Arming women with sticks may not be enough to guard the Gulabi Gang from violence, but it certainly makes an impact.
She is not an easy subject to film or write about. Sampat Pal Devi, the 54-year-old self-proclaimed ‘commander-in-chief’ of the Gulabi Gang, a group of vigilante women that operate out of Uttar Pradesh’s notorious badlands of Bundelkhand, has been variously lauded as an activist, a feminist, and a pioneer of sorts. Yet, during this fortnight, when violence against women is in focus across the world, it is useful to ask whether the kind of strategies followed by Sampat Pal and her ‘gang’ can actually be sustained in a world where women experience violence on so many fronts.
A new documentary “Gulabi Gang” directed by Nishtha Jain, whose earlier film “Laxmi and me” on domestic work was outstanding, tackles this difficult subject. Sampat Pal remains the name and face of this unusual group. According to her website, the group was formed spontaneously when she witnessed a farmer in her village mercilessly beat up his wife. When she tried to intervene, the man turned around and abused her. Sampat Pal rallied a few women, went back to the man’s house, and thrashed him until he begged for mercy.
From that incident in 2006 was born the Gulabi Gang which now has a membership of 2,00,000, claims Sampat Pal. The women pay a membership fee, and are given a pink sari and a stick as a uniform. They respond to calls for help not just on violence, or dowry torture and death but also police inaction and corruption in the district administration. Their fame has spread beyond Bundelkhand, as the unique nature of their way of working is a natural media draw.
Jain’s film, however, moves beyond the celebratory prose of what has been written about the Gulabi Gang and Sampat Pal in particular. The latter, incidentally, has managed to get nationwide attention by participating for a short while in the reality show Big Boss 6. Jain’s documentary tries to be non-judgmental, recording some of the cases that the Gulabi Gang tackle and through this bringing out the many shades of grey that layer the work as well as the issues around violence against women.
For this reason alone, such documentation is important. It is much too easy to come out with pat solutions for any number of problems facing women. Empower them, educate them, make them economically self-sufficient – then they will not have to suffer violence. Yet, despite all this, we know for a fact that even educated, professional women cannot escape domestic violence or violence in the public space.
The film brings out quite effectively that even as injustice and violence bind these poor women together, prompting them to either join the Gulabi Gang or seek its help, religion, caste and class divide them. Women have many different identities and often their other associations take precedence. Thus, an active member of the Gang argues for honour killings, justifying it as a custom that is legitimate in her view. She withdraws from the gang when she finds others do not share her views.
Similarly, although it is encouraging that members of the Gulabi Gang have entered the political fray by contesting panchayat elections, many lost. Those who lost are bitter that their own gang members did not vote for them. The daughter of one such member who lost speaks bitterly in the film and wonders why her mother was persuaded to stand if the other members of the gang were not going to vote for her. Clearly, no one had explained to her that in elections, caste and community often play a much larger role than gender.
The film also highlights how the deeply ingrained custom of looking for a “leader” also affects a group like the Gulabi Gang. Even though there are other strong women who have been a part of the gang for the last six years, it is only Sampat Lal who is identified with the Gulabi Gang. And she clearly does not dislike the attention, including people touching her feet and garlanding her.
Finally, can arming women – even if it is only with sticks and not guns – really deal with the embedded issue of violence against women? The State so far seems to tolerate these women, even humour them, but clearly the systemic issues that underlie the violence, the inability of the criminal justice system to respond to the victims, and the fact that society accepts that such violence is inevitable, have not been touched.
One could argue that every effort to highlight and tackle violence against women, and all kinds of collectives of women, should be lauded because even if they cannot change everything, they do make an impact. The film shows us that even participating in the activities of the Gulabi Gang is meaningful for many of the women. The very fact that they can walk into a police station, or a district office, without fear is almost revolutionary in a region where women have no voice.
Yet, that is not enough. For even as women are finding a voice in so many ways, some of them quite unusual, the elements that perpetuate violence against women remain firmly in place.