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.
Walk through the front door of her house in the town of Badausa and Sampat can be found holding court with half a dozen men in the central chamber. Her husband is a wordless presence, long used to being sidelined by the steady flow of visitors who seek his wife’s counsel seven days a week. She has won the respect of men in the area.
"She is a lion," says Amar Gupta, who runs a shop near her home. "I have not heard of anyone apart from Sampat Pal who will stand up to the police."
A man arrives with his two daughter-in-laws to enlist them in the gang. They have not come far. Their village, Nakhta Burwa, is only 5km away but people regularly travel great distances to meet her. “It was my idea” the man says. “I read about her in the newspapers and I know they help a lot of people. I have to go away for work so they are most of the time at home alone. I want them to become part of the Gulabi Gang so that no harm comes to them.”
Wearing of the pink sari
Jai Prakash, the gang's male national co-ordinator who rarely leaves Sampat's side, registers the women in a thick ledger filled with passport-sized photographs of members. The women's details are recorded; her name, her husband and the village she belongs to.
They hand over a 300 rupee fee (€3.50) for life membership and receive their sari.
Wearing the pink sari is a form of protection in itself, so much so that local shops have found it difficult to keep the gang’s shade in stock. A call comes through to say that two more women are on their way from Hyderabad to see if Sampat can help with a land dispute. It is mid afternoon and she has been receiving people since 6am.
The gang’s activities have become legendary. In 2007, villagers began complaining that the government fair price shop that gives out subsidised food to the poor had stopped distributing grain.
India runs the world’s largest rationed food distribution system but most of the food never reaches the hungry. Sampat watched the owner and saw he was shipping grain out by night for sale on the black market. The gang uncovered a chain of corruption involving the police, welfare officers and shop owners who were diverting tons of grain each year to line their own pockets. The gang was hijacking the trucks and distributing the spoils to the poor.
The Uttar Pradesh (Northern State) police force is considered by many to be the largest criminal organisation in India; extremely corrupt and in bed with its political backers. Until recently, police stations were considered extremely unsafe places for women. Sampat's gang has kicked up a ruckus at every station in the region and won their grudging respect.
Soon after uncovering the grain corruption, the gang stormed a police station where a Dalit man had been held in custody for two weeks without any charges being brought against him.
They used a well-known technique of protest in India called "gherao" where an angry mob surrounds an offending establishment and uses sheer numbers and aggression to demand change. When the police refused to release the man, Sampat struck the commanding officer before tying him up.
It was unthinkable to stand up to the police in this way and the story spread like wildfire.
“A lot of enquiries came against me at that time,” laughs Sampat, betraying an unapologetic attitude to using violence. “The police are very helpful towards me now. Initially not so much. I have beaten them up once upon a time and that is why that fear is there.” These days a phone call from her clunky Nokia is enough to nudge the police to do their job properly.
In 2008, 300 gang members wearing pink saris and brandishing their trademark lathis (7ft bamboo sticks) surrounded an electricity depot in Banda where staff had turned off the supply and were demanding bribes. They roughed them up, locked them in the depot and promised to reopen the doors only when they agreed to resume service. The lights were back on within an hour.
In December 2012, just days after the gang rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student on a bus in Delhi left India reeling, another horrific attack happened near Sampat's home. A seven-year-old lower caste girl was taken from where she was playing and raped in a field. When the man was finished he smashed her head with a rock. As he was higher caste and politically connected, he was being protected from prosecution. The dead girl's mother approached the Gulabi Gang who sent word to its 15 district commanders to gather members for a huge rally. The gang surrounded the police station and brought an effigy of the man with a "rapist" sign tacked to his forehead. His protection was withdrawn and he was charged with the child's rape and murder.
The gang often uses humour to shame politicians into action. In September they gathered in the town of Chitrakoot to protest at the appalling state of the roads. Mammoth potholes had pooled with monsoon rains so the gang planted rice seedlings in the road, much to the amusement of 4,000 onlookers who gathered to watch. Again their protest was successful and repair works began two days later.
In the village of Rauli Kayanpur, Sampat arrives to meet a dozen new gang members. She leads through a doorway that opens onto a large courtyard surrounded by 20 traditional mud dwellings where masticating water buffalo are tied up outside each house for their milk. The women have turned out in their pink saris for lathi (stick fighting) training and are electrified by her presence.
Rama Devi, a 23-year-old mother of one, joined the gang one month ago to resolve a family dispute. "There was a lot of friction in our family so I became part of the group. For any poor person who can't find justice, this is where they come. We are so strong among ourselves now that we are capable of settling issues on our own and the police are not needed. They don't listen and look for bribes."
In the early days, the gang strategically steered clear of politics but recently members have contested local elections. In 2010, 21 gang members won municipality elections and Sampat is being courted by Sonia Gandhi and her Congress Party who have been trying for 20 years to make gains in the region where the BJP opposition party has traditionally been strong. Sampat ran in the 2012 state elections and was roundly defeated but hopes to get a ticket to run again in 2014.
There is dissent within the gang over the political ambitions of Sampat and some of her commanding officers, with members worrying that they could pollute the Gulabi Gang brand. But Sampat is convinced that political office would help spread her message further.
“Things would become much easier for me because I would be in a position of power. After one or two generations we could change things. Slowly, slowly change is coming.”
This article was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund