Don’t Mess With the Sari

08.06.134:45 AM ET

India’s Pink-Sari Vigiliantes

Amana Fontanella-Khan’s new book, Pink Sari Revolution, delves into the astounding success of India’s fearless women who have taken it upon themselves to protect the poor and call out the country’s most corrupt officials.

Sampat’s patio overlooks Bisanda Road—so called because it leads to the nearby town of Bisanda—which is one of the main thoroughfares in Atarra. The haphazardly arranged town, with a population of 10,700, is still largely undeveloped: part rural village, with its pockets of simple mud huts. The traffic on Bisanda Road is composed of trundling, garishly painted trucks, tricycle rickshaws with their steel bells ringing, wandering cows, and people carrying produce in woven palm-leaf baskets carefully balanced on their heads. A low cloud of dust, kicked up by this endless to-and-fro, hovers perpetually over the ground.

On winter mornings, mist often lingers on the far end of the street outside Sampat’s office, and the air is scented by the acrid smell of burning plastic waste, garbage bonfires being a means of both rubbish disposal and heat generation during the dreary winter months. The street scene in front of Sampat’s office is as bleak as the smell. The boxlike brick homes and family-run stores on Bisanda Road resemble auto workshops, despite the fact that the buildings are painted in a cheery assortment of pastel colors: mint green, powder blue, and candy-floss pink. All these crude, windowless structures have metal shutters running down the front of them, adorned with hand-painted advertisements for unglamorous products such as Fevicol, India’s largest brand of adhesives. Every morning, these shutters rumble upward and reveal small stores selling plastic tubes for irrigation, tractor tires, and plywood.

Atarra is enveloped on all sides by unpredictable, drought-prone farmland where gaunt men wearing dhoti loincloths and vests are silhouetted by the sun as they bend over to pull weeds by hand or arduously maneuver the oxen plowing the fields. Every year, farmers pray for a good monsoon rainfall so that masoori rice seedlings, chickpea, split red gram, wheat, and yellow-flowering mustard will grow. When rainfall is particularly low, waves of suicides by indebted farmers sweep the region. Too poor to pay back money owed for expensive insecticide when crops fail, many farmers end up, as a way out, drinking the very chemicals that plunged them into debt. There are some parts of Bundelkhand, the region where Atarra is located, where entire villages are indebted to loan sharks as a result of the droughts.

For all the dreariness of Bisanda Road that morning, Sampat felt a certain pride when she looked at the road, for it did not exist before her arrival here in 2005. Before, a rocky, rutted path made the axels of wooden carts jolt out of their wheels and doubled the journeying time of anyone who took it. “See this road?” people in Atarra will say. “It’s thanks to Sampat Pal that it got laid.” One day in 2006 she and a group of disgruntled women had convened on the road and, with wooden hoes in their hands, proclaimed loudly, “This is a road, what? Looks like a field to me! Come on, let’s grow vegetables here, at least we can eat them!” They started sowing seeds, tilling the stony dirt road and blocking the traffic. Passersby stopped and stared. People got off their carts, or gearless Atlas bicycles, to get a better look. Sampat had called the district magistrate to show him the state of the roads and made him make a promise in front of the crowds: “Yes, Sampat-ji. We’ll fix the road. Definitely.”

Her gang of women, who wore striking pink sari uniforms and carried pink-painted sticks, had made their first public appearance that day. The local journalists who covered the event christened them the Gulabi Gang, Hindi for the “Pink Gang.” At the time, they numbered but a few dozen. By 2008, however, there would be about twenty thousand members, making the gang double the size of the Irish army and eight times larger than the estimated number of al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan.

“Now I am so feh-mas,” Sampat likes to say, using the imported English word in a thick accent and spreading her arms out wide to demonstrate the scale of her notoriety. A friend of Sampat’s says that in just a few years she had shot, to use his expression, “from zeero to heero.”

Sampat’s office, effectively the headquarters of the Pink Gang, as it has become known in English, is a windowless affair on the ground floor of a two-story brick house. It is also next to where her son-in-law once had a small doctor’s clinic.

Though Sampat calls this her “office,” it is devoid of desks, computers, or anything else you would expect to see in a place of work. If it weren’t for the bullhorn lying on one of the shelves, a quick look into the clean-swept space wouldn’t suggest that anything out of the ordinary happens there.

