India's Feminist Vigilantes

The Pink Gang takes a DIY approach to fighting rapists and abusers.

Pink Sari Revolution: A Tale of Women and Power in India, by Amana Fontanella-Khan, W.W. Norton & Company, 304 pages, $26.95. 

In Bundelkhand, one of the poorest and most violent regions in India, official governmental channels offer little recourse for women who have been victimized by abusive male power, whether public or private. India in general is apparently experiencing a patriarchal backlash against women’s social gains; the incidence of rape is skyrocketing (a nearly 800 percent increase in reported rapes over the past four decades) and the conviction rate dropping, and women who report rape are regularly subjected to intrusive and humiliating physical examinations to determine their likely degree of sexual activity. (Women with a high degree of sexual activity are legally presumed to be fair targets for rape.) Given the region’s poverty, gangsterism, and political corruption, Bundelkhand’s women in particular might easily seem to be the most powerless of the powerless. But since 2006, the women (and in some cases the men) of Bundelkhand, and increasingly throughout northern India, have had an alternative source of assistance to turn to: the Pink Gang.

The Pink Gang, whose story Amana Fontanella-Khan chronicles in her book Pink Sari Revolution, is a grassroots vigilante group of otherwise ordinary women who wear pink saris, carry bamboo staffs, and proceed en masse to confront rapists, abusive husbands, and corrupt policemen and other public officials. (The color pink was chosen because it was not already associated with any major political or religious faction.) The women’s actions range from protesting against and embarrassing the malefactors to intimidating them and sometimes administering a beating with their staffs.

Fontanella-Khan, a formerly Mumbai-based journalist, tells the stories of several people whom the Pink Gang have helped, with a particular focus on the case of Sheelu Nishad, a rape victim falsely imprisoned on the basis of charges brought against her by her politically connected rapist. The Pink Gang succeeded in getting her freed and getting charges brought against her rapist instead.

But it is not solely women who are the beneficiaries of the Gang’s interventions. On one occasion, officials of a utility company who had been denying service to their local community pending acquiescence in demands for bribes and sexual favors found themselves locked in their offices by the Pink Gang until they agreed to restore electricity to their customers.

The Pink Gang also acts to sponsor and protect marriages for love, against the wishes of the couple’s families and in defiance of such traditions as arranged marriages, caste discrimination (the Pink Gang draws its membership largely from the Dalit, formerly “untouchable,” class), and dowry requirements. The institution of dowry is widely considered a major cause of violence against women in India, the idea being that a husband marries his first wife to get her dowry, kills her, and then marries again to get a second dowry; both the Pink Gang and Fontanella-Khan accordingly share the common feminist hostility to dowry. (The historian Veena Talwar Oldenburg offers a different perspective in Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime, making the case that dowry often serves as an economic safety net for wives, and that Indian women’s vulnerability in marriage derives less from the institution of dowry per se than from British colonial faux-free-market restructurings of Indian property law that tended to lessen women’s legal status and increase their economic dependency.)

But the center of Fontanella-Khan’s narrative is Sampat Pal, the Pink Gang’s iron-willed founder, who rose from abused pre-teenage housewife to the forceful, imperious, charismatic leader of 20,000 feminist vigilantes, a group twice the size of the Irish army. Picture, if you can, Ayn Rand as an illiterate altruist, and you’ll have some idea of Sampat’s personality as it comes across in Pink Sari Revolution. As a girl, excluded from school, she obtained a smattering of learning by stalking down the smaller schoolboys and demanding: “Teach me, otherwise I will beat you!” In later years she would lead her Pink Gang into police stations and government offices, laying about her with her bamboo staff and telling whichever disconcerted authority figure she had accused of withholding justice: “You’re a human, just like me.”

The book’s portrait of Sampat Pal is not uncritical. Sampat can evidently be a prickly person to deal with, and Fontanella-Khan also reports charges that she shows favoritism toward relatives or allows herself to be distracted from Pink Gang activities by the seductions of electoral politics. A recurring theme of the book is the hazards of a cult of personality, the danger of having an entire movement depend so heavily on a single charismatic leader.

