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.