Payel profiles Sampat Pal Devi and the lathi wielding Gulabi Gang that stood up against violence and other wrongs perpetrated by husbands, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.
Twelve-year-old Sampat Pal Devi was married off to a much older man in Banda district of UP. Too young to protest, she succumbed to the marriage and a few years later was sent to her husband’s home after her ‘gauna’ as per custom. Her husband was an ice cream vendor, and life continued for her quite uneventfully. She became a mother at age 15, a time when most children are still supposed to go to school.
Her father was a goatherd, and Sampat grew up doing all the chores entrusted to girls – fetching water, helping at home, tending to the goats. Her brothers, however, were sent to school, and she would sit down with them when they studied and so taught herself to read and write. Seeing how bright she was, her maternal uncle insisted that she be sent to school, so she studied till grade four, after which her marriage was arranged and all studies came to a stop.
One day, she saw a neighbor beating his wife. As fists and feet rained down blows on the poor woman’s body, Sampat pleaded with him to stop. Instead, he turned around and roundly abused her, warning her to not interfere. Sampat could not bear this. The next day she returned with a group of five women she had convinced to come to their neighbor’s aid, all carrying lathis and publicly forced him to apologise to his wife and promise never to beat her again.
Banda is in Bundelkhand, one of the poorest parts of UP. Twenty percent of the population here is Dalit and Scheduled caste, which is more than 1.6 million people. These are the badlands, ridden with drought and poverty.
Life for its women is tough. Highly patriarchal and chauvinistic, dowry deaths are common and women are subject to domestic and sexual violence. Especially women of the lower caste, who suffer at the hands of their own men and those of upper classes. Class conflict invariably leads to sexual violence against women.
It is no surprise that out of this morass a gang of women should rise up to war against the discrimination and ill treatment of women. Having been effective in curbing violence and fighting injustice, Sampal registered the Gulabi Gang, in 2006. Officially called the Adivasi Mahila Utthan Gram Udyog Seva Sansthan, the women wear pink (sarees) and wield lathis. They have been trained to protect themselves using these heavy sticks, but have used social pressure to bring about changes,
“In our villages where food is scarce and there has been a drought-like situation for 10 years, women are the most abused. I realised that under these conditions, a woman has to fight to survive,” says Sampat.
Over the years, the Gulabi Gang has thrashed men who have abandoned or abused their wives. They have protested against corrupt government babus, fought against the oppression of the lower castes and earned the respect of the local administration, although grudgingly. Unafraid, these women have rampaged into police stations when officers have refused to register complaints of abuse against women and stopped child marriages.
The women now number more than 20,000 members, and as the next stage of emancipation, they now aid the economic projects set up by women. A successful project set up by Gulabi Gang member Prerna Bhaori now employs 500 women earning Rs.150/- per day and making eco-friendly ‘leaf plates’ used for marriages and festivities.
Sampat also stood for elections in 2007, 2012 and 2017, but lost. The society rejects all aid from politicians and NGOs, who they feel are either looking for kickbacks or political and media mileage. Sampat says ‘politics’ is not her chosen way of working, but obviously she is seduced by the idea of being able to control political will if she works from the inside.
In a weird twist, social activist Jai Prakash Shivharey, who motivated her to fight for women’s rights, and is the national convener of the Gang, expelled her, in 2014, for standing for elections under a Congress ticket. He also brought charges against her for ‘non-disclosure of funding’. Sampat, however, has refused to accept this ouster and remains connected to the Gulabi Gang.
Her life is not without controversy. Strongly criticised for participating in reality TV show Big Boss, it is difficult to say whether she succumbed to the lure of being a ‘celebrity’ or she genuinely saw it as a platform to raise awareness about the condition of women in rural India, against caste based violence, sexual violence, and dowry. What one doesn’t know if this is an article of faith or a line sold to her!
The Gulabi Gang now claiming a membership of over 200,000, continues to operate in UP. It has a website of its own, although the information on the website is bare bones.
In a land where unmarried girls are killed if they get pregnant, the Gulabi Gang also works to mediate inter-caste marriages, prevent female infanticide, and support rape survivors and dowry victims.
This barely educated woman from hinterland UP has rewritten the definition of Pink: no longer demure and girly, it is now fiercely feministic.
Photos from the Internet
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Businesswoman, curator of handlooms, poet, writer, and erstwhile doctor. Payal Talreja practices everything except her involuntary ‘profession’. She claims that words chose her and are now her weapon of choice because an activist born will stay silent for no man. A wanderer, a voyager, she’s happy to slum it or luxuriate in any life experience. She crafts poems and fiercely feminist essays and will assume her ‘Chandi’ avatar to ‘write’ any wrong.