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Sampat Pal (second from left) with Gulabi Gang members in Mahoba district of Uttar Pradesh.

Show of strength

Pink Brigade fights for women’s rights in India’s rural heartland

By Pamposh Raina on March 16, 2016

On a warm February morning, about 350 miles south of New Delhi, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, a small, single story secretariat in Sahjora village was abuzz with activity. In one corner of its courtyard four men were busy fixing a broken hand pump, a common source of water for villagers. Others helped unload folded green carpets, bugle-like loudspeakers and a few dozen red plastic chairs from a farm tractor that had navigated a dirt road lined with patches of parched land and mustard fields, to make the delivery for an all-women meeting to be held at the venue — otherwise reserved for the male-dominated village council.

It was almost noon by the time women had begun to saunter inside the rusted gate of the building in pairs and groups, some with babies clinging to them, others clutching pink bamboo batons, or lathis in their fists. Each of them wore a hot pink chiffon sari with its loose end draped over her head. Dark colored dots, or bindis, stuck on their foreheads and vermillion powder in bright shades of red and orange — a mark of marriage for Hindu women — neatly colored the parting of their hair. Bead strings hung around their necks, glass bangles jingled on their wrists and cheap imitation gold jewelry adorned their noses and ears. Many had even painted their finger- and toenails pink. They were members of the Gulabi Gang, dressed accordingly in their gulabi, or pink, uniform.

Sampat Pal, self-styled national commander of the Gulabi Gang, formed the all-female brigade a decade ago to fight for the dignity and rights of women in the rural heartland of Uttar Pradesh, the most populous Indian state, with about 200 million people, and one steeped in patriarchy, extreme poverty, low levels of literacy and high crime rates.

The group is mostly active in Bundelkhand, part of which lies on the southern edge of Uttar Pradesh, the other half spilling into neighboring Madhya Pradesh state. Once a fiefdom of Hindu warriors, the region is now notorious for severe droughts and farmer suicides. Membership has swelled to a 400,000 strong network with a marginal presence in villages in the states of Bihar and Haryana, which have among the country’s worse statistics on gender violence.

“Where have you reached?” Pushpa Singh screamed into her mobile phone, speaking to a fellow member. Singh, the convener of the meeting, now running behind schedule because women traveling from neighboring villages were still on their way, as was the guest of honor, Pal. Patchy public transport and the lack of a passable road for a good part of the five-kilometer stretch connecting the venue to the nearest town slowed the commute.

The show of strength was important for Singh, commander of the Raebareli district overseeing about thousand women spread across seven villages in Uttar Pradesh. It was the first time that she had been tasked to organize the annual gathering of all members from her district. Unlike most of her colleagues, who never went to school, 46-year-old Singh has a tenth-grade education. The top boss, who makes all appointments, promoted her last year.

In the loosely structured three-tier organizational hierarchy, any woman interested in becoming a member is admitted for a standard one-time fee of 500 rupees ($7), a little over half of which goes towards the uniform and identity card bearing the registered trademark of the group, along with the signature and photograph of Pal. The remaining money goes into a pool, maintained by a district commander, which is mostly used toward the travel expenses incurred by women for group meetings and other common activities. “My job is to try and resolve problems faced by women in the gang,” Singh said.

“We are in the field every day to meet with women,” she said. “If the police, for instance, does not listen to a woman we collectively go to the concerned police station and get her complaint lodged,” she explained. At times it is a fight against dishonest government contractors refusing to pay wages to women, some of them pregnant and toiling at construction sites to feed their families.

Sampat Pal (extreme left) and her Gulabi Gang marching out of the police headquarters in Banda, Uttar Pradesh, during a protest against corrupt lawyers in February, 2016. (photo credit: Pamposh Raina)
Sampat Pal (extreme left) and her Gulabi Gang marching out of the police headquarters in Banda, Uttar Pradesh, during a protest against corrupt lawyers in February, 2016.
(photo credit: Pamposh Raina)

Even dealing with local administrations to obtain standard identity documentation such as ration cards often requires the intervention of the Gulabi Gang. The card authorizes subsidized monthly food rations to households earning below a certain minimum annual income under the government’s food distribution system, but corrupt low-level government officials often extort money from poor families seeking to process their cards.

