Story of Gulabi Gang: Robin Hood wears a pink sari

Sampat Pal gets up a gang of 1.4 lakh women who wear pink and dare deviant husbands. Because of her, damsels are no longer in distress in India’s Hindi heartland notorious for domestic abuse of women


Shivani Chaturvedi | March 7, 2014

The afternoon lull at the office of the superintendent of police (SP) in Fatehpur city of Uttar Pradesh, India, is broken by the noisy arrival of a tractor. As the vehicle pulls up outside the SP's office, about three dozen women – all draped in pink saris and wielding matching pink lathis, or bamboo sticks - jump off the tractor's trailer. Though she needs no introduction around here the feisty leader of the group announces with dramatic flourish: “Moi, Sampat Pal (I am Sampat Pal)” and strides in confidently past the policemen on duty. The guards step aside to allow entry to Sampat and her motley group of women aged between 18 and 65 united by a common cause and colour.

Their cause is justice for women of domestic abuse and their colour (of uniform) is pink, which also gives the group its name: Gulabi Gang (gulabi is pink in the local language).  The group in action today is just a fraction of the army of protectors of women's rights that Sampat commands in these dusty heartlands of India's largest state.

Today's mission is to draw the attention of the senior-most police officer in Fatehpur district to the lethargy of his staff in Kishanpur police station and to enlist the support of the law for Rekha Devi of Bairichi village. Rekha, 25, recently widowed, is being harassed by her father-in-law and brother-in-law who don't want to take the burden of looking after Rekha and her four children, all aged between 2 and ten. Worse, they are hellbent on dispossessing Rekha of her rights on the ancestral property of her husband. In their latest attempt to get rid of her, they have accused her of having an illicit relationship with the gram pradhan (village head) and ordered her to leave the house with all the children. She turned to the station house officer of Kishanpur police station (that's the nearest arm of the law for Bairichi village) for help but, unsurprisingly, she was rebuffed. She then turned to the Gulabi Gang for help.

Sampat travelled 80 km from her home in the neighbouring Banda district when she heard of Rekha’s cry for help. Once she reached Fatehpur district, local members of her fast-growing ‘gang’ joined in. The group first approached the station house officer who had turned Rekha away. When he still did not budge and refused to register a case against her male in-laws which entails automatic arrest of Rekha's tormentors, Sampat decided to raid the district police headquarters along with Rekha and her gang. Thankfully, Mala, 80, her mother-in-law, has always stood by Rekha's side but she was never a match for the hegemony of the family males. She is standing by Rekha's side even today.

Now, inside the SP's office, Sampat and her gang quickly bring the senior officer up to speed on the victimisation of Rekha and the unhelpful attitude of the Kishanpur police station. The scene, as unusual as it is dramatic, culminates in an unconditional assurance from the SP that their demands would be duly looked into and action initiated as set out in the law. In the interim, he assures, the police will ensure that Rekha and her children are not forced out on to the streets. Within fifteen minutes of their noisy arrival, Sampat and her Gulabi Gang make a triumphant exit.

A grateful Rekha and her mother-in-law instantly enroll as members of the Gulabi Gang. Rekha's mother, Maithiya, is already a member of the Gulabi Gang. It was Maithiya who goaded and convinced Rekha to gather the courage and confidence to approach the gang.

Much like Rekha, Mahaveera, 65, of Samadabad village in Fatehpur, joined the organisation when it helped her in getting a medh (a temporary structure for storing water) constructed outside her home.“Some villagers were daily creating a nuisance outside my house as they did not want me to get a medh constructed,” she says, “I felt helpless. As I had heard a lot about Sampat didi (sister), I decided to approach her. Gulabi Gang’s name is enough to ensure justice to the aggrieved. When my problem was solved, I started believing that every woman can really become courageous if she decides.”

Victims-turned-beneficiaries are so overwhelmed by the speedy dispensation of justice that they usually end up joining what has become a strong women's movement in the region. They gain confidence further as they are trained to use the lathi (cane) for self-defence besides techniques such as tying up miscreants with a rope. The gang has spread its network across eleven districts (Banda, Chitrakoot, Fatehpur, Farrukhabad, Kanpur, Allahabad, Pratapgarh, Noida, Modinagar, Meerut and Bijnor).

