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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How should Labour's disgruntled moderates behave?

The price for loyalty looks like being long-term opposition. Sometimes exiting can be brave.

When Albert O. Hirschman was writing Exit, Voice, Loyalty: Responses to decline in Firms, Organizations, and States he wasn’t thinking of the British Labour Party.  That doesn’t mean, though, that one of the world’s seminal applications of economics to politics can’t help us clarify the options open to the 80 to 90 per cent of Labour MPs who, after another week of utter chaos, are in total despair at what’s happening under Jeremy Corbyn.

According to Hirschman, people in their situation have essentially three choices – all of which stand some chance, although there are no guarantees, of turning things around sooner or later.

The first option is simply to get the hell out: exit, after all, can send a pretty powerful, market-style signal to those at the top that things are going wrong and that something has to change.

The second option is to speak up and shout out: if the leadership’s not listening then complaining loudly might mean they get the message.

The third option is to sit tight and shut up, believing that if the boat isn’t rocked it will somehow eventually make it safely to port.

Most Labour MPs have so far plumped for the third course of action.  They’ve battened down the hatches and are waiting for the storm to pass.  In some ways, that makes sense.  For one thing, Labour’s rules and Corbyn’s famous ‘mandate’ make him difficult to dislodge, and anyone seen to move against him risks deselection by angry activists.

For another, there will be a reckoning – a general election defeat so bad that it will be difficult even for diehards to deny there’s a problem: maybe Labour has to do ‘déjà vu all over again’ and lose like it did in 1983 in order to come to its senses. The problem, however, is that this scenario could still see it stuck in opposition for at least a decade. And that’s presuming that the left hasn’t so effectively consolidated its grip on the party that it can’t get out from under.

That’s presumably why a handful of Labour MPs have gone for option two – voice.  Michael Dugher, John Woodcock, Kevan Jones, Wes Streeting and, of course, John Mann have made it pretty clear they think the whole thing’s a mess and that something – ideally Jeremy Corbyn and those around him – has to give.  They’re joined by others – most recently Stephen Kinnock, who’s talked about the party having to take ‘remedial action’ if its performance in local elections turns out to be as woeful as some are suggesting.  And then of course there are potential leadership challengers making none-too-coded keynote speeches and public appearances (both virtual and real), as well as a whole host of back and frontbenchers prepared to criticise Corbyn and those around him, but only off the record.

So far, however, we’ve seen no-one prepared to take the exit option – or at least to go the whole hog. Admittedly, some, like Emma Reynolds, Chuka Umunna, Dan Jarvis, Yvette Cooper, and Rachel Reeves, have gone halfway by pointedly refusing to serve in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet.  But nobody has so far declared their intention to leave politics altogether or to quit the party, either to become an independent or to try to set up something else.

The latter is easily dismissed as a pipe-dream, especially in the light of what happened when Labour moderates tried to do it with the SDP in the eighties.  But maybe it’s time to think again.  After all, in order to refuse even to contemplate it you have to believe that the pendulum will naturally swing back to Labour at a time when, all over Europe, the centre-left looks like being left behind by the march of time and when, in the UK, there seems precious little chance of a now shrunken, predominantly public-sector union movement urging the party back to the centre ground in the same way that its more powerful predecessors did back in the fifties and the late-eighties and nineties. 

Maybe it’s also worth wondering whether those Labour MPs who left for the SDP could and should have done things differently.  Instead of simply jumping ship in relatively small numbers and then staying in parliament, something much bolder and much more dramatic is needed.  What if over one hundred current Labour MPs simultaneously declared they were setting up ‘Real Labour’?  What if they simultaneously resigned from the Commons and then simultaneously fought scores of by-elections under that banner?

To many, even to ask the question is to answer it. The obstacles – political, procedural, and financial – are formidable and forbidding.  The risks are huge and the pay-off massively uncertain.  Indeed, the whole idea can be swiftly written off as a thought-experiment explicitly designed to demonstrate that nothing like it will ever come to pass.

On the other hand, Labour MPs, whether we use Hirschman’s three-way schema or not, are fast running out of options.  The price for loyalty looks like being long-term opposition.  Voice can only do so much when those you’re complaining about seem – in both senses of the word – immovable.  Exit, of course, can easily be made to seem like the coward’s way out. Sometimes, however, it really is the bravest and the best thing to do.

Tim Bale is professor of politics at QMUL. His latest book, Five Year Mission, chronicles Ed Miliband's leadership of the Labour party.