The Bundelkhand is one of the poorest parts of the Uttar Pradesh region of northern India. It’s also one of the most populated areas of an already hugely overpopulated country. The inhabitants of Bundelkhand face a daily struggle for survival as they cope with infertile land, a corrupt judicial system, and India’s oppressive, outdated caste hierarchy. It’s a lot of fun. And this might not come as a surprise to you, but let’s say out loud right now that India is also not exactly a haven for equal rights for women. Domestic violence and general second-class citizenship for females is the way it goes around here.
In the midst of this plight, a group of vigilantes who call themselves the Gulabi Gang (gulabi means “pink”) is fighting, often literally, for equality. The gang is made up of over 10,000 women, all of whom wear the Gulabi uniform of pink saris. They specialize in the lathi, a traditional Indian fighting stick. Does this sound too good to be true? We thought so too until we went there and met them for ourselves. These amazing women are totally for real and could totally break your knees with one swing of their battle poles.
Founded only two years ago, the gang already faces numerous charges of unlawful assembly, rioting, attacking a government official, and obstructing the course of justice. Nevertheless the 47-year-old leader of the Gulabi Gang, Sampat Pal Devi, is a spirited woman, undeterred by the charges against her and her army. A barely educated, impoverished mother of five, Sampat Devi has emerged as a messianic figure in her home region
“The word ‘gang’ doesn’t necessarily denote criminals,” she told us. “It can also be used to describe a team, a crew. We are a gang for justice. In rallies and protests outside our villages, especially in crowded cities, our members used to get lost in the rush. We decided to dress in a single color, which would be easy to identify. We didn’t want to be associated with other colors as they had associations with political or religious groups. We settled on pink, the color of life. It’s good. It makes the administration wary of us.”
The caste system looms over India like a dark cloud. Most of the gang members not only come from a poor background but are also from the lowest caste, the dalit (untouchables). A few months ago in Uttar Pradesh, when a dalit woman was raped by an upper-caste man, the case wasn’t even registered by the police. When the villagers protested, they were arrested and taken into custody. The Gulabi Gang, led by Sampat Devi, stormed the police station demanding the release of the arrested villagers and the registration of the case against the rapist. They physically attacked a policeman when he refused to comply. A high-level inquiry is still being carried out about this incident.
In June of last year, the Gulabis accomplished their biggest triumph. After receiving complaints that a government-run fair-price shop (similar to welfare in the US) in Attara was not giving out grain or food as it should have been, Sampat Devi and her gang decided to keep a covert watch over the shop owner. The gang intercepted two truckloads laden with Below Poverty Line-designated grain on their way to the open market. Armed with this evidence, the gang members pressured the local administration to seize the grain and hand over the shop owner to the police, but again the case wasn’t even registered. The angry gang members attacked and assaulted one of the police officers. Though no formal complaint has been made, the incident immensely bolstered the credibility of the gang in the region.
Some members of the local community compare Sampat Devi to the legendary Queen of Jhansi, Laxmibai. They show their gratitude by supporting the gang. Babloo Mishra allows the gang to use his premises for an office. “The best thing is that these women will take up anyone’s cause as long as it’s genuine, not only those of its members,” he told me. Though people like Mishra help, the gang needs proper funding to set up small-scale industry in order to provide employment for the local villagers. Sampat Devi dreams of running a small fabric-production business for women in the region but the shortage of funds is a huge obstruction in realizing her dreams.
A great deal needs to be done in the region, and people like Sampat Devi are making a huge difference. Although the cases against the gang stem from the occasions when mob power escalated into illegal activity, for Sampat Devi and her gang’s members, it is not about breaking rules. It is about standing up and fighting for your rights.
Sampat Pal Devi, 47
I am the commander of the Gulabi Gang. I started the association in the 1990s, but I named it the Gulabi Gang two years ago. We aim to empower women, promote child education with an emphasis on girls, and stop corruption and domestic violence. I visit numerous villages every day and meet the various members of the gang. We have gang meetings where we decide the plan of action if we hear of something that we oppose going on. First we go to the police and request that they do something. But since the administration is against the poor people of our country, we often end up taking matters into our own hands. We first speak to the husband who is beating his wife. If he doesn’t understand then we ask his wife to join us while we beat him with lathis. Our missions have a 100 percent success rate. We have never failed in bringing justice when it comes to domestic problems. Dealing with the administration is the tricky part since we cannot always take the law in our hands—especially with such corrupt lawmakers. We did beat up some corrupt officials but we were ultimately helpless. The goons of the corrupt officials and the political parties constantly threaten me. Once, a few goons came and threatened to shoot me down, but the women came to my rescue and threw bricks at them and they ran away. They haven’t come back since. Although most of the time I travel alone, I am not scared of anyone. My women are with me, and they are my strength. My family didn’t always support me going out and doing what I do, but when I resisted and explained to my husband, he understood and has supported me since. It isn’t easy to do this. I have no money. I travel everywhere on an old bicycle. Some of our supporters help us with small donations and charity. I want this movement to carry on and would like support from international or local agencies. I work on a grassroots level and want to set up a small-scale industry for the poor villagers that I work with. We have talented young men and women who can make organic manure, candles, Ayurvedic medicines, and pickles. They could earn a decent livelihood. If I get funded, I can set up a stitching center for women who can then support their families. The future of the Gulabi Gang is bright. It’s a people’s movement and will grow bigger and bigger in the future provided we get support from the local administration.