Singh was inspired to become part of the Gulabi Gang four years ago when she attended one of their meetings, held in a village near hers. “I was impressed by the way didi helped a woman get justice,” she said of Pal, addressing her as elder sister in Hindi, as most women do.

It was a case of marital discord. A man had abandoned the woman he had married out of choice along with their child.

“Why did you marry her and then leave her?” Pal had asked the man during the meeting. After a series of conversations between the couple and their families mediated by the Gulabi Gang, the man apologized and took back his wife and child. They have been living happily since, Singh said.

In the courtyard women were milling around under the sun. Some sat on the haphazardly arranged chairs and others took to the carpeted ground. Among them was Shivkali, who was attending the annual meet for the first time. Just like other members, she was a volunteer.

“We are here to help each other. The benefit of joining is that if any of us is exploited we stand up for each other,” said the 45-year-old, who goes by her first name only. Renu Devi, a woman in her 30s, chimed in: “ I am here for my education. I learn about my rights here.”

Susheela Devi, mother of three and wife of a brick kiln laborer, experienced first hand what the Gulabi Gang could do for her before signing up as a member last year. She had lodged a police complaint after the local goons in her village usurped her family land, but no action was taken. When she approached the Gulabi Gang, the women helped her with police follow-ups and necessary paperwork, and eventually the matter was resolved.

A member of the "Gulabi Gang" holds a "lathi". (REUTERS/Parth Sanyal)
A member of the Gulabi Gang holds a lathi. (REUTERS/Parth Sanyal)

“First women get together and approach the other party involved in a dispute. If they don’t agree we approach the administration, and if that doesn’t help either we are not afraid to wield lathis,” said Susheela Devi, referring to the bamboo batons commonly used as a weapon by police and men in Indian villages.

But the Gulabi Gang leader has trained her teammates to resort to the lathi mainly for self-defense and as a deterrent. “When men see women with lathis, they get scared. They may say anything behind our backs, but they say nothing to our face,” she said.

Sampat Pal, self-styled national commander of Gulabi Gang, listening to the complaint of a man at Banda railway station in Uttar Pradesh. (photo credit: Pamposh Raina)
Sampat Pal, self-styled national commander of Gulabi Gang, listening to the complaint of a man at Banda railway station in Uttar Pradesh. (photo credit: Pamposh Raina)

One of the men present at the venue listened intently. He hesitantly broke his silence when the women were engrossed in another conversation. “This is an area of goons and there is absolute lawlessness here,” said Sushant Kumar, a 37-year-old local resident who recently quit his job with a private company in Delhi to return home to attend to family matters. But despite a bachelor’s degree he could only find menial farm jobs in his village.

“If someone wants to do something for the society, people are out there to get you. They will be negative about you. If people remain ignorant it makes it easier for local politicians to siphon off funds. So why will they care about the Gulabi Gang? ” Kumar asked.

He was interrupted when a silver-grey Tavera, a Chevrolet utility vehicle, stopped right outside the secretariat. Pal had finally arrived. As she entered the gate, about 100 women who had congregated by then stood up in rapt attention and chanted “Gulabi Gang Zindabad” (“long live Gulabi Gang”).

She stood out against the rest. A pink cotton sari with a thin golden border and white block-printed floral motifs was pulled tight around her plump girth, its loose end cascaded from her left shoulder, and a red bag hung on the other one. Her black hair was gathered into a clip around the nape of her neck. With a slow but confident gait she strode inside, glad-handing the women before sitting on a chair amidst the scrum.

In her gruff voice and animated style she had just begun to interact with her team — questioning those who were not wearing the uniform — when Singh got up to prepare tea.

“Let your husband do it,” 53-year-old Pal told her.

