The women of Bundelkhand, in Uttar Pradesh, India, do not need superheroes to come to their rescue. They depend on a group of their own clan – The Gulabi Gang – during times of distress. The gang members are vigilantes who go above and beyond the duties of a local neighborhood crime watch. Their chosen uniform – a strikingly pink sari. Their weapon of choice – the Lathi, a traditional Indian fighting stick. Gender – female only.
In fact, the Gulabi Gang (Gulabi: the color of pink rose), consists of over 10,000 women. And they are a blessing in disguise for many in the overpopulated Bundelkhand region, where people wage daily wars against a corrupt law-enforcement system, infertile lands and the oppressive system of caste hierarchy. But what Bundelkhand is most infamous for is banditry. Disputes are frequently settled by manner of bullets. The Bandit Queen of India, Phoolan Devi, once carried out her operations in the very same region. She would lead her bandits and robbers to seek a vicious retribution, violently attacking the upper-caste villagers. It is in this harsh atmosphere, where life is nothing short of brutal, that the Gulabi Gang has been carrying out its operations for the past two years.
In its short existence, the gang already faces charges of rioting, attacking government officials, unlawful assembly, and obstructing the course of justice. But the villagers feel nothing but gratitude for the services rendered by the gang. Their leader, 47-year-old Sampat Pal Devi, is often compared to the legendary Indian figure, Rani Laxmibai, Queen of Jhansi. The Gulabi Gang is fully supported by locals, especially Babloo Mishra, who permits them to use his premises as an office. According to Mishra, “The best thing is that these women will take up anyone’s cause as long as it’s genuine, not only those of its members.” Even so, a majority of women in the gang are dalits (considered the lowest caste, untouchables), and it is for this community that they need to stand up the most.
A few months ago, following the rape of a dalit woman by a man of an upper caste in Uttar Pradesh, the police had not even registered the case. Protesting villagers were instead, arrested. The Gulabi Gang rose to the occasion under the guidance of Sampat Pal Devi, storming the police station. They demanded that the villagers be released and a case registered against the offender. When the policeman refused to comply, the gang attacked with their lathis. A high-level enquiry is now underway on this case. However, the most daring exploit that the ladies-in-pink have carried out so far is the hijacking of a truck containing food meant for the poor, but instead being delivered to corrupt officials. It started out when the Gulabi Gang received complaints that a local fair price shop run by the government (just like welfare in the US), had stopped the regular distribution of grains. Sampat Devi and her followers investigated the issue, keeping a close watch on the shop owner. The truck was then intercepted, and evidence provided to the local administration.
While the violent exploits of the gang attract media attention, they are not limited to such activities. Sampat Devi says, “The word ‘gang’ doesn’t necessarily denote criminals. It can also be used to describe a team, a crew. We are a gang for justice.” Of the reason behind their unique dress code, she says, “In rallies and protests outside our villages, especially in crowded cities, our members used to get lost in the rush. We decided to dress in a single color, which would be easy to identify.” They settled on the color pink because it denotes the color of life. Indeed, the gang of stick-yielding women dressed in pink, presents a formidable sight. It’s quite evident from pictures that they mean business. Ranging from ages 22 to over 50, the women not only about fight for justice, but also provide employment opportunities to other women in the region.