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 Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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