“Today is like women’s day for us, we will only celebrate,” she explained to the attendees, some of whom were eager to discuss their problems with her. Each year on February 14, the Gulabi Gang organizes a gala to celebrate its anniversary. But this year, instead, the district commanders had been instructed to organize separate smaller gatherings like the one Pal was invited to preside over. (It was pure coincidence that the group was formed on Valentine’s Day).

“I still don’t know how to say it,” she confessed, struggling to enunciate “Valentine’s.”

“No one here knows what it means. This is a celebration of love within the gang,” she said.

A tray holding tiny plastic cups filled with tea was circulated amongst the women, followed by a second round as more women poured in. Sipping the sweet milky tea, Pal asked Women in the World to interview her in front of the crowd, as many of her teammates gathered there knew little about her life story.

Sampat Devi Pal (L), head of the "Gulabi Gang" addresses her colleagues at their office in Attara village in 2008. (REUTERS/Pawan Kumar)
Sampat Pal (L), head of the Gulabi Gang addresses her colleagues at their office in Attara village in 2008. (REUTERS/Pawan Kumar)

Born to a farmer’s family in Bundelkhand, she was the eldest of four children. Only the boys in the house were sent to school. The older one dropped out after third grade and became an ascetic while the younger brother pursued a master’s degree in English and works as an insurance agent today. Being a girl did not stop young Sampat from teaching herself to read and write.

When her family sent her to graze cattle in the fields she would often sneak out instead and sit outside a classroom at her village school, watching teachers impart lessons to students in Hindi, a common medium of instruction in many schools in rural India even today.

On the days when she got caught up with farm chores and couldn’t listen in on classes, she would ask the boys about their lessons after school hours. If they refused to share what they’d learned, she did not hesitate to rough them up. An empty ground and some twigs were all that she needed to practice her writing. “I was scared to ask my parents to send me to school. That is how girls used to be in those days,” she said.

Married at 12 and a mother by 15, as a child bride she resisted the rules imposed on her by her mother-in-law. She was not allowed to cook in the kitchen without permission, or speak to neighbors at her will, and was expected to follow the ancient practice of ghoonghat, which requires a woman to veil her face with the loose end of her sari or scarf. “First I was expected to follow traditions in my parents house and then at my in-laws house. I would often wonder, are men ever expected to do the same?” she said. “I would question my mother-in-law. ‘Why should I wear the ghoonghat? Why shouldn’t I talk to people: am I dumb’?”

Not only did she defend her own rights, she also stood up for other women from a young age. At 20, when a man in her neighborhood thrashed his wife and refused to mend his ways despite several warnings from Pal, she took a group of women with her to beat him up. Since then, no man in that village has dared to hit his wife.

Members of the "Gulabi Gang" walk through Attara village. (REUTERS/Pawan Kumar)
Members of the Gulabi Gang walk through Attara village. (REUTERS/Pawan Kumar)

Gradually, women started approaching her with their problems, and she was chosen as the head of the village council. “At first my mother-in-law used to get jealous, but then she was scared of me and wouldn’t say anything to me,” laughed Pal.

Going to neighboring villages on foot and bicycles in an era when cheap cell phones did not exist and landlines were a preserve of the rich in India, she managed to create a support base of about 600 women. “It wasn’t easy to get women to step out of their homes independently because many men objected to it. Some women did it on the sly,” she said. “Men had to be talked into the process.”

Besides educating women about their rights, Pal also fought social ills such as untouchability, outlawed by the Indian constitution but widely practiced in parts of rural India, where it is used to socially discriminate against people who belong to the lowest rung in Hinduism’s caste hierarchy. “To challenge the practice of untouchability in our village I drank water at a low-caste leatherworker’s house,” she said. Rigid followers of the Indian caste system consider the untouchables physically and morally unclean and any contact with them is believed to pollute members of the upper caste.

“When women learned about what I had done, they left me.”

