Pink is the Colour of Courage

The rise of a female vigilante group in impoverished Bundelkhand and what it tells of their personal and communal battles.

Written by Pamela Philipose | Published:September 21, 2013 1:22 am

Book: Pink Sari Revolution: A Tale Of Women And Power In India

Author: Amana Fontanella-Khan

Publisher: Picador India

Price: Rs 599

Pages: 293

India’s rape culture does not have an exclusively urban provenance. Rural

India,with its deep-set hierarchies,brutal caste order and unreconstituted patriarchy,is often the backdrop against which the worst forms of gender violence are played out. The expectation of justice in these circumstances is faint. So to pose one of those spectral questions that never goes away: would Phoolan Devi have become a figure of terror if she had not been subjected to gang rape?

Phoolan Devi is relevant here,because the story Amana Fontanella-Khan relates in Pink Sari Revolution — A Tale of Women and Power in India is about the very region from where India’s most dreaded woman dacoit emerged: “hardscrabble” Bundelkhand in southwestern Uttar Pradesh. This book too raises a similar question: would a woman like Sampat Pal,the protagonist of Fontanella-Khan’s tale,have emerged if Uttar Pradesh had a halfway decent criminal justice system and a more equal social system? Pal’s methods do not — and let’s be clear about it — constitute a “revolution”,no matter the spin this book’s editors may have given its title. Hers are just the rough and ready tactics of poor women left with pitiably few choices.

Having said that,there can be no denying there’s something admirable about a woman born into the Gadaria (shepherd) caste in one of the poorest pockets of the country,married at 12 and becoming a mother of five by her late 20s,finding enough fire in her belly to re-imagine herself as a social leader while in her mid-40s. As Fontanella-Khan puts it,“Sampat has a way of making exceptions to all the rules that normally apply” — including sharing a room with a male colleague,a former school teacher and organising self-help groups of local women. It helps that she is an older woman and therefore,less bound by convention,but it demands exceptional courage nevertheless.

Pal is also an instinctive organiser of people,building a committed cadre by providing ordinary women — some of them old and left behind by younger family members in the punishing cycles of migration that mark Bundelkhand — a sense of power and self-worth. In 2006,when it began,the Gulabi Gang had a few dozen members. By 2008,according to Fontanella-Khan,they numbered 20,000. To aggregate their presence in visual terms,she came up with the innovative device of a uniform: saris coloured pink (gulabi) matched with pink-tipped canes,ostensibly to keep stray dogs away.

The causes taken up,ranging from corruption and domestic violence to lack of infrastructure and access to entitlements,are embedded in innovative public campaigns. Graffiti signed by the ‘Gulabi Gang’ appear on walls with ominous words like “For truth and justice,our blood will always flow’. Traffic gets stopped on the highway,police stations are encroached upon,politicians gheraoed. Pal’s arsenal of actions include “thoo-thoo” (spitting) rallies,the rounding of stray dogs which are then marched down arterial roads,and even pujas staged to enjoin the almighty to bring wisdom to law enforcers. The novelty of women taking up cudgels in a manner hitherto unknown in these parts,tickled the media pink. It was the local journalists who first christened Pal’s army the ‘Gulabi Gang’ and media coverage — at first locally,and then increasingly nationally and internationally — helped to provide heft to Pal’s efforts on the ground. This book is more evidence of this.

With a style that merges journalism with fiction,Fontanella-Khan recreates Pal’s life even while skillfully intermeshing it with the lives of others. Foremost among these — in fact,one constituting a tale within the larger tale — is that of Sheelu. At 17,Sheelu was handed over to a BSP MLA by her father on the pledge that he would find her a good husband. She was raped by the man and,when she fled his home,he filed a complaint of theft and had her thrown into Banda district jail. The dramatic tension of the book is drawn from Pal’s attempts to rescue Sheelu and ensure a modicum of justice for her. The case ultimately proved to be an

embarrassment for the Mayawati government.

Given that all this takes place in Uttar Pradesh,India’s most politically important and volatile state,things cannot end there. Both Sheelu and Pal are drawn into politics,each in her own way. The Congress gave Pal a ticket for the 2012 election. She did not win but did creditably enough to keep her dreams of a political future alive. What happens to her social activism,should she turn a politician,is a question Fontanella-Khan does not answer.

There are losses in translation. When Pal’s children refer to their father as “Buddha”,they probably didn’t mean the Enlightened One,but the old one! Sonia Gandhi’s residence,10 Janpath,is part of Lutyens’ Delhi and was built during colonial times,not in the Fifties. But despite the occasional slip-up,Fontanella-Khan has a sure grip on her narrative. This is neither an easy region to report on,nor a story that can be quickly pieced together. There is no evidence of para-dropping here. The two years it took her to research the subject must have entailed some bone-crushing journeys on the potholed roads of Bundelkhandi villages,breathing the diesel fumes of small towns and foregoing basic conveniences.

Like Katherine Boo exploring Mumbai’s underbelly in Behind The Beautiful Forevers,Fontanella-Khan too as an “outsider” has dared to go to places where the brave dare not go.

Pamela Philipose is director,Women’s Feature Service

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