustard when it rains, and scrub that resists the lack of moisture.

The Bundelis, the locals in one of the most under-developed parts of India, rely on the monsoon. One bad year is enough for disaster. Last year, it rained for the first time in seven years.

Yet, one of India's largest rivers, the Yamuna, runs through Bundelkhand and nothing has been done to use that water to irrigate farmlands.

These badlands are also famous for their bandits, or dacoits. Most are petty criminals. Some, such as the Bandit Queen, were abused and then tried to help the lowest in society.

In Manikpur, rich with history of local bandits, the villagers dismiss any comparisons between Phoolan Devi and Ms Devi.

"She does not kill men, she just beats them," says Geeta Saunkar of Ms Devi. Despite the fact that the villagers live in constant fear of the dacoits, many of the young people speak of them with a reverence bordering on worship.

It was the mother of a dacoit who inspired Ms Devi to run for politics in 2007. Ms Devi lost.

This time, she hopes it will be different.

"Not all women can be great like me. But at least they know they have that option in life," Ms Devi says.

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae