Enter the Gulabi Tiger

Picture: McKay Savage (CC)

Pakistan’s Engish Language The News International has an in depth profile of Sampat Pal Devi, the leader of India’s Gulabi Gang—a group of feminist vigilantes in the rural north of India:

Seeds of rebellion were sown early in Sampat Pal’s mind when her parents refused to send her to school. But despite opposition, she learnt to read and write by watching through the boys’ classroom window without letting her parents know of it.

. . .

Resident of village Bidausa, Bundelkhand in Uttar Pradesh, Sampat became a child bride in a region where child marriages are common. Having her first child at the age of 13, by the time she turned 20 Sampat had five children. But that did not deter her from being on her own.

She took up a job as a government health worker and added to the family income. Her husband had by then known that his wife was an independent minded woman and encouraged her in her pursuits.

. . .

“I wanted to work for the people and began holding meetings. While networking with women I realised that they were ready to fight for a cause. The issues were many, including child marriages, dowry deaths, farm subsidies and misappropriation of government funds,” the crusader informed. One day she saw a man beating his wife mercilessly. Sampat implored him to stop, but he refused. The following day, she returned with a group of women all carrying sticks. They beat him like he had beaten his wife. Lesson taught, they went back, but the incident created ripples in the village.

Pal realized she had a movement on her hands, and was soon leading thousands of members of the Gulabi Gang. “Gulabi” is the word for “pink” in Hindi, the group is named for their gang colors, the pink Saris its members wear.

More on the Gulabi Gang can be found in this older article from Vice. This testimonial from one younger member of the movement gives you an idea of what the women are up against:

About six months back, an upper-caste man raped a local dalit [an “untouchable” member of the lowest vedic caste] 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 [bamboo sticks used in traditional peasant martial arts, the Gulabi Gang’s weapon of choice].

The rise of the Gulabi Gang, which has been met by largely positive coveraae in the International press, hasn’t come without its problems, however. For one, it remains to be seen if any of the postcolonial novelty that infuses most coverage of the Gulabi gang will translate into real support for the groups political aims to improve conditions for women and girls in Northern India.

The organization encountered difficulties as they have attempted to move from direct action into the notoriously contentious realm of Indian politics. Sampat Pal stood for election in Uttar Pradesh in 2012, amid a generally disastrous showing by the Congress party that saw many popular candidates go down to defeat. Pal’s move into politics saw some dissension in the ranks when one of Pal’s lieutenant’s broke with the organizations official endorsement of the Congress party and supported the rival conservative BJP.

And lately, the Bollywood machine has apparently moved in to try to extract what money it can from the Gulabi Gang story without paying the women involved in the movement their due. The film producer Anubhav Sinha’s comments are emblematic of the condescending dismissiveness that is at the core of India’s women’s rights problem:

“What compensation? Who is writing the film? (Writer-director) Soumik Sen, right? So, how do the members know whether it has anything to do with them? There’s no question of any kind of misrepresentation. Also, it’s too early for anyone to talk about the film.”

The Gulabi Gang may have gotten the notion from photos of Bollywood a-lister Madhuri Dixit performing for the film in a pink sari, the fact that the film is set to be released on International Women’s day, or Dixit’s statement to the Bollywood press that “It’s about a group of women who help other women and help solve problems that nobody else can solve. That’s what fascinated me about the film… because it is all about woman power.” And also, y’know, there’s that whole “the flick is named after them” thing.

The credulousness of the Indian press in failing to call the film’s producers on this shameless exploitation is, sadly, par for the course. One can only hope producer Sinha and Director Sen have a sea of pink saris raining down lathi sticks in their future.

J.F. Quackenbush

JF Quackenbush is a poet and lawyer who lives in the desert of the real.