Indian women haven’t always had much by way of social agency or power, but that hasn’t stopped allies from elbowing past certain patriarchal structures to powerful effect. In the aftermath of a date-rape in Mumbai that took place Thursday night, and just months after a university student died of injuries sustained in a brutal attack in New Delhi, sustained protests continue to keep the issue afloat in the Indian and international news cycle. Within this context, the Gulabi (Pink) Gang, a grassroots-women’s-organization-turned-NGO from the rural state of Uttar Pradesh is an easy symbol of female agency. But the story of the pink-sari-wearing vigilantes illuminates just how deeply power can be stacked against Indian women, particularly those born without social privilege.
In Pink Sari Revolution, Amana Fontanella-Khan, a former contributing editor to Vogue India, writes about the tireless activist Sampat Pal, who founded the Gulabi Gang. It’s a heavily expository work that tracks a high-profile 2011 rape case brought to national attention by Pal and her rabble rousing pink-sari-wearing associates, whilst weaving in the back story of the leader and group’s inception.
The Gulabi Gang operates around Bundelkhand, an area dotted with undeveloped villages and small communities, a place that Fontanella-Khan describes as sort of an Indian “Wild West.” Justice is routinely underserved to the disenfranchised, working poor constituents of this part of the country. So in 2006, Pal – the bright, but uneducated daughter of labourers – began to formally mobilize small acts of retribution (like locking corrupt civil servants into their offices) and formal protests. It wasn’t easy – there were turncoats, critics, and husbands to contend with along the way – but today Gulabi Gang membership numbers into the thousands. Along with fuchsia-pink saris, they carry reedy slivers of bamboo – called lathis – though mostly for individual protection and visual identity.
Pal is undoubtedly a badass: she has no qualms about standing up to smarmy police officers, hospital officials, and local goondas to get her point across. Fontanella-Khan relies heavily on verbatim translations of Hindi interviews with Pal, her family, and other people involved in the Nishad case, and this doesn’t always provide for a smooth read. But she creates a generally admirable portrait of Pal: A girlhood passion for sewing becomes a means of financial independence; an inbuilt sense of justice makes Pal a neighbourhood advocate against caste discrimination and domestic violence; and commitment to Gulabi Gang means she is the rare woman who lives separate from her husband and family with a male colleague.
When family comes up, Fontanella-Khan is less exalting. Pal, a mother of four, fights for “love marriages” between local couples but it’s implied that two of her daughters were married off too young; her feeble husband constantly smokes weed, possibly to escape his unhappy home life; her allegiances become nebulous as her son enters politics. These are important details belying the fact that Pal is more of a folk hero and not a theory-wielding, big city revolutionary. And in the end, it’s clear that all Pal is seeking is agency – for herself, and the women around her.
Men aren’t the baddies in this story; corruption is. Some of Pal’s closest associates are male landlords, lawyers and journalists, who are able to advocate for the cases that the Gulabi Gang and its multiple district commanders take on. Pink Sari Revolution is about how one person can galvanize a movement, but it mostly points up the dilapidated nature of Indian politics and justice. From police to politicians to hospital administrators, male and female public officials collude in a culture of widespread corruption that disproportionately affects Indian women. And so, though the Gulabi Gang operates in just one part of India, this story can be extrapolated across the country, where economic and caste status continue to conspire against the powerless. The most compelling information that Fontanella-Khan introduces, disappointingly buried in the epilogue, is that the conditions of life for Indian women are worsening. Rape and domestic violence reporting is increasing, while conviction rates are decreasing. The Delhi protests and localized advocacy and protection of the Pink Gang are important tactics for making these statistics visible, but what’s really missing is structural accountability.