After facing social boycott and learning of a conspiracy to murder her, she left the village with her husband and five children to settle down in neighboring Badausa village, in the Banda district of Uttar Pradesh, her current residence. The family rebuilt their lives from scratch. Her husband, who had been a farmer, became an ice-cream vendor, and Pal started selling tea at a kiosk. “Whenever I faced any difficulty I would sing. I have never talked about my pain in the open,” she said. “My husband and children have always supported me. No one can break me.”

Members of the "Gulabi Gang" shout slogans as they gather in the northern Indian city of Allahabad July 6, 2009. (REUTERS/Jitendra Prakash)
Members of the Gulabi Gang shout slogans as they gather in the northern Indian city of Allahabad July 6, 2009. (REUTERS/Jitendra Prakash)

She continued reaching out to women. The network grew stronger and moved beyond the villages to the district level. During a demonstration organized by her group, one woman got lost – that was the day Pal decided to have a formal identity for her group. The choice of color for the uniform came about by eliminating the hues associated with Indian political parties.

Pal revealed that pink also happened to be her favorite color because it was the color of her wedding sari. Once the attire was chosen, it was in jest that the women in pink decided to call themselves a “gang,” hailing, as they do, from a state that is notorious for gangsters. After the group formally consolidated, among its early initiatives was to pool in some finances, food grains and lentils to lend to members in need. It freed them from the clutches of village moneylenders who charged inflated interest rates, and ration shops that often fleeced them.

Pal also encouraged women to use the funds to start small businesses like bangle selling or tailoring to help them become financially independent and pay back the loans with their earnings. She taught many women to sew.

As people noticed her efforts to empower women, she received national as well as international recognition and awards. Her work became the subject of books and television documentaries, something that brought in money to her organization, which is a registered non-profit.

The cash inflow allowed her to introduce skill-development programs for women. She bought sewing machines to set up six stitching centers for girls in the Bundelkhand region which are mostly run by women from their homes, including three of her daughters. The instructors charge a monthly fee of 400 rupees ($6) and after some training the girls independently earn about 3,000 rupees ($44) every month.

Pal also started a co-ed school in Roli Kalyanpur, her husband’s village, where she previously had been shunned. At the Gulabi Gang Children’s School about 250 students are taught from grades one through eight at a nominal monthly fee of 10 rupees (14c) in a makeshift school building.

The group made further inroads in male bastions by winning seats in the council elections held across villages in the region and directly participating in grassroots democracy. The Gulabi Gang’s triumphs have also been marked by a measure of controversy: standing against the community in support of girls who earned the wrath of their families for choosing their own life partners, for example, and the detention of its leader for hitting a police constable.

Sampat Devi Pal greets a guest as she arrives at a Paris bookstore to promote her book "Me, Sampat Pal, head of the Pink Sari Gang", in 2008. (REUTERS/Charles Platiau)
Sampat Pal greets a guest as she arrives at a Paris bookstore to promote her book “Me, Sampat Pal, head of the Pink Sari Gang”, in 2008. (REUTERS/Charles Platiau)

A distressed woman whose husband had been picked up by the police and locked up for days had approached Pal after policemen gave her no information about the grounds for his imprisonment. “I accompanied the woman to the police station and asked the constable: ‘why have you detained her husband?’” she recalled. “He started abusing me and picked up his lathi to beat me. I parried the blow and instead hit him with the lathi,” she said. The man was eventually freed and so was Pal after spending a night behind bars.

“I knew nothing about the law back then. But now I am careful, I never take the law into my hands.”

She stopped speaking, picked up the microphone and broke into a folk song. It was time for celebration. The women repeated after her as the two local artists hired for the event lent music on the keyboard and dholak, a two-sided Indian drum. Composing ditties that carry social messages is a talent Pal is proud of. She says that she often uses it as a tool to educate women.

From the need to enlighten, emancipate and make every female financially independent to the need to end the practices of dowry and child marriage, Pal has a ditty for every theme to do with women’s empowerment.

