News & Current Affairs

Meet India's Pink-Vigilantes: The Gulabi Gang

By Azeezat Okunlola | Sep 15, 2023
The Gulabi Gang, also known as the Pink Gang, is an all-female vigilante group from central India known for fighting rapists with sticks. Their exploits have inspired not one, but two films: a documentary and a full-length feature film that have captured the attention of the public.
In the 1980s, when Devi's (the founder of the group) neighbor was abusing his wife, she learned the effectiveness of the stick for the first time. The husband, who had been resistant to Devi's intervention, eventually gave in. More importantly, Devi's approach to alternative justice sparked a movement that now includes 400,000 women across 11 districts of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous province, all of whom wear pink saris and carry sticks.
The Gulabi Gang's vision to 'protect the powerless from abuse and fight corruption' has found easy resonance across much of India's hinterland, marred by unending reports of sex crimes and gang rapes.
“Yes, we fight rapists with lathis [sticks]. Sampat Devi Pal claims, "If we find the culprit, we thrash him black and blue so he dare not attempt to do wrong to any girl or woman again."
“When a woman seeks the membership of Gulabi Gang, it is because she has suffered injustice, has been oppressed and does not see any other recourse,” says Suman Singh, the group’s deputy commander, from Mahoba district. "All our women can stand up to the men and if need be seek retribution through lathis," she continues.
With over 40% of its population living in poverty and mired in a never-ending cycle of hardship, drought, and illiteracy, Bundelkhand is one of India's most impoverished regions.
The area spanning Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh has a history of producing strong women, such as the courageous princess "Jhansi Ki Rani," who led a rebellion against the colonial rule of the British, and the more recent Phoolan Devi, who turned to banditry in an attempt to avenge her rapists.
Mayawati, who rose to power in Uttar Pradesh despite coming from one of the state's most marginalized groups, has family ties there as well.
However, the situation on the ground is still extremely dire for women there. Infanticide, child marriage, and domestic violence are pervasive, and female illiteracy is at a staggering 47 percent.
In fact, Uttar Pradesh is one of the most dangerous states for women in India, with 2,244 homicides related to dowries, 7,910 kidnappings, and 1,963 rapes recorded in just one year.
Devi and her band of vigilantes had their work cut out for them against this backdrop. The sticks represent a significant part of the gang's culture.
The group engages in discussions, rallies, and hunger strikes when they become aware of criminal activity, corruption, or malpractice. When all else fails, though, their sticks come in handy.
"The justice system in Bundelkhand is dysfunctional and unreliable," writes Amana Fontanella Khan, a journalist and author of the book "Pink Saree Revolution." Khan claims that Devi's protests in Bundelkhand have further empowered women there and contributed to her overall goal of gender equality and freedom.
“The Gulabi Gang has stepped into the vacuum left by the state and offers an alternative means of attaining justice.”
The state government has finally acknowledged the gang, albeit begrudgingly. "The Gulabi Gang has created such a force of women's rights and awakening that it has brought a new desire to fight against women's exploitation," says Arvind Sen, superintendent of police for the Banda district.
The exploits of the Gulabi Gang are celebrated in a documentary that was just released in India and won an award. In it, Devi is seen demanding that the police file charges against the in-laws of a girl who was allegedly burned to death when she was 15 years old.
The husband, who was having an affair, is shown to have murdered his wife and daughter later in the documentary.
Nishita Jain, the documentary's director and producer, spent five months with Devi and her crew.
"It is ironic that in one of India's most backward regions, women are forced to become 'masculine' and aggressive in their fight against machismo and patriarchy," she says.
The women storming into houses to beat up errant men has even gotten the attention of Bollywood. Next week will see the release of Gulab Gang, a film starring Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla and featuring the usual assortment of song and dance numbers.
The commercial portrayal of Devi's crew has not gone over well with her. “This Bollywood tamasha [show] is a fabricated tale … I will not allow the movie to release,” she says, despite denials by the makers of the film that it was a biopic on her life.
However, Devi is currently engaged in more significant conflicts. She feels that women should band together to send a message to the perpetrators of the rising number of sex crimes across the country. Women should beat men who commit such atrocities. As she puts it, "they should be caught and have a 'I am a rapist' tattoo engraved on their forehead.
Whatever her motivations, it's undeniable that people are listening to Devi when she talks.
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