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Pink Sari Revolution

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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

(Page 2)

One of the early incidents that gained the Gang prominence concerned the imprisonment of a poor man, Bare Lal, after a dispute he had with a neighbor (elsewhere reported to be his brother, who worked for an influential man). Bare was detained without charge, and the police refused to let his wife, Sushila, a mother of eight, visit him. At one point, they even physically assaulted her. Such behavior on the part of the Indian police is all too common. As Fontanella-Khan points out, the police often detain powerless people “to extort, to inflate arrest quotas, and to silence citizens who dare to make complaints about them.”

Sushila sought the help of Sampat, who contacted the media and rounded up the Pink Gang, which then besieged the police station where Bare was detained, a method that would become the group’s favored modus operandi:

“At the police station, Sampat had used a well-known technique of protest in India called gherao, whereby the public, driven by a sense that they have no traditional recourse to justice, and no power on their side except their sheer numbers and anger, surround an offending government establishment—an electricity department, a police station, a university, or, in the case of labor disputes, an office or factory—to demand justice.”

Everything changed after this incident; the Pink Gang received positive media coverage, Sampat was hailed as a hero, and the Indian National Congress, one of the country’s most popular political parties, took notice and initiated contact with her. Unfortunately, Fontanella-Khan neglects to inform us of what happened to Bare Lal, but she notes that the Pink Gang and Sushila did not face any serious repercussions for their actions.

With that, the Pink Gang was off. The group, with Sampat firmly at its helm, went on to successfully intervene on behalf of numerous individuals discriminated against or exploited. Sometimes the issue directly affected large numbers of people. Consider the case of ration distribution stores selling their grain on the black market and then telling the poor for whom it was intended that supplies had run out; the Pink Gang went down to the streets and blocked the trucks illegally transporting the grain from the stores, and even besieged the house of an official hoarding it. In another instance, “the Pink Gang stormed an electrical utility company that had been withholding power in exchange for bribes and sexual favors from the community.” 

Yet as much as it recounts one group’s repeated triumphs in ensuring justice for the poor, marginalized and female, “Pink Sari Revolution” underscores the myriad structural failures of India, a deeply flawed democracy. Fontanella-Khan deserves kudos for never losing sight of this painful reality. By spotlighting the Pink Gang’s tireless campaign, the author reveals horrendous societal and official abuse of Uttar Pradesh’s—and by extension India’s—most vulnerable people.

It is instructive to note that Sampat, for all her fiery denunciation of crooked officials and her willingness to mobilize the Pink Gang to confront them publicly, remains very much focused on seeking redress within the system. She could have gone about things very differently. “Bundelkhand is one of the most crime-ridden areas of Uttar Pradesh,” emphasizes Fontanella-Khan, “as it is (and has been) the home of some of the country’s most notorious bandits, who often take the law into their own hands after not receiving justice.” Not Sampat; she steered clear of the route taken by fellow Bundelkhand native Phoolan Devi (no relation), who, after failing to get justice as the victim of a gang rape, became the “Bandit Queen.” Sampat uses the Pink Gang not to war against the authorities, nor to dispense justice and enforce the law in their stead (rendering inaccurate Fontanella-Khan’s occasional use of the term “vigilante organization” to describe the Gang), but to monitor their actions and pressure them to do their job.

Of course, things may change. If Sampat wins a seat in the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly (on an Indian National Congress ticket), as she seems determined to do, the need for compromise in her new political role could weaken her effectiveness, especially if she drifts away from the Pink Gang’s direct grass-roots action. (Babuji remains wary of Sampat’s involvement in politics.) And such a softening of the pressure the Gang currently exerts on law enforcement and the judicial system could not come at a worse time for women. “Rape is now the fastest-growing crime in the country,” notes Fontanella-Khan. “In the past four decades, the number of reported rapes has shot up by 792 percent. Conviction rates, however, are dropping. A similar story is found in domestic violence, which has climbed by 30 percent in the same time period.”

It’s true the author doesn’t take into account women’s increased willingness to report such crimes. But even if there has been no spike in rapes and domestic violence over the past few decades, we would then have to face the fact that a vile and long-entrenched phenomenon is only now gaining the attention it deserves. And with conviction rates dropping, this is scandalous. Whichever way you look at it, India is in trouble. Whether violence against women is on the rise or whether it is just being acknowledged more often, one cannot but agree with Fontanella-Khan’s blunt conclusion: “There is no doubt that a strong Pink Gang is needed now more than ever.”

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Beirut.

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