The mood of the crowd shifted from celebratory to somber and some eyes welled up listening to ballads that perhaps touched a raw nerve. But spirits lightened after some women sitting beside Pal took to the center of the courtyard and began dancing, at her insistence. They gyrated, twitched their hips and stamped their calloused feet. The finale was marked by Pal’s brief snake dance.

Before leaving she exhorted her teammates to gear up for a rally in Banda district, against a lawyer who had hit his wife, harassed her for dowry, and allegedly cheated on her. “We need to stand up against lawyers who don’t respect women,” she told them.

Things started going downhill for Saroj Yadav and her lawyer husband, Ravendra Yadav, a few months after their arranged marriage in late 2014.

“My husband and his family beat me up and threatened to kill me if I told anyone about it,” said the demure, 24-year-old Saroj. Eventually she told her family about the matter and they approached her in-laws.

“They were abusive. They told me that my daughter was dark, she couldn’t converse in English, couldn’t cook. They made several false allegations and threatened to throw her out of the house,” said Saroj’s father, Ambika Yadav, as his eyes became moist.

One day Saroj was taken to her father’s house by her husband, who never came back to get her. She now lives in a rented accommodation with her brother and works as a nurse.

“They are demanding a car,” said Ambika, who has taught sociology at a government college in Badausa for a good part of his life. He spent upwards of 10 lakhs (about $15,000) on his daughter’s wedding and trousseau by drawing on his savings and loans from family and friends. “We knew Sampat Pal was a social worker so we went to her. We didn’t want to involve the police,” he said. “God give her a long life. She has dedicated her life toward helping others. I tell my students to be like her,” he said.

After Pal urged the family to bring the matter to the police, they filed a complaint. Saroj and her husband were questioned in a police station where, in a heated argument between the couple, Ravendra allegedly lashed out at his wife and slapped her in front of a police officer. However in an interview with Women in the World, he denied that the incident ever took place and claimed that all allegations against him and his family were baseless. He instead accused his wife of ill-treating and harassing his family and said that he had filed for divorce in December last year.

On the morning of the rally, Pal had donned her pink uniform, hopped into a car parked outside her house and taken the shotgun seat beside her driver. Along a busy street in Badausa with semi-urban surroundings, amid a mix of shops and residences with metal shutters for entrance gates, her house bears a plaque on its facade carrying her name, title and the address. There is no mention of any male family member.

About 20 people, including her immediate family of six and other relatives, share the modest single-story dwelling.

It was a 35-mile-drive to Banda town where the demonstration was to be held around noon. En route, Pal stopped by the newspaper kiosk to check if the local press had paid any attention to the media release she had personally handed to newspaper offices as well as the police about the protest. She was pleased with the publications that made a mention or, better still, carried her photograph with a write-up, but bitter towards the ones that did not.

Well-respected and somewhat feared among the locals, she is greeted on the streets when her car stops at red lights or slows down in traffic. Young girls sitting in buses smile at her, she waves back and chuckles. She says that after her appearance on the Indian television reality show Big Boss a few years ago, people started recognizing her in public.

Some even call her “netaji,” a Hindi honorific for a politician, referring to her bid for a seat in the Uttar Pradesh assembly in 2012 backed by the Indian National Congress, India’s grand old party, which governed the country for much of the last six decades.

She concedes that she lost because, as a political neophyte, she was ill-prepared. But she is confident of victory if she gets another chance at the state elections slated for next year. “The Congress party came to me because they saw my work, I did not go to them asking for a ticket,” she said with pride. “I have been working for people for the last three decades.”

Pal minces no words to express her disdain for the current crop of politicians running the country and those running her home state. She criticizes them for making tall promises during the election season and forgetting about their voters later. Her praise is reserved exclusively for the top leadership of the left-leaning Congress party, which was ousted from power in the 2014 national election by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party led by Narendra Modi.

Pal starts her day at 8am, usually by attending to people who come to her with their problems. It is night by the time she returns home, often having spent hours on the road traversing a few hundred miles to meet with members of her gang or others who need her support. She says that she does not expect anything in return from anyone she helps. However, if an individual or family is soliciting her intervention, she expects them to pay for her transportation at least.

