Not very long ago, in a small village in Bundelkhand, where women remain largely illiterate and downtrodden even today, she beat a policeman when he abused her. Some time later, when more power was being cut than supplied to her village, she locked the electricity department officials concerned in a room till they cried for mercy. When she saw a ticket collector asking for bribes on a train, she made such a fuss that he was forced to back off, red faced.
Meet Sampat Devi Pal, the leader of the Gulabi Gang, a group of vigilantes fed up with the pathetic status of women in the villages of North India. With her sisters, all dressed in shocking pink saris, Sampat Devi takes on wife abusers, rapists and dowry takers as well as abusive cops and arrogant district officials.
It all began in 2006, when Sampat Devi saw a man beating his wife mercilessly. Everyone went about their daily business; domestic abuse was considered quite normal in her village. Unable to bear the woman’s cries, Sampat Devi pleaded with the man to stop. “I asked him ‘why can’t you see her as a human being just like yourself?’,” she said. The man, angry at her “interference”, abused her as well. “That day, I left quietly, but stewed over it all night. The next day, along with five other women, I went back with a stout stick, and beat him black and blue until he begged for mercy!” she said.
As the news of the beating spread through the village, other women began approaching Sampat Devi to fight for their rights. “So many wanted to join us that I decided to give ourselves a name and a uniform,” she reminisced, adding: “I chose Gulabi Gang as pink was a colour not associated with any political or religious affiliation!” Thus this motley crew of pink-swathed vigilantes began keeping a watchful eye on villages and communities, protesting loudly, and often violently, against any crime or abuse they saw.
In the years that followed, the Gulabi Gang not only stopped several child marriages, forced the police to register several cases of domestic violence and raised its voice against dowry and female illiteracy, it also empowered its members with a great sense of belief in their own strength. So, in spite of opposition from their families, the women kept signing up as members. “In my experience, few husbands or in-laws like their wives to be too strong,” said Sampat Devi. “But we all do what we have to. The husbands come around at the end!” she said. Publicly berating or beating an abusive male, whether a husband or a cop, gave a heady feeling of liberation to many in this sisterhood of pink.
No wonder, then, that its fame soon spread far beyond her village — and Sampat Devi’s expectations. “Today, the Gulabi Gang has established operations across North India, with centres in Meerut, Bijnore, Banda, Bundelkhand and many other places,” said Sampat Devi.
“When people tell me I’m strong, I wonder. Why do people feel helpless? If their rights are denied to them, all they’ve got to do is raise their voices…,” said she. However, Sampat Devi has raised much more than her voice in protest. Not only does she raise a stout stick whenever needed, she has also trained her other sisters in pink to fight as well! Criticised by some for her swift, kangaroo court-style justice, Sampat Devi vows to go on as long as she can: “Until the women around me become strong enough to fight for their rights, I’ll not stop fighting on their behalf!”