This how, driblet by driblet, the Gulabi Gang's membership has swelled to more than 1.4 lakh within seven years of its branded existence and pink, the colour of feminine grace and delicateness, has come to be associated with the band’s rather aggressive campaign for justice and empowerment of women.  Sampat Pal, its 53-year-old leader, has become a rallying force for the poor and illiterate women who have been at the receiving end of a male-dominated culture for centuries.

For the thousands of women who are finding solace now, the seeds of their happy story were sown more than five decades back. Sampat born in 1960 into a poor farmer's family in the highly conservative setting of Kairi village of Banda distrcit where the word of the males was law. As a young, unlettered girl Sampat grew up on a daily dose of abuse of women all around her. She herself was married off when she was all of 12 (in 1972) and sent off to her in-laws' home in Rauli village of the neighbouring Chitrakoot district. Through her teens, as a young bride, she grew up watching more abuse of women and came to develop a distaste for abusive men and a culture that did not seem to consider women worthy of societal equality.

One day in 1980 the revulsion that was building within erupted into unexpected action when she turned on a male member of her own family, Ram Milan Pal. Ram Milan was a habitual abuser of his wife but that day he had crossed all limits by denying his wife food for many days. That was about how much a young Sampat, now 20, could stomach. She decided to teach Ram Milan a lesson knowing fully well the trouble she would be courting within the family.

Decision made, Sampat gathered five women from the neighbourhood and confronted Ram Milan in the fields where he was at work. She warned him against misbehaving with his wife. Not given to being upbraided by any woman, let alone a little girl from his own extended family, Ram Milan lost his cool and started abusing her and her mates. After a bit of pushing and shoving, Sampat and her colleagues did what would be considered nothing less than revolutionary even in the India of 2013: they beat up Ram Milan black and blue!

This one impromptu assertion of women's rights by a village hot-head sent a strong message to Ram Milan and the rest of the males of the village. And Sampat and her band of five women tumbled on their mission. “As a small girl I used to see women in my house and in other houses in the village getting beaten up by their in-laws and husbands. Such scenes upset me and I decided early on that when I grew up I would never tolerate such torture and that I would also do something to help relieve other women of such suffering. But it was this incident that triggered everything and set out a future course of action," Sampat recalls with pride.

As word spread about their unbelievably bold action and its swift impact, more women from the village joined her group. Then women from the neighbouring villages and then from the other districts came in giving Sampat a wide base. A small incident had soon snowballed into a movement. This gave her so much clout that she could soon demand action from the law enforcement agencies rather than just plead for their indulgence on behalf of women.

Though she started out by helping women suffering from domestic violence, she soon began raising her voice against injustices meted out to tribal people of the poverty-stricken districts in the region. Beset by a feudal mindset and brutal neglect on part of the administration, hers was a welcome intervention for victims of violence. When persuasion failed, she responded with a fast-multiplying physical force, the only language readily understood here. Her in-laws did not look kindly upon her work, so in 1999 she shifted with her supportive husband to Badausa, a hamlet in Banda district, where he started a makeshift shop. Gradually women in distress started coming to her at her residence.

It wasn’t easy to overcome entrenched attitudes and creeping inefficiencies in the administration. She often received threats from local politicians. And since she had already set off a movement to fight against corrupt government officials, too, she never received any support from the administration. But she carried on.

As her vision and activities expanded, from plain vigilantism to fighting the three ills plaguing the region – patriarchy, caste atrocities and corrupt administration – she started to consolidate the organization. In 2003, she gave a formal shape to what seemed like a militia, registering it as a non-governmental organization called Adivasi Mahila Utthan Gram Udyog Sewa Sansthan (Institure for Uplift of Tribal Women and Village Industry). "It's mission was to support and train women to enhance their basic skills to become economically secure and develop confidence to protect themselves from abuse through sustainable livelihood options,” Sampat says.

