Sometimes a story has such universal appeal, it deserves to be shared widely and published in its entirety. Such is the story of the Pink Sari Gang, a group of women in India who got tired of abuse, tired of injustice, so they banded together to fight back.
Here it is:
Home Society India’s Pink Posse
India’s Pink Posse
Written by Neeta Lal
Friday, 18 January 2008
“We’re a gang for justice,” says the leader of a crew of sari-wearing vigilantes
Banda, a blip on India’s vast geographic radar, is one of the country’s poorest and most regressive districts. Located in the heart of the populous northern state of Uttar Pradesh, this 3,061 sq km region infested by dacoits, or bandits, invariably makes headlines for all the wrong reasons – drought, starvation, domestic violence, land-grabbing, killings and a thoroughly corrupt administration.
However, lately, blighted Banda has been attracting attention for an entirely different reason. The area’s Pink Gang, about 200 self-styled female Robin Hoods, is taking on dowry deaths, wife beating and even cases of government apathy and corruption, often fighting violence with violence.
A rambunctious and fearless posse recognizable by their pink-colored saris, the Pink Gang is the nemesis of violent husbands and inept government officials. Having personally suffered abuse, members of the vigilante club thrash abusive men, wife beaters and rapists, confront and shame wrongdoers and storm local police stations to accost lackadaisical cops.
Formed in 2006 by Sampat Pal Devi, 45, who was sold into marriage at nine and became a mother at 13, the gang challenges everything that is unfair and unjust, like some gang of desperados for justice on India’s wilder fringe. "Nobody comes to our help in these parts. The officials and the police are corrupt and anti-poor. So sometimes we have to take the law into our own hands. At other times, we prefer to shame the wrongdoers. But we’re not a gang in the usual sense of the term. We’re a gang for justice," Devi told a TV news channel recently.
Fed up with a corrupt system and social discrimination, what finally drove Devi to launch the Pink Gang was the tale of her sister, who was dragged by her hair around a courtyard by her alcoholic husband. This last straw led Devi to “teach erring men a lesson.” She rounded up other women in her neighborhood and confronted the abusive brother-in-law with whatever “weapons” they could muster — walking sticks, iron rods, a child’s cricket bat. He was then chased into a sugarcane field and thrashed by the women.
Sometimes, the gang’s bravado has a happy ending. They restored 11 girls –thrown out of their homes due to dowry demands – to their respective spouses. Usually the gang’s activities range from bashing abusive men who torture their wives for not bearing sons to shaming officials who have profiteered by selling subsidized grain intended for the poor in the black market.
Though the gang believes in arbitration and consensus, it obviously doesn’t flinch from employing stronger measures. Last year, they stormed the local police station to confront cops who refused to take the complaint of a low-caste man against a moneylender simply because of his caste.
Broadly, however, the gang protects the powerless by mustering public support to engineer social change. Last year, Devi even contested the state polls as an independent candidate but could muster only 2,800 votes. Despite being trounced, she isn’t keen to partner with an established NGO. “They invariably ask for kickbacks,” she says.
On the contrary, the Pink Gang prefers to set right things on its own by helping hapless people caught between administrative apathy and a social system steeped in ossified beliefs. Apart from administrative neglect, Banda’s natural resources, which could theoretically provide sustainable livelihoods to its people, are being plundered by a few as the local administration looks the other way, the group says. Many residents are forced to migrate for several months each year in search of work.
Though agriculture and allied activities are the primary source of livelihood for about 80 per cent of Banda’s populace, most farmers subsist on spectacularly low wages –Rs40-50 daily for men and Rs25-30 for women. In some villages, the farmers don’t even get money, only a meager quota of one kg of grain for a day’s labor. The system of bonded labor is rampant too.
Unsurprisingly, Banda’s human development indices for its women are dismal. Female literacy for the region is only 23.9 percent against 50.4 per cent for males, while its skewed sex ratio is 846 females for every 1,000 males against the state average of 879. Domestic violence is common. In other words, the district’s caste-ridden and feudalistic set-up does nothing to empower women.
Banda’s dalits or untouchables, who constitute over 20 per cent of its over 1 million people, are no better off. According to a recent government survey spanning 28 districts of Uttar Pradesh (including Banda), lower-caste students and staff still face open discrimination in education. Dalit children are even forbidden to eat their meals with higher-caste students. The segregation is so widespread that teachers even use separate sticks to discipline Dalits. Due to the stigma of untouchability, Banda’s Dalits are often beaten by higher-caste people on flimsy pretexts.
In such a scenario, sociologists say the only hope for a wronged people are mass movements like the one exemplified by the Pink Gang. And despite the fact that the group doesn’t have an office, its members gather in Devi’s house at regular intervals to discuss fresh cases and their strategy to deal with them. The women are also given training in self-defense by Devi and her trusted lieutenants. Interestingly, a male member joined the club last year.
The emergence of a women’s vigilante group in Banda is a symptom of deeper social ills. “If elected representatives refuse to heed the voices of ordinary citizens,” says New Delhi-based sociologist Dr Prerna Purohit, “then people have no choice but to take the matter in their own hands. It’s a wake-up call for the government in the world’s largest democracy.”
It's also a wake up call for governments everywhere, including the USA.