FIFTY-NINE-YEAR-OLD Sampat Pal sits under a peepal tree in Sighuwa village, holding a jansabha (public meet). Clad in her trademark pink sari, the founder of the Gulabi Gang is addressing a small crowd of her old comrades who have gathered from nearby villages. “Do you remember how we took on the public works department of Fatehpur,” she asks the women. “What was the condition of that bus stop? It was so bad that people couldn’t use it, buses refused to halt. What did we do… dhaan ropayi di thhi na stop parr (didn’t we sow the paddy crop in the stop)? That caught the attention of the department and we got a shiny new bus stop, but we weren’t able to walk for three months because our legs were swollen from stomping in the dirty soil,” she reminisces, eliciting laughter. For the next 10 minutes, she tells the crowd humorous tales of her outspokenness even as a child, threatens to sing in her raspy voice, and promises to protest for everything, be it bijli, paani or sadak (electricity, water or roads).
“If you elect me as your representative,” she declares, “I will not rest and I will not let the government rest in peace till development comes to Manikpur.” Yehi mera tareeqa hai (this is my way), says the woman who is now the gathbandhan—alliance—candidate of the Congress and Samajwadi Party (SP) for the Manikpur Assembly constituency, which is at the heart of one of the most closely-fought contests in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh election.
Sampat Pal’s is a much storied life. Married off at 12, picked up a laathi at 16, and formed a gang of women fighting for justice soon after. She and her band of pink sari-clad, laathi-wielding women beat up police officers, corrupt bureaucrats, and abusive husbands. The Gulabi Gang protested for good roads and water tankers, as much as they protested against violence against women. In just five years, her gang grew from 10 women in Banda district, Bundelkhand, to several hundred thousand in UP, Rajasthan and Bihar, with Pal at the centre of all the attention. She went on Bigg Boss, a popular reality TV show. She was the subject of numerous documentaries and books. She is ‘mummy’ to scores of young girls abandoned by lovers and families in Bundelkhand, who have found refuge in her heart and home (“Dil mein jagah deti hun, toh tamaam jagah mil jaati hai”).
In 2007, a year after Gulabi Gang was formed, she ran for Assembly elections as an independent candidate from Naraini in Banda district, just to teach one of Bundelkhand’s dreaded dacoits a lesson. Thokiya the dacoit left pieces of turmeric roots on the doorsteps of people’s homes, threatening them with dire consequences if they didn’t vote for his mother. Sampat Pal filed her nomination with the election symbol of ‘chhadi’ (stick) and ran with the slogan: ‘Humaara chunav chihn chhadi, Sampat Pal maidaan me khadi. Agar Thokiya karega gadbadi, meri padegi chhadi’ (Our symbol is the stick, Sampat Pal’s in the fray; if Thokiya misbehaves, he’ll get a whack). “I didn’t campaign at all, just the slogan was enough,” says Pal. “I got 6,500 votes and that cut Thokiya’s mother’s chances.”
She ran again in 2012, this time from Manikpur and for the Congress party. Without the party’s organisation and on a shoe- string budget, she still managed to come fourth with 23,000 votes. Now, as Bundelkhand goes to polls on February 23th, the winds here appear to be in favour of Sampat Pal. Whether this is the result of the Congress-SP alliance or the fact that there are three current and former Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) members in the fray, eating into the party’s votebank, or that Pal has grown as a politician, only time will tell. For now, of the 100 women candidates announced by various political parties, Pal is one of the few fighting an election with no political patronage, family ties or deep pockets. She is a former chaiwaali (tea seller) who speaks her mind in brash Bundeli and calls herself a ‘sanki soldier’ and a ‘khaasi ladaaku’ (special fighter).
If you elect me as your representative, I will not rest and I will not let the government rest in peace till development comes to Manikpur. This is my way
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For the past one-two months, Pal has hopped across the Manikpur constituency, which extends from the Allahabad border in the west to the Madhya Pradesh border in the east, reviving her mostly dormant gang, holding informal sit-downs in dacoit- infested villages, and halting at the homes of Adivasi Kol voters. In the midst of a frenetic election campaign, she has run off to shoot for a documentary film, swearing at the filmmakers a little for their ill-timed visit. She has also abandoned her jansabhas every now and then to go mediate in cases of violence against women who continue to call her daily for help. She has been on the road so much that she has worn the same pink sari for three straight days, the same green blouse for more than a week.