It had 11 members in the management and was headquartered in Attara block of Banda district, about 200 km from Lucknow. On February 14, 2006 she chose a uniform for the group: a pink sari. Pink was a natural choice, she says: "Many other colours were already associated with various religious or political organisations. So I picked pink." And with deliberate forethought she chose to call her group Gulabi "Gang" suggestive of a group that would operate outsides the bounds of the law when required rather than an "association" that would remain within it. It carried a tinge of a band of outlaws. "It was simply to command respect."

Sampat could well be an avatar of Robin Hood for the underprivileged people. Ask Bare Lal, who was locked up in Attara police station and thrashed up by the cops for 11 days. Gulabi Gang stormed the police station and bashed up the cops. Doesn’t this amount to a mockery of law, though? “We try to solve each case by talks and counseling,” says Sampat. “Only when it doesn’t work, and the case is genuine, we resort to force.”

To illustrate her method, she recounts the case of Maya, a 12-year-old girl in Nagwada village in Banda, who was being married off to a 40-year-old man. “I tried to talk to the parents to prevent the child marriage. The parents were hellbent on marrying her off. But when the groom’s family demanded money from the girl’s parents, we got our chance. We beat them up the groom’s family and chased them away. We thus saved the girl from getting trapped in the social evil of child marriage,” she says.

A mother of four daughters and a son, when Sampat is not teaching lessons to policemen or thrashing troublemakers, she helps poor people in getting below poverty line (BPL) cards and tells them about their right to subsidised ration through the public distribution system (PDS) using those cards.

She has even initiated a campaign in the region demanding transparency in the issuance of BPL cards. Assisting her is a growing force of volunteers, with her deputies called district commanders in Fatehpur, Pratapgarh, Kanpur, Hamirpur, Jalaon, Meerut and Chitrakoot. A nominal sum of Rs 200 earns a newcomer a gulabi sari along with membership and, of course, a sense of security. The group also runs 44 sewing centres in Chitrakoot, Banda and Fatehpur. “Women are taught sewing free of cost. I want them to get self employed,” says Sampat, who describes herself on the organization’s website as a “redeemer with a purpose”.

Interestingly, many men have also come forward to help Sampat in her mission. But there is no dress code for the male members. They can usually be seen in kurta and pyjama of khadi or handspun cotton. However, the men play only a supportive role and are not invited to join in any campaign where force is required.

Sampat has not only won followers and influenced the administration in her region but also invited the admiration of people from abroad. In 2008, representatives of a French publisher, Oh! Editions, came all the way to the Gulabi Gang headquarters in Attara to convince her to narrate her autobiography. The result, ‘Moi Sampat Pal: Chef De Gang En Sari Rose’, as told to Anne Berthod, a French journalist, was later translated into English as well. When Sampat went to France for the release of the book, a group of women was so fascinated by her that they set up an association to support her. Association Gulabi thus came into being, with about 100 members, who chose pink T-shirt as their dress.

The book has spread her story across Europe and she was invited to Italy for the release of an Italian edition of the book accompanied by a documentary. There have also been Spanish and Portuguese translations. In 2010, a British documentary filmmaker, Kim Longinotto, produced a film on the gang, “Pink Saris”, which picked up several awards at film festivals.

She became a household name in India when she made bold to participate in the television game show Big Boss in 2011. Bollywood is not far behind. 'Gulaab Gang’, a film inspired by her story has been delayed but is releasing this year. It has the 1990s superstar Madhuri Dikshit in the lead role.

All this publicity and the larger-than-life profile it comes with have not diluted her focus on her primary concerns though. She is campaigning for the revival of cotton mills and a glass factory in the region beset with droughts and poverty. She has even written to the prime minister and the president, seeking their support in what she believes can be a solution to the region's twin problems of poverty and unemployment.

Looking for longer-lasting solutions to the region’s perennial problems through electoral politics, she contested the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections of 2012 on the Congress ticket, but lost to a Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) candidate, apparently because her party leaders and cadres were not enthused enough to campaign wholeheartedly for her.

Our conversation is cut short by the shrill ring of the telephone. Sampat listens briefly and tells the caller all help. She puts down the phone and rattles out instructions to her gang to spread the word to gather at the village square. “And tell them to carry their lathis,” she shouts over her shoulder as she leaves on her next mission.



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