The Pink Gang: the vigilantes in saris fighting for India's women

Inside the movement that rescues young couples from arranged marriages and confronts violent husbands and corrupt policemen.

Pink Sari Revolution: a Tale of Women and Power in the Badlands of India
Amana Fontanella-Khan
Oneworld, 304pp, £12.99
 
In December 2012, the gang rape of a female student on a bus in Delhi made headlines across the world. The sickening cruelty of the attack (the victim’s intestines were all but destroyed), not to mention the blasé manner in which the authorities initially treated the incident provoked a passionate debate about the treatment of women in Indian society.
 
The international media attention undoubtedly contributed to the swift arrest and charging of the alleged perpetrators but it is important to remember that the way this case played out was in no way typical of the Indian justice system. Claims of sexual violence often come up against police corruption, victim-blaming and counter-accusations and many women are made to endure disturbing medical “procedures” such as the “finger test”, which involves assessing the “laxness” of a rape victim’s vagina to draw conclusions about her sexual habits that can then be used in court – that is if the rape or assault is reported at all.
 
The burgeoning feminist protest movement in India has received significant attention in the western media, particularly in the weeks and months since the fatal attack (the young student died from her injuries less than a fortnight after she was raped). Among the movement’s best-known members are the Gulabi (or “pink”) Gang, a 20,000-strong group of stick-carrying, pink-sari-wearing vigilantes that originated in Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh, the northern Indian state often described as “lawless”.
 
Following two documentaries and many articles dating back to the gang’s inception in 2006, this grass-roots group, led by Sampat Pal Devi, is the subject of the journalist Amana Fontanella-Khan’s first book, Pink Sari Revolution. The book conveys not only the sense of injustice felt by these often-abused women, who live in the poorest of regions, but also their will to make things better by fighting, sometimes literally, to be heard.
 
Fontanella-Khan describes how Sampat mobilised people to campaign for the release of a young woman called Sheelu. Sheelu’s escape from the house of a corrupt local politician who had kidnapped and raped her led to her imprisonment on bogus charges of theft. Sampat’s determined struggle to win justice for her provides the backbone of the book. Documentary evidence from interviews, articles and reports creates a vivid picture of the movement and is deftly interwoven with the personal histories of other women connected to the Gulabi Gang.
 
Then there is the tale of how the indefatigable Sampat, who received little formal education as a child and was forced into an arranged marriage at 12, before she was through puberty, became a persuasive advocate for women’s rights, defying her husband, her mother-in-law and the police, as well as the goons and bandits who so frequently threaten her safety.
 
Fontanella-Khan is not burdened by her thorough research and Pink Sari Revolution often reads more like a novel than reportage. Her talent for storytelling and her detailed, sometimes poetic, descriptions of events and places, combined with helpful explanations of the customs and politics, draw the reader in to create a fascinating portrait of a country in flux.
 
The subject matter doesn’t always make for easy reading, and yet a sense of hope begins to override the despair. Sampat’s strength and fearlessness are evident on every page. A feminist in the pure and simple sense that she believes in the equality of man and woman, she enthuses those around her through song. One lyric, about how women’s suffering passes down through the generations, includes the refrain: “The world is bad for girls,/Why isn’t it bad for boys?” It leaves many who hear it in tears.
 
By the end of the book, it is difficult to view Sampat and her followers as anything less than superheroic: as well as campaigning for victims of rape and domestic violence, organising protests and challenging local corruption, the Pink Gang rescues young couples from arranged marriages and confronts violent husbands and corrupt policemen. Though the gang members’ first recourse is almost always to the law, they are not averse, when the husbands and policemen fail to take heed, to beating them with sticks.
 
Rape is the fastest-growing crime in India and horrific examples such as the 2012 Delhi bus attack would suggest that it is a little premature to describe the Pink Gang’s existence as a “revolution”. Yet what these women have done for Uttar Pradesh seems to amount to just that. As Jai Karan Bhai, one of the gang’s unofficial lawyers, says: “You have to snatch your rights. You cannot keep asking for them forever.”
 
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is the co-author of the Vagenda blog and also writes for newstatesman.com
A girl at a protest in Hyderabad in April. Photo: Getty.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.