India’s Pink Posse

Banda, a blip on India’s

vast geographic radar, is one of the country’s poorest and most regressive

districts. Located in the heart of the populous northern state of Uttar Pradesh, this

3,061 sq km region infested by dacoits, or bandits, invariably makes headlines

for all the wrong reasons – drought, starvation, domestic violence, land-grabbing, killings and a thoroughly corrupt

administration.

However, lately, blighted Banda has been attracting attention for

an entirely different reason. The

area’s Pink Gang, about 200 self-styled female Robin

Hoods, is taking on dowry deaths, wife beating and even cases of

government apathy and corruption, often fighting violence with violence.

A rambunctious and

fearless posse recognizable by their pink-colored saris, the Pink Gang is the nemesis

of violent husbands and

inept government officials. Having personally suffered abuse, members of the vigilante club thrash

abusive men, wife beaters and rapists, confront and shame wrongdoers and storm

local police stations to accost lackadaisical cops.

Formed in 2006 by Sampat Pal Devi, 45, who was sold into marriage at

nine and became a mother at 13, the gang challenges everything that is unfair

and unjust, like some gang of

desperados for justice on India’s

wilder fringe. "Nobody comes to our help in

these parts. The officials and the police are corrupt and anti-poor. So

sometimes we have to take the law into our own hands. At other times, we prefer to shame the wrongdoers.

But we’re not a gang in the usual sense of the term. We’re a gang for

justice," Devi told a TV news channel recently.

Fed up with a corrupt system and social discrimination, what finally drove

Devi to launch the Pink Gang was the tale of her sister, who was dragged by her

hair around a courtyard by her alcoholic husband.

This last straw led Devi to “teach erring men a lesson.” She rounded up other women

in her neighborhood and confronted the abusive brother-in-law with whatever

“weapons” they could muster — walking sticks, iron rods, a child’s cricket bat.

He was then chased into a sugarcane field and thrashed by the women.

Sometimes, the gang’s bravado has a happy ending. They restored 11 girls –thrown out of their homes

due to dowry demands – to their respective spouses. Usually the gang’s activities range from

bashing abusive men who torture their wives for not bearing sons to shaming

officials who have profiteered by selling subsidized grain intended for the

poor in the black market.

Though the gang believes in arbitration and consensus, it obviously doesn’t flinch from

employing stronger measures. Last year, they stormed the local police station

to confront cops who refused to take the complaint of a low-caste man against a

moneylender simply because of his caste.

Broadly, however, the gang protects the powerless by mustering public

support to engineer social change. Last year, Devi even contested the state

polls as an independent candidate but could muster only 2,800 votes. Despite

being trounced, she isn’t keen to partner with an established NGO. “They invariably ask for kickbacks,” she says.

On the contrary, the Pink Gang prefers to set right things on its own

by helping hapless people caught between administrative apathy and a social

system steeped in ossified beliefs. Apart from administrative neglect, Banda’s

natural resources, which could theoretically provide sustainable livelihoods to

its people, are being plundered by a few as the local administration looks the other way, the group says. Many residents are forced

to migrate for several months each year in search of work.

Though agriculture and allied activities are the primary source of

livelihood for about 80 per cent of Banda’s populace, most farmers subsist on

spectacularly low wages –Rs40-50 daily for men and Rs25-30 for women. In some villages, the farmers don’t even get

money, only a meager quota of one kg of grain for a day’s labor. The system of

bonded labor is rampant too.

Unsurprisingly, Banda’s human development indices for its women are dismal. Female literacy for

the region is only 23.9 percent against 50.4 per cent for males, while its

skewed sex ratio is 846 females for every 1,000 males against the state average of 879. Domestic

violence is common. In other words, the district’s caste-ridden and feudalistic

set-up does nothing to empower women.

Banda’s dalits or untouchables, who constitute over 20 per cent of its over 1 million people, are no better off.

According to a recent government survey spanning 28 districts of Uttar Pradesh

(including Banda), lower-caste students and staff still

face open discrimination in education. Dalit children are even forbidden to eat

their meals with higher-caste students. The segregation is so widespread that teachers even use

separate sticks to discipline Dalits. Due to the stigma of untouchability, Banda’s

Dalits are often beaten by higher-caste people on flimsy pretexts.

In such a scenario, sociologists say the only hope for a wronged

people are mass movements like the one exemplified by the Pink Gang. And despite the fact

that the group doesn’t have an office, its members gather in Devi’s house at

regular intervals to discuss fresh cases and their strategy to deal with

them. The women are also given training in self-defense by Devi and her trusted

lieutenants. Interestingly, a male member joined the club last year.

The emergence of a women’s

vigilante group in Banda is a symptom of deeper social ills. “If

elected representatives refuse to heed the voices of ordinary citizens,” says New Delhi-based

sociologist Dr Prerna Purohit, “then people have no choice but to take the

matter in their own hands. It’s a wake-up call for the government in the

world’s largest democracy.”