This April, Sampat Pal, the leader of the Gulabi Gang, a vigilante group that for the past 28 years has targetted errant husbands and male bullies, met the Congress national general secretary, Rahul Gandhi. The meeting took place in Banda, one of the poorest areas of Bundelkhand that’s high on the Congress’ poll agenda to take on Mayawati in the 2012 assembly elections. Local party leaders informed Gandhi about Sampat’s fight for the cause of rural women. By May, she found her name in the list of party candidates. From local heroine to national icon, Pal’s life has since then, taken a new turn.
What will be the fate of the Gulabi Gang if she wins the 2012 election? The gang would continue to do their work, says Pal but adds that in the next election she would demand “more tickets”.
The meeting with Gandhi was eventful, says the lady who has been fielded from the Manikpur assembly seat in Chitrakoot district. “When Rahul said, ‘tell me your story’, I was so taken aback,” she recalls. “I have been fighting for the rights of women for years. How could I sum up my story in a few words? But I knew that opportunity was knocking on the door and all I had to do was win the heart of Rahul”. She also sang for him. “Jago re jago bharat ki nari, jamana jagana hai, bahut dino ghar baithi, ab ghar sey bahar akar jamana ko jagan hai’(Wake up the women of India, you remained in the house for long, time has come to leave the house and shake the consciousness of the country). He appreciated my song and asked me to join the party.” In May, she went to New Delhi and met Sonia Gandhi.
The 48 year-old admits that her life may seem “like a scene from a Hindi movie,” but underlines that it stands on years of work and personal sacrifice. In January, she fought for a rape victim who had been sent to jail. The accused was BSP MLA, Purushottam Naresh Dwivedi. He was sent behind bars. This month, Pal’s son-in-law was killed but Sampat remained undeterred. Rahul asked Sampat if she was in a position to campaign or feared an attack on her life. She replied: “Your grandmother was killed in her official residence at New Delhi and your father was killed in a public meeting at Chennai, yet you are moving all over the country.” Indeed, Pal is no stranger to adversity. Married to Munni Lal Pal, an icecream vendor, when she was 12, she decided to be self-reliant by stitching garments for village women. “I saved money and purchased a sewing machine and opened a training centre for poor girls and helped them to stand on their feet. The villagers used to tease me. My husband tried to bully me but I remained unmoved,” she says.
Why did she start the Gulabi Gang? “‘My neighbour Ram Milan used to beat up his wife regularly. I decided to teach him a lesson. I motivated the rural womenfolk and we beat him up.” Only after a public apology was he allowed to go. The news spread all over the area and women suppressed by their husbands started coming to her for help. A public meeting was held and ‘gang members’ selected the pink saree as the dress code.
Within few days, the membership of the gang swelled and it started taking up other social issues as well. For instance, members of the gang tied up the station house officer of Attara police station when he refused to register the case of a rape victim; the SDM was forced to walk on the road full of potholes after district administration failed to repair it. Though illiterate, Pal opened a makeshift school in tribal villages with the assistance of social activists. The police, dacoits, contractors and forest department employees who exploited the tribals were challenged and kept at bay. In the 2007 assembly elections, the Gulabi leader contested against Piyaria Devi, mother of dreaded dacoit Thokia. Though she lost, people outside of Bundelkhand had come to know of her. In 2008, Pal went to France and in 2009, to Italy to participate in a feminist programme. She is also the subject of atleast half a dozen books and documentaries. More and more people are now ready to join the 1.90 lakh-strong Gulabi Gang.
The last word in this story, ironically enough, belongs to a man. Shiv Murat Patel, a farmer in Tekia village in Banda, says in praise: “Due to Sampat, the women and young can move freely in the fields or markets even as the men are away.”