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Pink Sari Revolution

Posted on Aug 16, 2013
AP/Mustafa Quraishi

Members of the “Gulabi Gang” (Pink Gang), shout slogans at a protest in New Delhi in 2009.

By Rayyan Al-Shawaf

“Pink Sari Revolution: A Tale of Women and Power in India”
A book by Amana Fontanella-Khan

The women gracing the cover of “Pink Sari Revolution: A Tale of Women and Power in India,” by Amana Fontanella-Khan, aren’t trying to make a fashion statement with their matching pink attire. Look closely; you’ll see expressions of anger, if not rage, on their faces. And the laathis—long sticks made of cane—that many of them wield? They’re not for walking.

The women in the picture, and many more besides, constitute the Gulabi Gang, a grass-roots movement in Bundelkhand, a region in India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh. The Gulabi Gang hounds Indian officialdom into securing the rights of the poor and the marginalized, especially women. They chose pink saris (the wraparound garment worn by Indian women of all socioeconomic classes) for the simple reason that most other colors represent political or religious groups. “We didn’t want people to mistake us for someone else,” explains Sampat Pal Devi, founder and leader of the Pink Gang (“Gulabi” is Hindi for “pink”).

To see long excerpts from “Pink Sari Revolution” at Google Books, click here.

“Pink Sari Revolution” revolves around Sampat, a headstrong woman in her early 50s whose crusade against injustice Fontanella-Khan treats with insight and empathy in this alternately rousing and sobering book—her first. The Pakistani-Irish author, who recently relocated to Belgium after living in India for several years, is understandably impressed with her subject, and highlights one Pink Gang achievement after another in the group’s quest to expose and shame Indian officials and police for their massive corruption and incessant violations of lower-caste people’s rights. Though legally abolished, the Hindu caste system in India remains a strong cultural and even political force. But Fontanella-Khan’s self-effacing approach sometimes makes the book a platform for Sampat, rather than an outside observer’s account of her struggle.

Indeed, though related in the third person, “Pink Sari Revolution” recounts much of the Pink Gang’s history from Sampat’s point of view, and overlaps in places with “Sampat Pal: Warrior in a Pink Sari,” the Pink Gang leader’s autobiography as told to writer Anne Berthod. (That book was originally published in French in 2008 and is not widely available in English translation, as the latter edition came out only in India four years later.) For most of the events in Sampat’s life that Fontanella-Khan revisits, she seems to have consulted only the Gang’s charismatic head. And although Sampat has earned a reputation for honesty and incorruptibility, qualifying her as a dependable source of information, readers may sometimes feel confined to only one version of fraught and even divisive debates and events.

Every so often, however, Fontanella-Khan adopts a perspective other than that of the Pink Gang’s leader. At one point, she addresses the uncomfortable fact that Sampat, a proponent of girls’ and women’s rights who resents the fact that she was married off at the age of 12, nevertheless married off three of her four daughters while they were still young teenagers. “It is ironic,” observes Fontanella-Khan, “that the woman who has helped empower so many women across Bundelkhand was not able to protect her own daughters from the hell of child marriage.” The author adds that Sampat sometimes denies her daughters’ underage marriages, and at other times acknowledges them but claims that she relented to her in-laws, who held sway over the family.

Elsewhere, Fontanella-Khan gives voice to a journalist and a television bureau chief who resent Sampat’s denial of their role in winning the Pink Gang wide recognition. The television reporter also complains that Sampat’s political ambitions have caused her to neglect certain issues. He cites the case of a young couple whose parents prevented them from marrying because they were of different castes, an issue that normally would have jolted Sampat into action, as she believes in love marriages and opposes caste discrimination, but which the reporter claims the activist ignored, apparently because “[h]er status has increased. She is often away.”

To give her book some structure, Fontanella-Khan frames her select history of the Pink Gang with the distressing case of Sheelu, a defenseless young woman accused of theft by a rich and powerful politician. In fact, he had raped her. Fontanella-Khan presents the occasionally confusing situation from Sheelu’s point of view and recounts the Pink Gang’s intercession against the police who had jailed the young woman. She intersperses this story with other important cases the Gang took on. 

So how did it all start? The Pink Gang grew out of Sampat’s work as a facilitator of women’s economic empowerment groups in her native Bundelkhand, where she was born and raised in a poor rural Hindu family. Sampat’s work was part of “a government-sponsored scheme whereby women pool small amounts of money in order to qualify for a government loan.” She and a man she respectfully calls Babuji organized women in village after village. They made a good team; Sampat is earthy and brave, but functionally illiterate, while Babuji is educated and somewhat philosophical, but lacking in charisma. Being male also makes it difficult for conservative women to confide in him. Soon women began flocking to Sampat for help regarding all kinds of matters—but especially abuse sustained at the hands of the authorities. This spurred her in 2006 to form, with Babuji’s help, a broad-based women’s group with more ambitious goals, which the media would come to dub the Pink Gang.

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