Banhari Devi, 42
I am unemployed. I have no money, and I rely on my son to bring home something every evening so we can cook our daily meal. Sampat Devi came to my rescue. She is like a messiah, always looking after the poor. She struggled for me and got me the red card [Below Poverty Line Card]. I fall into a category of families below the poverty line and the card entitles me to cheap rice and wheat from the public distribution center. I joined the gang six months ago and since then I feel self-confident and much stronger. There have been instances when we went on a Gulabi Gang mission and the authorities threatened us, but being in a group gives us the confidence that we can fight injustice. When I joined the gang, Sampat Devi gave us an introduction to what the motives of the gang were and we were trained in lathi combat. The basic concept of the fight is more to defend than to attack. We are not a violent lot, but if you challenge us, we are vicious. We use peaceful means first but if things don’t work, we resort to a lathi fight. Being in the gang has changed my life. I plan to stay here till I die.
Kamat Devi, 48
I have been an active member of the gang for two years now. I have been part of nearly all the campaigns that the gang has undertaken in its recent past. Though I don’t have any designated role in the gang, I invariably end up settling domestic fights or trying to negotiate between neighbors in the village. When we hear of a rift between neighbors, we hold meetings with Sampat Devi and try to come up with an amicable solution. It isn’t always easy, but people respect the Gulabi Gang as we are always neutral. I do not like to use force at all. I decided to learn lathi fighting as a means to defend and not attack. Although my views are a little different from most, this doesn’t create any obstacle in how I go about my work as a gang member. The other members respect my position and I can work the way I want to as long as the mission is accomplished. My husband has a small piece of land and I help him in the field. The land doesn’t produce enough and he sometimes tries to find work as a daily laborer in the city but is not always successful. I managed to get the red card and at least now I am entitled to subsidized rice and wheat. I often wonder what would have happened to us if I weren’t part of the Gulabi Gang.
Bhagwati Devi, 45
I was inspired by what Sampat Devi was doing for us. She would visit our village regularly and inquire about our well-being. I joined the gang to support her in her cause of making our lives better. We have no hierarchy in our gang. We are all treated as equals and we work toward a common goal of removing corruption from the roots of society and bringing justice to women. If the gang hears of some atrocities committed toward women, we conduct a gang meeting and discuss the best action we can take in that particular case and then act accordingly. In many cases, we first try to come to a peaceful solution, but if that doesn’t work, we use force. People are humiliated after being beaten up by us.
My husband abandoned me for a better life with another woman, but I don’t care. I have my own life and I am happy with it. The concept of a gang is very new in this region. In fact, the Gulabi Gang is the only one that exists. People have to understand that a gang doesn’t have to be made up of the antisocial elements that accompany many other so-called gangs. Ours is a team—a team of women in pink. We are growing every day, and the efforts of Sampat Devi are creating a wave of change here. Women come from places far away with their problems and want to join the Gulabi Gang.
Chandania Devi, 55
I am an old member of the gang and I cannot always go on the various missions that the gang is involved in. I mostly end up creating awareness about women’s empowerment, child education for girls, and family welfare in my own village.
Ours is an untouchable village, so people from the upper caste don’t come here and clearly nobody cares about the education system. All we had was a dilapidated primary school without a teacher. After the initiative from Sampat Devi, we have a teacher, and children can at least go to school.
During the day, I go from one house to another to raise awareness of child education for girls. Since I am an elderly woman and moreover a Gulabi Gang member, people pay attention to what I have to say. My family is very proud of me. My grandchildren accompany me sometimes, and it makes me proud that they are witnessing a change that I am trying to bring about in my village.
