“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.

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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