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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.