x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Pink-clad women fight for justice in an Indian village

Since their formation two years ago in Banda, the Gulabi gang has gone after wife-beaters with lathis, the traditional Indian bamboo baton.

Sampat Pal, the head of the Gulabi gang, addresses her colleagues in the Attara village.
Sampat Pal, the head of the Gulabi gang, addresses her colleagues in the Attara village.

ATARRA, INDIA // On a recent afternoon, about two dozen women, all dressed in candy-pink saris, gathered beneath the cool shade of a gnarled banyan to hear a diminutive woman - referred to as "commander" - deliver what seemed like a military briefing. "If your husband beats you for stepping out of the house, you firmly tell him you are not his slave," she said, her face beetroot-red. "You tell him that he should sit at home and take care of the kids." All heads nodded in agreement. The "commander" is Sampat Pal, 46, a woman with little education, who heads an all-female, pink-clad vigilante group, that strikes fear in the hearts of adulterers, wife beaters and other wrongdoers. They are called the Gulabi gang. In Hindi, gulabi means pink. Since their formation two years ago in Banda, an impoverished and lawless district in the rural interiors of Uttar Pradesh, the Gulabi gang has gone after wife-beaters with lathis, the traditional Indian bamboo baton. They have also taken their fight to corrupt policemen. In this rural landscape, where bureaucracy makes life difficult, they goad apathetic government officials into action by shame. "We function in a man's world where men make all the rules," Ms Pal said. "This is a fight against injustice." Last year, the gang unearthed corruption in the local public food distribution system. A government-run shop was siphoning off grain intended for the poor to sell on the black market. One night, the women stopped two lorries loaded with grain en route to the market, and, despite threats by knife-wielding drivers, deflated the tyres and confiscated their keys. The women then forced the government to take control of the grain and distribute it. The unconventional ways in which the Gulabi gang work has fired the imagination of Banda's locals, who see them as heroes for giving a voice to the underdog in this caste-ridden and feudalistic landscape. "There used to be a pervasive feeling of helplessness," Ms Pal said, "a collective belief that fighting back is just not possible. But that is slowly changing." For Ms Pal, the seeds of rebellion were sewn at a young age. When her parents refused to send her to school, she protested by scribbling on the village walls. They finally relented, but then married her off when she was just nine. At 12, she went to live with her husband, an ice-cream vendor several times her age, and at 13 had her first of five children. But she was too ambitious and precocious to remain hidden behind a veil all her life. Moved by the deplorable plight of women, she began engaging with local non-governmental organisations to combat social malaises like child marriage, dowry and domestic abuse. Her family initially opposed her rubbing shoulders with men and relinquishing her veil, they soon changed their attitude when they recognised her zeal. Her experiences emboldened her to form her own fiery pink sorority, run solely by women. Since its inception, thousands of women have come forward to become members. Over time, the fight has come to include corrupt officials. Corruption, she said, is like a cancer eviscerating the economy and stalling development. She reminisces how officials in Atarra for years ignored the pleas of locals to pave one of the village's deeply rutted roads. "We realised they would not act until their palms were greased," Ms Pal said. So, the pink-clad women took it upon themselves to get the job done. They descended upon the local district magistrate, GC Pandey, roughed him up and forced him to sign the necessary paper authorising the road to be built. Not everyone agrees with pink vigilantes' methods. Ms Pal was formally charged with 11 offences, including rioting, attacking a government employee and obstructing an officer in the discharge of duty. "She is a bold woman," said Ashutosh Kumar, Banda's superintendent of police. "But she works like a kangaroo court." Mr Kumar said he admires Ms Pal's grit, but not her gang's unorthodox methods. "To face down men in this part of the world, you have to use force," she said. But these days, given her popularity and influence, the force is taking a back seat. Shortly after receiving an SOS text message from a neighbouring village, where work has been left undone for months, Ms Pal arrived, but without her army. Instead, she picks up the phone, dials the district magistrate's number, and, after a few murmured words, hangs up. "Your work will be done," she assures the villagers. achopra@thenational.ae