Pink power on parade with the Gulabi Gang
Women from the lowest caste of Indian society are banding together in a vigilante group for protection
Gulabi Gang members from the village of Rauli Kayanpur dressed in their pink sari uniform. Photograph: Carol Ryan
Sampat Pal the founder and national commander of the Gulabi Gang talking with a neighbour. The hand drawn on the wall is the symbol of India’s Congress Party who have courted Sampat to run for political office. Photograph: Carol Ryan
A Gulabi Gang member from the village of Rauli Kayanpur dressed in her pink sari uniform. Photograph: Carol Ryan
Gulabi Gang members undergoing lathi/stick fighting training. Lathis are the 7 foot bamboo sticks the gang uses for rallies. Photograph: Carol Ryan
Sampat Pal addresses new members in a temple in the village of Rauli Kayanpur. Photograph: Carol Ryan
Bundelkhand is a brutally poor region in the north of India that has a reputation as a place where people still die of hunger. Every morning villagers squat in roadside ditches to empty their bowels for want of proper sanitation and one-fifth of the population are Dalits; a deeply repressed group unfortunate enough to be born at the bottom of India’s caste system.
The area is considered backward, lawless – a quarter of its elected representatives have serious criminal charges pending against them including murder and rape. The surrounding hills have long sheltered some of India’s most notorious bandits and the only ATM in a 40-mile radius is guarded by a man with a double barrel shotgun.
There are no foreign tourists here but locals are getting used to seeing white faces. Dozens of international journalists have come after hearing stories of an extraordinary vigilante group.
The Gulabi Gang is the world’s largest female vigilante force with 20,000 recruits and women who have never rebelled before are enlisting. It was dubbed the Gulabi Gang (gulabi means pink in Hindi) by local newspapers because of the bright pink saris members wear while agitating.
Sampat Pal, the woman at its helm, is stocky and sharp-eyed with a rasping voice that becomes explosive when she is angry – and she is quick to anger. Now in her mid- 50s, Sampat’s early life was typical of women in the region. Her patchy education ended aged 12 when she was married off to Munni Lal, an ice cream vendor 10 years her senior. By the age of 20 she had given birth to the couple’s five children and was finding marriage difficult.
Her mother-in-law pressed her to stay indoors, to produce male offspring and observe purdah (veiling her face in public and when speaking to relatives and her husband) but her personality was too strong for such subservience. “I was fiercely independent,” she says. “Women came and started scolding me about not covering my face so I said ‘okay, I will stay like this’,” and snatched the veil off her head completely.
Life is difficult in Bundelkhand but women bear the brunt of the region’s myriad problems; high rates of dowry demands and deaths, rampant sexual violence and lingering practices of child marriage and female infanticide.
It was an incident in 2002 that planted the idea of forming a vigilante group. Angered by listening to her neighbour beating his wife, Sampat called to the house but was ejected with a slew of abuse. She returned a few days later with a small army of local women who beat the husband black and blue in full view of the community. “I thought why not join women in a gang? Men will start fearing us, even officials will start fearing us. If something wrong is happening to a woman, we will all fight for her.”
Alcohol problem challenged
Female vigilantism is not uncommon in India where “official” justice is unreliable. In Andhra Pradesh, lower caste women banded together to solve an alcohol problem among their men that saw entire household earnings wasted on drink and led to the drowning of three drunk men in a well. Their solution? They beat workers in one town’s arrack (local brew) shop and husbands found intoxicated were pinned down and had the local speciality – chilli powder – forced into their mouths. These vigilante temperance squads led to the closure of 73 arrack outlets.
At times women have reacted murderously. Phoolan Devi, India’s Bandit Queen, spent years on the run after massacring 22 men to avenge her gang rape. In August 2004, a group of women lynched serial murderer Akku Yadav as he walked free from court. Angry that he had not been prosecuted, they set upon him with stones and knives. By the time the mob retreated he was found dead with 70 stab wounds, and minus his genitals.