All the same, the portrayal is largely admiring, with Sampat shown to be an exceptional person who has accomplished heroic tasks against overwhelming odds—being female, low-caste, uneducated, impoverished, and the resident of a region known for entrenched sexism, rampant gangsterism, and the sort of governmental corruption that is often indistinguishable from gangsterism. Her Pink Gang is likewise presented as offering crucial protection and indeed liberation to many desperate women who had no other help, with little sign of the kinds of abuse that the term “vigilantism” can conjure.

When advocates of free markets extol the benefits of private-sector provision of traditionally governmental functions, they usually have in mind for-profit firms competing for paying customers. Sampat Pal’s organization is a salutary reminder that private-sector alternatives can encompass more than the cash nexus. Yes, the Pink Gang is in effect a private protection agency, offering the security services that local governments promise but fail to provide; but it is an all-volunteer effort, with no prices charged for its assistance. Victims who’ve been helped by the Gang often in turn become members themselves, finding empowerment in fighting for the disempowered.

Just as mainstream feminists can be insufficiently alert to the possibilities of feminist activism that does not aim primarily at influencing legislation, so mainstream libertarians can be insufficiently alert to the possibilities of private-sector service provision that does not involve competition for profit. The example of the Pink Gang should push us all to broaden our political horizons.

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I would think someone with the name Rod Long would be have the stamina to post more than one page article.

    And what's the deal with India, anyway? Recent news reports make it seem like every rapist who died got reincarnated as two more rapists.

  • ||

    The more I learn about India the more I see that they are not, in many ways, a civilized people.

    I always had them contrasted in my mind with their savage neighbors, the Pakistanis, and thought of them as much more civilized. Apparently I was mistaken.

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    It's probably that there are a number of high visibility Indians who are western educated and speak impeccable English. Reality is that it's a third world socialist hellhole populated with a billion uneducated, largely rural honyocks, whose lifestyle hasn't changed significantly in 1000 years.

  • ||

    Honyock. That is a new one to me. Thanks.

    You are correct. The only Indians that I know have advanced degrees, giving me a wildly distorted impression of their society.

    I took an Indian Doc fishing once. When we got out on the water he forgot all about the fish and started going apeshit over the lilypads. He did not know we had them here. Apparently they make some kind of dish with lilypads. What he described did not sound like something I would let pass my lips.

    I caught bass, he gathered a double arm load of lilypads and took them home.

  • l0b0t||

    "I caught bass, he gathered a double arm load of lilypads and took them home."

    The mental image this sparks has had me chuckling all morning, thanks. Also, you are correct, India is a 3rd World hell-hole; independence was not a great idea (300 years of civilizing didn't quite take; the Indians abandoned suttee and Thuggee then pretty much called it a day.)

  • Drake||

    India and China send their top .01% over here to study and we assume they are all brilliant.

  • Steve G||

    I would think someone not of the name "Shihka" would abstain from writing about India

  • RishJoMo||

    Daddy Frap Frap says that looks good man.

    www.AnonTru.tk

  • gimmeasammich||

    Thanks for the laugh, anon-bot.

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    Welcome to the party (Sampat) Pal.

  • Lord Humungus||

    You know who else offered lessons both for feminists and for libertarians?

  • ||

    Ron Jeremy?

  • Pompey||

    Amanda Marcotte?

  • SugarFree||

    Charmin's tailgate potties?

  • Pompey||

    Wayne Allyn Root?

  • Pompey||

    Karl Hungus?

  • ||

    "....so mainstream libertarians can be insufficiently alert to the possibilities of private-sector service provision that do not involve competition for profit. "

    What are private sector service provisions? I dont know what that sentence means. What am I missing?

    Whatever they are, if they do not generate a profit, how will they be able to operate? Subsidies?

  • ||

    What are their operating costs? A sari and a stick, from the sound of it. So the volunteer model is feasible.