Sampat’s front door opens onto a small roofed patio, which is shaded from the sun and is popular with mosquitos. Most days, it is on this small patch of concrete that Sampat receives a steady trickle of aggrieved parties—men and women—who start arriving shortly after dawn and continue bringing their problems until nightfall. Much like patients in a doctor’s waiting room, they sit with hopeful faces on the flimsy plastic chairs and charpoys, rope-beds, that are huddled together on the patio. Some clutch badly photocopied documents in their hands—things like police reports, property deeds, or marriage certificates (which are useful when men take on a different wife and kick out their previous spouse, denying her any rights). Occasionally, women come directly after their husbands have beaten them, blue bruises burgeoning under their eyes and split lips still throbbing and raw.

Often, Sampat, whose days are filled with visits to the police station, protests outside the courts, and trips with women to the hospital, is out when these people arrive (it is rare for anyone to make an appointment in advance), so they either wait or come back another day—few have nine-to-five jobs, making their movements and plans fluid.

That, in fact, was the reason why Sampat, a woman in her late forties, moved out of her family house in the nearby town of Badausa, where her husband lives with four of her children: her family’s domestic life was being upended by the continuous to-and-fro of people with tearful stories.

In a place like Atarra, it is highly unusual for a woman to live apart from her family, but Sampat has a way of making exceptions to all the rules that normally apply. That is also how she gets away with sharing her room with her male colleague, Jai PrakashShivhare. A former high-school teacher turned social activist, Shivhare is an exceedingly gentle man. He has cropped silver hair that contrasts appealingly with his swarthy skin; heavy eyelids, which always look like they are going to close for a nap; and a soft, sleepy voice. Sampat calls this faithful companion who rarely leaves her side “Babuji,” a respectful appellation reserved for older men and fathers—and a good title to use if you want to deflect gossip.


Sampat and Babuji moved into her Atarra office in 2005, when they were both small-time social workers. In those days, Sampat and Babuji would wake up at the crack of dawn; eat a meager breakfast, often just a chapatti—a flat, unleavened bread—and a raw onion with some green chili paste; and cycle to the nearby hamlets located among the vast rice paddies surrounding Atarra. In these hamlets she and Babuji would organize “self-help groups,” a government-sponsored scheme whereby women pool small amounts of money in order to qualify for a government loan. Sampat had worked as a facilitator for the government’s program since 2003, when she started an NGO, the Tribal Women Upliftment and Empowerment of Women Organisation, for that purpose. The government believed that self-help groups could bring millions of families above the poverty line. It was over the course of that year that Sampat would transform one of her many self-help groups into what would become a nascent vigilante organization.

Few parts of the country were as badly in need of justice as hardscrabble Bundelkhand, located in the southwestern frontier of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state. Monolithic Uttar Pradesh (which means “Northern State”) has just under 200 million inhabitants, surpassing the population of Brazil. Indeed, if it were a country, it would be the fifth most populous one in the world. But it would also be the poorest; food scarcity there is more severe than in sub-Saharan Africa. In addition, Bundelkhand is one of the most crime-ridden areas of Uttar Pradesh, as it is (and has been) the home of some of the country’s most notorious bandits, who often take the law into their own hands after not receiving justice. Many murder their enemies and then spend a lifetime looting villages to provide for themselves while on the run. It is a common sight to see men casually carrying rifles slung over their shoulders. It is for reasons like these that the Indian government has declared Bundelkhand among the most “backward” places in the country and, by extension, the world. Vast swathes of Uttar Pradesh are widely considered, even by the government, to be “lawless.”

Bundelkhand’s rocky, uneven landscape, with its bleached-out skies and naked horizon, evokes a place of scant hope. Its muted palette of burnt wheat, ochre, cow-dung brown, and ash-gray is relieved only by the greenery from the rice paddies and the abundant tamarind, mahua, and sheesham trees. Traversing the land, one encounters apt metaphors for Bundelkhand’s harshness: a carcass of a stallion devoured by feral dogs in a roadside ditch, a scarecrow crowned with a horned bull’s skull, a farmer relentlessly whipping an emaciated mule.

Babuji and Sampat shared many long rides together on their co-owned, rusty bicycle as they passed through this landscape on their way to nearby villages. It is easy to picture them: Babuji in his cotton tunic and Sampat seated sideways on the back of the bicycle, her sari fluttering in the wind. From a distance, they could look like husband and wife, their conversation like conjugal chatter. It was not so. As they cycled under the searing sun, they spent hours pondering questions like “How do we get women out of their homes?” or, more fundamentally, “How do we make a better society?” It was all they ever spoke about.

“Women live in slavery,” Sampat would conclude after their daylong discussions. She hoped that maybe their self-help groups would help women achieve financial independence and, most importantly, freedom.

Excerpted from Pink Sari Revolution: A Tale of Women and Power in India by Amana Fontanella-Khan. Copyright © 2013 by Amana Fontanella-Khan. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.