Her busy schedule leaves her with little time for her children and 12 grandchildren. But she does not complain. Instead she says that she wouldn’t know what else to do with her time, if not work.

Since the Gulabi Gang’s strength lies in numbers, on her way Pal made a few phone calls to her lieutenants to check on the head count. Reaching the railway station in Banda, the designated meeting spot, she proudly announced: “ Look at the strength of my ladies — they have come from everywhere.”

About 60 women had arrived in groups late into the previous night, traveling on trains from their villages in and around the Bundelkhand region, sleeping at the railway platform. Besides their train fare and perhaps a cup of tea and samosa, there was no reward for them. And only a few had ever met the woman they were fighting for. But none of that mattered. The pink-clad brigade marched out of the railway station attracting attention from passers by, one of whom exclaimed, “Oh this is the Gulabi Gang! ”

Their first stop was the police headquarters in Banda. Pal walked into the senior most police officer’s chamber with a few women and asked him authoritatively, “What is being done in the lawyer’s case? ”

“Why has [Ravendra Yadav] not been arrested? ” she asked. On her insistence he summoned his deputy, Vinod Singh, who had witnessed the lawyer slapping his wife. He confirmed details of the incident.

“We could not have arrested him on the basis of that one incident,” said Singh, Circle Officer for Banda city. He added that a complaint against the man had been filed and was being looked into.

Pal was unconvinced. She said the matter was being taken lightly because the officials were dealing with a lawyer — had it been someone else he would have been behind bars already. “Let the police do its job and we will do ours,” she said, now riled up. The police officers listened to her patiently without reacting.

Officer Singh explained that he did not see Pal’s inquisition as interference with the police’s routine job. In fact, he remarked that the Gulabi Gang has been helpful by way of highlighting certain cases and bringing them to the police’s attention.

Pal walked out, led her women onto the street and shouted slogans including, “Death to Ravendra (Yadav) lawyer” and “Only if you respect women will you rule in this country.” Saroj Yadav, who flanked Pal, stoically listened.

Gulabi Gang mimicking a Hindu ceremony believed to ward off evil influences by chanting mantras and making offerings into a consecrated fire. They threw husk-like concoction into the flames and chanted slogans against corrupt lawyers and corrupt leaders, and extolled the strength of women. (photo credit: Pamposh Raina)
Gulabi Gang mimicking a Hindu ceremony believed to ward off evil influences by chanting mantras and making offerings into a consecrated fire. (photo credit: Pamposh Raina)

The sloganeering continued for a few minutes until the group entered a neat little triangle that sits at the intersection of three busy streets. A tiled pit inside was used to light up a fire. Mimicking a Hindu ceremony believed to ward off evil influences by chanting mantras and making offerings into a consecrated fire, the women stood around the makeshift fire-pit and repeatedly threw a husk-like concoction into the flames, chanting slogans against corrupt lawyers and corrupt leaders, and extolling the strength of women.

Saira Banoo, a woman in her 20s, was one of the youngest protestors. She was married at 14, soon after dropping out of school, as her father, a blind schoolteacher, could not afford her education. A few years into her marriage, her husband, several years her senior, harassed her and eventually married another woman without Banoo’s knowledge. By then the couple had two children and she was left to fend for them on her own.

She had filed a case of domestic violence against her husband, which was recently decided by the court in her favor, assuring her a monthly sum of 5,500 rupees ($80) for maintenance and 250,000 rupees ($3,600) towards legal expenses she had paid so far. “The judge presiding over my case told me: ‘Include me in your Gulabi Gang,’” she laughed. “But I had to tell him that it’s not for men.”

Banoo said that she would go back to her husband on her own terms. According to her, he has made several attempts to reconcile but she has not given in. “I am a confident and well-respected woman today. And it is all because of the Gulabi Gang,” she said. “Had I not met Sampat Pal, I would have still been running from one court to another.”

Pamposh Raina is a Delhi-based journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @Pamposhr