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Carrying a Big Stick: India's Gulabi Gang

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.
(Photo: Sanjit Das)

(Photo: Sanjit Das)

  • In 2006, Sampat Pal Devi founded the all-female Gulabi Gang in northern India’s impoverished Bundelkhand region after reportedly witnessing a man publicly beat his wife. The gang members sport pink saris and wield bamboo lathis, which Devi and five other women used to thrash the violent husband.
  • Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli first commercialized hot pink in the late 1930s. Inspired by a Cartier diamond she had spotted on an heiress friend, Schiaparelli described the color, then called “shocking pink,” as “bright, impossible, impudent.”
  • “To face down men in this part of the world, you have to use force,” Devi has said. She was married at the age of 12 to a 20-year-old man she had never met. Today, her vigilante group is said to include between 200,000 and 400,000 North Indian women, most of whom are poor and illiterate.
  • A large 2013 survey found that more than 50 percent of Indian women have been victims of violence at some point in their lives, and 60 percent of men admitted to committing “intimate partner violence” against their wives.
  • According to a journalist from the Guardian who visited Devi’s home in 2008, the activist’s husband was “mute and utterly obedient to her every order.” With only a snap of Devi’s fingers, six male members of her entourage ran to get the journalist tea.
  • According to the Indian sociologist Tulsi Patel, a daughter born in Bundelkhand is considered paraya dhan—other people’s property—because “a daughter leaves the family upon marriage; in that sense she is ... an avoidable burden raised for another family.”
  • A 2011 study appearing in the Lancet found that sex-selective abortions of girls in India had increased “substantially” in the previous two decades, especially among wealthier, educated families. Among children younger than six, the 2011 Indian census found 914 girls for every 1,000 boys, the lowest ratio in over 60 years.
  • The rugged hills of the Bundelkhand region have a long history of harboring gangs of outlaws called dacoits, who have sometimes wielded significant power through extortion and intimidation. Through the late 2000s, Devi and the Gulabi Gang sought to contest the power of some dacoit leaders.
  • Devi has become a minor celebrity. In 2012, she was a contestant on the reality TV show Bigg Boss, the Indian version of Big Brother. In 2014, a Bollywood action movie called Gulaab Gang—featuring crime-fighting women in pink saris—was released on 1,700 screens across India. It flopped.
  • The multinational mining firm Rio Tinto is expected to break ground soon on a massive new diamond mine in Bundelkhand. According to diamond-industry giant De Beers, the swelling middle classes in China and India are driving resurgent demand for the precious stones.

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