The Gulabi Gang’s Feminist Vigilantism: Violence and Articulation within a Social Movement

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Yes, we fight rapists with lathis (sticks). If we find the culprit, we thrash him black and blue so he dare not attempt to do wrong to any girl or a woman again,” brags Sampat Devi Pal, founder of the Pink Sari Gang, popularly known as the Gulabi Gang. Rooted in one of the poorest and most populated villages of Bundelkhand in Uttar Pradesh, north India, this all woman group prides in its collective identity as vigilantes and are literally, wielding sticks and fighting for women’s equality and liberty in the area.

The inhabitants of Bundelkhand have to, on a daily basis, struggle against infertility of local lands, extreme poverty, illiteracy, frequent droughts, a corrupt judicial system and an oppressive and deeply hierarchical caste system on one hand and frequent incidences of rape, child marriage, domestic abuse, dowry deaths. etc on the other. What started as a one-time saving action wherein Sampat Pal Devi rounded up a few women and along with them, beat up a neighbor who abused his wife, has now grown into a feisty network of rebellious women across over eleven districts of India’s largest province, Uttar Pradesh, each honing a stick, ready to follow and deliver Sampat Devi’s alternate model of justice. With the vision to ‘protect the powerless from abuse and fight corruption’, the gang and its agenda found resonance with much of India’s population, where reports of sex crimes, domestic violence and gang rapes blighted the smooth functioning of the society.

Every marginalized community in India faces some kind of violence or the other. However, women who hail from a lower caste face a heightened version of this marginalization. “Baichi jat” or “all women constitute a caste” best describes the status of women in marginalized communities. Caste movements and women’s movements have hitherto come into being in the Indian scenario, but this is the first time that a movement for women from the lower caste is coming to the fore.

In this case, we see that women’s vigilantism has successfully proved to be an effective and temporary strategy to combat localized instances of gender violence. However, feminist scholarship throws light upon reasons why this sort of agency in resisting patriarchal forms of culture doesn’t fit into the long-term principles of feminist action. These instances of retributive ghettoizing and attacking the perpetrators does posit us with a moral and ethical predicament as to how far are they permanently justifiable in the eyes of the law and order set in place by society. Nevertheless, the Gulabi gang and its collective acts of aggression have managed to foster new feminist linkages for these women, allowing them options of social and physical mobility which were hitherto inaccessible.

Through the various activities and issues the gang takes up, we can reach a consensus that marginalized women who have utilized such organized forms of violence in order to gain justice, actually find themselves walking the thin line between legally punishable and socially acceptable action. Atreyee Sen argues that such women’s groups that function outside the legal system ultimately end up adopting a language of politics and pacifism in order to gain legitimacy and credibility as a social movement. One can observe that female vigilantism, in disempowered communities, attains a credible space when examined through the lens of ‘ethical violence’ and other related understandings of proportionate punishment for crimes against women. Sen, quotes Shanti, a member of the gang since 2007, “In all the time that I have been with the gang, we only beat people, we have never murdered anyone”.

Deniz Kandiyoti in her essay ‘Bargaining with Patriarchy’, talks about the abstract notion of patriarchy as seen in contemporary feminist theory. She takes up a systematic and comparative examination of women’s strategies in coping with different forms of patriarchy. She says that while different forms of patriarchy assign women ‘distinct rules of the game’, women have to traditionally come up with a novel set of strategies for both active and passive resistance, ie women in different locations, spatially and culturally, have to make different kinds of patriarchal bargains to deal with the situations they are in. This study of hers leads her to opine that an analysis of different forms of resistance reflects a culturally and geographically grounded understanding of various patriarchal systems.

Members of the Gulaabi Gang during a meeting.

While there are many men who associate with the ideals of the gang and even help them out in all ways possible, there are no men who are a part of the core gang. Their biggest support, according to Sampat, is by not being obstacles. Every male member of the community who isn’t a hindrance to or who doesn’t stop a woman from being a member of the gang, is in his own way, supporting the gang. They are content with being able to contribute economically and supporting the gang and its functioning wholeheartedly and are not comfortable looking at true agency as being a core part of the movement.

Amana Fontanella Khan, journalist and author of Pink Saree Revolution says that the law and justice system of Bundelkhand being dysfunctional and unreliable, Sampat Devi’s vision of gender equality and freedom has been successful because of her bold and creative ways of protest, further empowering and helping women, thus offering an alternative means of attaining justice where the state has left a vacuum. Nishita Jain, a filmmaker whose movie ‘Gulab Gang’ sought to throw light on the tale of these women, asserts, “It is ironic that in one of India’s most backward regions, women are forced to become ‘masculine’ and aggressive in their fight against machismo and patriarchy,”

A deeper look at the various strategic choices adopted by the Gulabi Gang leads us to a more nuanced understanding of this movement’s dynamics. The Gulabi Gang goes about implementing various strategies, both innovative and creative which remarkably make them stand out in this regard. They once planted seeds and saplings into potholes after multiple complaints to the administration had failed to work. This act openly ridiculed the system and saw an instant response on the part of the officials. When the police or any official administration fails to register a complaint, even after multiple efforts to initiate informative dialogue, the gang resorts to collectively sitting outside the concerned offices, refusing to move until their demands are met. They train regularly as a group, attempting to learn defense mechanisms, trying their best to never use it but always ready and prepared to. The use of lathis or bamboo sticks when nothing else works, is also, though illegitimate, an innovative means of protest. Along with discussion and dialogue, the Gulabi Gang also uses different forms of illegitimate violence, the uses of which can be read as being threefold: subtle forms of violence allow them to attract the attention of their counterparts, engages potential members and strengthens solidarity among gang members.

While most of these variations are rooted in completely cultural and historical processes, it is often seen that women take up protectionist roles for themselves, sometimes for their fellow female members and sometimes collectively as a group. The Gulabi Gang and its birth in the fiercely patriarchal, casteist and vulnerable context for Indian lower caste, dalit women can be read as one such strategy to combat the oppressive forces around these women in Bundelkhand. This movement, though a reaction in many senses, has been successful in solving the issues of the community till date. “Our missions have a 100 percent success rate. We have never failed in bringing justice when it comes to domestic problems,” said Sampat about their resistance and its impact on the society they are a part of. Irrespective of all the shams and queries raised against the ethical nuances of the gang and its working, the truth still holds that the women in the community benefit socially and personally from the presence and working of the gang, they feel empowered to be a part of it and more than anything else, have seen a fulfilment of their needs, both protectoral and rights based, via the functioning of the gang. The Gulabi gang suffices to solve the problems of these women, at a time and scenario in which no other authority or institution easily would.

Jerin Jacob is the Chief Operating Officer at One Future Collective.

Featured image: Aljazeera