SEVENTY-YEAR-OLD Chuniya Devi and sixty-something Chandkali of Tikuri village are present at the Sighuwa jansabha. Introducing them as two of the oldest members of the Gulabi Gang from Manikpur, Pal says that they, along with 30 other women from their village, first fought the “tanker ki ladaayi” (battle for water tankers) in 2007. “Today,” she says, “there are 30-40,000 women from Manikpur who are part of the Gulabi revolution.”
When we visit Tikuri village, located 12 km from Manikpur and inside the Ranipur wildlife sanctuary, Chuniya Devi is on her evening visit to the well to fetch water. Tikuri, with a population of around 100 Adivasi Kol households, continues to struggle for water. The lone handpump of the village is 3 km away and the well doesn’t have enough water. Chuniya Devi says she draws water twice a day, while other villagers tell us that they spend entire days fetching water for their families. Tikuri has one government school, up to class 8. Children usually drop out after that, as there is little transport to ferry them to schools and colleges in Manikpur. Currently, there are only two children in the village, both boys, who are enrolled in class 10 in Manikpur. After February 23th, many families have planned to migrate from their villages to work in brick kilns in Delhi, which is now a bi-annual ritual.
Chuniya Devi lives on the edge of Tikuri. She is the only member of her household. She says she became a member of Gulabi Gang only in 2012, at the time of elections, when Sampat Pal gave her a pink sari and took her to a few meetings. She doesn’t receive pension, does not have a ration card and has still not been paid for the 14 days of work she did last year under MGNREGA. Her problems are public knowledge, but no help, not even from the Gang, has come forth. After her loss in the 2012 polls, Chuniya Devi says, Pal has returned only now. In this campaign season, Devi has been to three public meetings of Pal, for the promise of a snack, a few hundred rupees and a sari. Even for the Sighuwa jansabha, she was promised Rs 100, which she is yet to receive. “Vote maangne toh sabhi aate hai,” she says, bending her back and folding her palms to mimic every greasy politician who has visited her, “Didi, didi, vote de doh humein. Vote ke baad, kaun dekhta hai didi ko.” (Sister, please vote for me. But after that, who looks at us again?)
There is no rape in this state. Three-fourths of cases registered are false. Of the one-fourth cases remaining, most of them are women who are of age and want love marriages
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Pal claims that the membership of Gulabi Gang runs into a few hundred thousand in UP. She says there are chapters of the Gang in other states as well, including Rajasthan and Karnataka. There are at least 40-50 women of the gang in every village, she says. “Gulabi Gang is my voter.”
On the day of the nomination, February 6th, Pal promises that around 200 of her members from the Manikpur constituency will congregate to take out a procession to the Collectorate. On this day, Pal’s makeshift office in a hospital compound turns into a sea of pink, with 200 women gathered in hot pink saris and salwars, making puri sabzi. All of them arrived the previous night from Mahoba district in Bundelkhand, which is in a different constituency. Many of them are elderly women who have come on the assurance of travel fare reimbursement, pensions and farm loan waivers—promises made in the SP and Congress manifestos. Apart from her closest aides from Manikpur, there is not a single member of the Gulabi Gang from Pal’s constituency in attendance. Chuniya Devi is also nowhere to be seen.
Take the case of sixty-year-old Shanti, who is here from Srinagar block in Mahoba. She has been a member for eight years now, and vows that this is her last day in the gang. She has come for her pension, not for filing nomination papers. Or take the case of Rasso, a young Muslim woman, also from Mahoba, who says that the gang took a registration fee of Rs 500 at the time of joining in return for a pink sari and blanket every year. As Rasso tells us of monthly meetings of the gang in which no issues—especially related to violence against women—were taken up nor resolved, Pal’s aides arrive to discourage women from talking to us. Gansi, an old member of the gang from Mahoba, says that women like her want monthly minimum wages, much like the concept of Universal Basic Income that this year’s Economic Survey talks about. Prakash Rani, also an old member from Mahoba, says that her village needs doctors, a cemetery and a pucca road. It appears that what the Gulabi Gang voter wants is going unheard by their representative. Monthly meetings of the gang, many members say, are mostly hogwash.
