India's female Pink Gang are vigilantes Anuj Chopra, Chronicle Foreign Service Sunday, June 14, 2009 (06-14) 04:00 PDT Banda District, India -- On a hot afternoon, a throng of two dozen women clad in candy-pink saris gathered beneath the cool shade of a gnarled banyan tree. They listened with rapt attention as a sinewy but robust woman they called "commander" delivered a military-type briefing. "To face down men in this part of the world, you have to use force," she said. "We function in a man's world where men make all the rules. Our fight is against injustice." The "commander" is Sampat Pal, the 47-year-old leader of thousands of female vigilantes known as the Gulabi (Pink) Gang. Since its inception three years ago in a lawless area of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, women from some 600 villages have joined the group, wielding heavy clubs and and traditional bamboo batons, called lathis, used by police for crowd control to "convince" wife beaters, rapists and corrupt bureaucrats to change their ways. Chuniya Devi, a diminutive 30-year-old mother of six, joined the Pink Gang three years ago to learn how to restrain her husband, Seevan's, alcohol-fueled outbursts. She says her broad-shouldered husband stopped the beatings soon after she joined the gang for fear of being pummeled himself. "I learned that the more you suffer silently, the more your oppressor will oppress you," said Devi. The vigilantes' unconventional ways have fired the imagination of Banda women, who widely hail the group as heroes in this feudalistic region of India. Banda is among the nation's poorest areas with nearly 20 percent of its 1.6 million inhabitants at the bottom rung of India's caste hierarchy, according to government estimates. Many are not taken seriously by police when crimes are committed against them. A lower-caste family from the town of Bulandsharar, for example, asked the Pink Gang for help after their landlord raped their teenage daughter and paid police not to investigate. When Pal called the town's chief of police, he registered the case out of fear that he would be mobbed by Pink Gang members if he didn't, the family says. For Pal, seeds of rebellion were sown after her parents refused to send her to school. She protested by scribbling the ABCs on village walls and floors. They finally relented, only to remove her from school at age 12 to marry a man 13 years older than her. She then went to live with her husband, Munni Lal Pal, an ice cream vendor. A year later, she had the first of her five children. At 18, Pal, who says she was moved by the plight of poor Indian women, began meeting with local nongovernmental organizations to work on women's health issues and combat child marriages, dowry abuse and domestic violence. Leaving the house to speak with men and relinquish the ubiquitous Hindu veil known as ghunghat was initially opposed by her husband, but her zeal changed his attitude. "He supports me now," she said. In 2006, Pal's impatience with traditional activism and red tape surrounding women's aid programs pushed her to form the Pink Gang with a handful of women. Since then, several thousand women - many of whom are victims of domestic violence - have joined the group. Over time, Pal realized that the fight is not just against abusive men. Corruption, she says, is a major player in stalling economic development in Banda and other impoverished districts. Transparency International, a watchdog group in Berlin that addresses worldwide corruption, estimated that Indians, particularly the poor, paid $4.5 billion in bribes to officials for basic services in 2005. Last year, the Pink Gang discovered a government-run shop selling tons of grain on the black market that should have been handed out free to the poor. Despite threats from knife-wielding drivers, two female vigilantes stopped several trucks loaded with grain headed for the illegal market by deflating tires and confiscating the drivers' keys. The pink-clad women then publicly pressured government officials to seize the grain and distribute it to the poor as intended. When residents of the Banda village of Atarra were long ignored about paving the village's rutted dirt roads, the Pink Gang stepped in. "We realized that they would not act until their palms were greased," Pal said. The women then swarmed the office of District Magistrate G.C. Pandey, holding him down and smearing his face with black paint in a public act of shaming. He soon authorized the road construction. To be sure, the Pink Gang is often criticized for breaking the law. Pal, for example, has been charged with 11 criminal offenses for the attack on Pandey and is out on bail. "She is a bold woman," said Ashutosh Kumar, Banda's superintendent of police, who says he admires her grit. "But she works like a kangaroo court." Such criticism or the threat of imprisonment, however, doesn't bother Pal. "There used to be a pervasive feeling of helplessness, a collective belief that fighting back is just not possible," said Pal. "But that is slowly changing."