I joined the gang because everyone else I knew was joining. So my decision was influenced by the herd mentality, but it was only a few weeks later that I realized the difference. I wasn’t just another member of the gang, I actively take part in the demonstrations that Sampat Devi leads. I was on the mission when the Gulabi Gang accomplished its biggest triumph to date. We intercepted two trucks laden with Below Poverty Line-designated food grains on their way to the open market. The police and the local administration intimidated us, but we stood like a rock. We are a team and that’s our strength. I was scared in the beginning, but not anymore. I live in a small hut with my family. My husband and my son make very little money by working as laborers. There are days when they don’t get work and we have to sleep on an empty stomach. If the Gulabi Gang manages to get some help from the administration or aid agencies, we can set up a fabric-production center and I can contribute to the family income as well.
Punia Devi, 38
I am a dalit, a part of the untouchable caste, which is like a curse in this life. I hope I won’t be one in my next life. I take on work as an agricultural laborer when I can get it. The upper caste exploits us and pays us whatever they feel like. I considered it my fate until Sampat Devi came and educated us about our rights.
I joined the Gulabi Gang instantly and vowed to educate the rest of the community about their rights. Not only is it a curse to be a dalit but it is just as difficult being a woman.
We women are always on the receiving end when it comes to exploitation. We are married off at an early age and are told that it’s our fate to be with a man we have never met before. Our husbands exploit us all the time and treat us as their slaves.
This needs to change, and the Gulabi Gang has achieved a lot here toward that. We visit local households and give parents guidance on their daughters’ education. One of the many motivating factors of being with the gang is that I can make a difference and put a stop to the exploitation. When I joined up I spent a lot of time following Sampat Devi when she was visiting the villages creating awareness about education. Street plays are a popular medium for the gang to address the issue to a larger audience.
What we do to promote child education for girls is a free service. To do it well, we need a support system in place. I don’t have any means of travel; I cannot even afford to pay the bus fare, so I end up walking. The days I go and work for the Gulabi Gang, I don’t earn any money and have to depend on my husband’s salary (if he gets work that day). Even though we have a tough life, my husband and my two daughters are very supportive of my contribution as a Gulabi Gang member.
Savitri Devi, 23
I met Sampat Devi when she came to our village almost a year ago. I had heard of the gang from other villagers. We were proud of what Sampat Devi was doing for the community. She came to the village and spoke at a public gathering in the village and talked about the rights of the poor. I was awestruck after seeing a woman talk with such conviction. When she spoke, everyone listened to her. You could have heard a pin drop. I instantly knew that I wanted to be part of her gang. I was recently married and my family thought it was a ridiculous idea and were dead against my stepping out of the household. My husband wasn’t supportive at all, but I was convinced that I wanted to join the gang and so I did. This took months of persistence but my husband finally agreed. I actively take part in all of the demonstrations, street plays, and campaigns that the Gulabi Gang initiates. I’m inspired by the conviction that Sampat Devi shows while she is fighting for us. She goes through incredible difficulties to demand our rights. I aspire to be like her and have the courage to stand up for my rights. I follow her during her visits in my village and the neighboring villages and talk to the village elders and tell them about their rights. I am very interested in running the women’s fabric center that the Gulabi Gang is trying to raise funds for. The gang plans to run a rehabilitation center for alcoholics as well. I am educated, and I can make a difference. I come from a poor dalit background and I don’t have enough money. I work as an agricultural laborer in the fields, and whatever I save, I try and use for bus fare to raise awareness in neighboring villages. I always wear my pink sari and carry my lathi with me.
Aarti Devi, 22
My father, Chnadra Bhan, is an educated man. He has a double Masters from the university despite being a dalit. He has always had to fight for his rights and the dignity of the local villagers. About six months back, an upper-caste man raped a local dalit woman. Police refused to register the case. When my father protested, he and two others were taken into custody. I went to Sampat Devi and asked her for help. That same day I joined the gang and, led by Sampat Devi, we stormed the police station demanding the release of my father and the other villagers. The police still refused to register the case against the rapist. We ended up beating a policeman black-and-blue with lathis. I cannot take injustice lying down. My father is a great inspiration to me, he was very proud when he saw me in a pink sari demonstrating and shouting slogans, rubbing shoulders with the rest of the Gulabi Gang. Sampat Devi trained me in lathi warfare. She insisted we learn to defend ourselves before we attack someone. The goverment muscle and the administration have threatened me many times, once at gunpoint, but I am not scared of them. Being in the gang gives me confidence and self-assurance. In most of the operations we carry out, our emphasis is to empower women, create employment, promote education, and thereby uplift the poor and the needy. We are the future of the Gulabi Gang. We will do whatever it takes to provide equality and justice to the ones who have been deprived of it.