India’s Pink Posse
|Jan 18, 2008|
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
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.”