As the procession begins to roll out of the office and onward to the Collectorate, the women in pink quickly collect their belongings, pack their lunches into bags, hoist them over their heads and shoulders, and start their march, at the end of which is another long train ride back home to their district.
ON FEBRUARY 4TH, 16 of 25 candidates from the Chitrakoot and Manikpur Assembly constituencies in Bundelkhand filed their nominations. Rallies, public meetings and processions sprang up everywhere in Karwi town, the district headquarters of Chitrakoot. From the temporary Gulabi Gang office, 200 women and the district Congress leadership, along with candidate Sampat Pal, started their procession to the Collectorate. Along the way, the procession coalesced into the SP candidate Veer Singh Patel’s own. In a sign of the alliance between the two parties, both candidates marched in tandem to file papers. SP workers brought out their Enfields and e-rickshaws, flags, caps, scarves, even selfie sticks. An independent candidate rode to the Collectorate atop a bullock cart, while the BSP nominees came in SUVs. The only women on the streets of Karwi that day were the members of Gulabi Gang, a sea of pink carrying their heavy bags, left behind by the pomp and show of other political parties.
In late January, the SP and Congress sealed an alliance for the UP elections, with a seat sharing ratio of 298 to 105 seats respectively for the 403-member state Assembly. While Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi hold rallies, taking on the Bharatiya Janata Party and BSP, on-ground, in the districts of Bundelkhand, the tie-up has evoked a mixed response. In the Manikpur constituency, Congress candidate Pal appears to be reaping the benefits of the alliance, in terms of voters and organisational support. Pal’s campaign follows no fixed schedule, travels with a compact team of family members (some of whom are also members of the BSP) and one or two Gulabi Gang members. The SP, on the other hand, has divided the constituency into zones, assigned workers to booths and pulled panchayat members into the campaign, lending a strong hand to the Congress campaign. While Pal waits to hear from the party on her wish-list of star campaigners: Rahul- Akhilesh, Priyanka-Dimple, Sidhu-Salman, she is nevertheless taking aim at all her opponents through earthy slogans like ‘Dal badlu [BJP’s RK Singh Patel] fasse shikanje mein, button dabegi panje mein’ (turncoats will be trapped, the button will be pressed for the hand symbol) and ‘Daaru, anda, sari, note, nahin chalega isse vote’ (liquor, egg, sari or cash, none of this will get votes).
Oddly enough, in her campaign speeches, public meetings and press conferences, Pal makes no mention of issues related to women. She talks of tubewells and roads, but she says little on Uttar Pradesh’s notorious record of crimes against women, an agenda that is at the heart of the Gulabi Gang. When we ask Pal about this, she bristles. “Delhi is worse, Delhi is where the crimes are, not Uttar Pradesh. In my experience, and let me tell you, I have worked with women a lot, there is no rape in this state. Three-fourths of the cases registered are false cases. Of the one-fourth cases remaining, most of them are women who are of age and want love marriages. The rest, I believe, are rape cases, mostly by men who are drunk or mad.”
The original Gulabi Gang of 2006 no longer exists. Members exist in the number of saris and identity cards, but its promised revolution is yet to sweep Bundelkhand. Suman Singh Chauhan, a former comrade of Pal and now the head of a splinter group of the gang, tells us that “the gang lost its way after Pal began to dabble in politics”. She says that Pal was accused of corruption (the charges were never proven), of using the gang to campaign for political parties, and of bribery in settling cases of violence against women. In 2011, Pal waged a lonely, fierce battle to unite a young Scheduled Caste girl with a Brahmin boy. Three days before she filed her nomination papers, Neelam Verma walked into a police station in Banda district to register a First Information Report against her husband. The FIR also names Sampat Pal as the person who forced her into the marriage.
The lady in pink, however, marches on in her modest cavalcade, undisturbed by controversy, promising to bring Manikpur out of the dark ages. But will Chuniya Devi, her old comrade, vote for her?