  • db||

    If these ladies tried to influence corrupt police and officials like this in the U.S., can you imagine the slaughter that would result?

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    Wielding a bamboo stick is now cause for execution by cop in the US.

  • Longtorso, Johnny||

    What if she has a bamboo stick instead of a bunch of grapes?

  • WTF||

    "Shut up!"

  • ||

    In all of the third world shitholes I have been to ( not India ) the cops were very poorly armed.

    Often they carried guns that would not function or had no ammo for them.

    I remember one from La Paz, Bolivia. He patrolled the block we lived on on foot. He had a model 10 S&W with no grip panels and a cartridge belt full of empty brass. He had one loaded cartridge in his gun.

    I referred to him as Barney Fife. When he asked me who Barney Fife was I told him " A famous policeman from America". That made him grin like hell.

  • db||

    That made me LOL.

  • Steve G||

    STILL better than what we've got...

  • Lord Humungus||

    aww...a boot-licker and a racist.

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    Mary Stack and her wacky new persona... Do not engage.

  • WTF||

    Needz moar bigorati.

  • dantheserene||

    Mumbai is the largest city in India, but a large part of the attackers' success came from the fact that the police either had no guns or had guns that didn't work or they didn't know how to use them.

  • On The Road To Mandalay||

    Wonder how India would have turned out if the British has not RAPED that country for 200 years? Most countries that have been colonized by European powers have turned out to be quite f---ed up. Examples are France in Algeria, the Netherlands in what is now Indonesia, the United States in the Philippines, Spain in the Americas, and so on. One can say that the U.S. is still a byproduct of Great Britain.

  • l0b0t||

    To be fair, it was 300 years (1612 - 1947) and not so much rape but, rather, dragging them, kicking and screaming, into civilized society.

  • Steve G||

    depends on your definition of "civilized" since technology or western ideas doesn't necessarily equate with civilization.

  • l0b0t||

    I was thinking more along the lines of discouraging the immolation of widows and eliminating ritual strangulation cults but YMMV.

  • On The Road To Mandalay||

    And don't forget the Cobra Festivals in India. But then we have Rattlesnake Roundup in Oklahoma so all the morons down there can enjoy themselves.

  • On The Road To Mandalay||

    I'm thinking of Clive in the 18th Century, and of course the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857, which is why I did not go back to 1612. In any event, your assessment is that only European Civilization counts, whereby the "lesser races" don't really know what "civilization" is and have to be taught by the British, The French, The Dutch, The Belgians, The Spanish, The Portuguese and now the Americans. True that some other civilization really do suck mightily, including Armpit India. However, no country ever beat "The West" in inventing weapons of mass destruction and creating two World Wars. In any event, eventually all countries produce bull s--t. It's just a matter of how much and how smelly.

  • Raghu||

    Like, for example, the Amritsar Massacre? When 1500 non-violent protestors were shot by the British for having the temerity to object to being dragged "kicking and screaming, into civilized society?"

    Or maybe we can talk about the millions of people who died when the British forcefully converted Indian farmland, at that time providing sufficient food for the population, into non-edible cash crops like cotton? I guess that would be another example of uncivilized people being dragged, kicking and screaming, into "civilized" society....

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  • Car Scanner||

    I truly enjoy examining about this internet web page, it has wonderful posts. Thanks for your sharing.

  • Raghu||

    "Women with a high degree of sexual activity are legally presumed to be fair targets for rape."

    What exactly is the basis for this comment? I am aware of no legal precedent in India that presumes a sexually active woman to be a "fair target" for rape.

  • Raghu||

    Note that I am not an expert on Indian jurisprudence. If such a thing were true, it would be abominable. I just want to get the facts here. Or at least a correction if there is no evidence to justify that statement.

  • Dan Clore||

    Thank you greatly for this article, and especially for the insight in the last two paragraphs. I hope that such non-market forms of voluntary self-organization gain more attention among libertarians.

  • steve8229||

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