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India is adding to its tradition of political protest. That tradition includes Mahatma Gandhi, the nonviolent leader who struggled to drive British Colonialists from his land. And now consider this. A gang of India's women is taking on men who've gone astray. They're armed with sticks and with their own avenging anger. NPR's Philip Reeves met their leader.
(Soundbite of people shouting)
PHILIP REEVES: There's a big argument going on. An old woman sits in a courtyard glaring. Her opponent, a portly middle-aged man, is in tears. This is a family feud about land. Millions of disputes like this rage across India day in, day out. But this one has an umpire. She's a sturdy woman in an eye-scorchingly pink sari. Her bracelets are pink. She has a pink hairclip and a pink pen. What would you expect of someone who calls herself the leader of the Pink Sari Gang?
(Soundbite of people shouting)
REEVES: She darts from person to person, jabbing a pink-painted finger in their faces, ordering each to compromise. This woman has no training in law. She has no formal education or official position. That doesn't matter round here, she says.
Ms. SAMPAT DEVI PAL (Leader, Gulabi Gang): (Through Translator) The public has lost all faith in the government. The government asks them for bribes. The poor man thinks of me as his savior.
REEVES: Her name is Sampat Devi Pal. Sampat leads a gang of women whose mission is to combat corrupt and abusive men in rural India. When word of her gang spread, she turned into a local celebrity.
Ms. PAL: (Through Translator) When I'm here, I get a nonstop flow of people from morning until night. People just keep coming with their different problems.
REEVES: They come from the surrounding countryside, the plains of north India. Sampat lives in Uttar Pradesh, one of India's poorest and most dysfunctional states. Times of India columnist Jag Soraya(ph) says corruption among law enforcement agencies and government officials is an enormous problem in this part of India.
Mr. JAG SORAYA (Columnist, Times of India): The scale is truly colossal. I mean, it would go right from the top of the pyramid right down to the very bottom, to the cop on the beat.
REEVES: Sampat set up her gang two years ago. She did so because she was angry. One of her female friends was assaulted by a man. As usual, the authorities did nothing. Sampat felt she had no choice but to take the law into her own hands. She established a gang of women to force the government and police to clean up their act. In the tumbledown house she calls her office, she shows off the equipment she issues to recruits. First the uniform: a bright pink sari. That's the full-length wrap worn by Indian women. Then the weapon.
Ms. PAL: (Through Translator) Every woman in my gang has one of these big pink sticks.
REEVES: These sticks are called lathis. The police in India beat people with them when they want to keep crowds in line. Sampat demonstrates her combat skills, grinning as she spars with an office assistant. The lathis are mainly for self-defense, she says. But the Pink Sari Gang sometimes uses them in anger.
Ms. PAL: (Through Translator) These days, we use them mainly on drunk men. What else are we supposed to do with men that drink and misbehave with women?
REEVES: Sampat's taking on men in a deeply patriarchal society. But Jag Soraya says there are plenty of examples in India where powerful women have made an enormous impact.
Mr. SORAYA: When one of these patriarchal figures does come across a really strong woman who is willing to stand up to them and if necessary shame them, they're not used to it. They're used to women being subservient. So when they come across a really powerful female personality, they do tend to sort of buckle under.
REEVES: Sampat's more of a political activist than a vigilante, and she knows the value of publicity. She's just come out with a ghostwritten autobiography, though so far it's only available in French. As she recounts the Pink Sari Gang's exploits, it's sometimes hard to separate myth from reality. However, she has some clippings from the local papers.
One article reports that her gang dragged an official out of his car to show him a crumbling road. Another describes how the gang seized trucks carrying rice and wheat that was supposed to go to the poor but had been commandeered by black marketeers. There's a story about Sampat going to the police to try to release a man whom she thinks the police arrested purely to get a bribe. This is Sampat's version of what happened after the police turned her away.
Ms. PAL: (Through Translator) The next day, I took my gang of several hundred women, all with lathi sticks. We surrounded the police station. We beat the police officers sitting outside the station. The other policemen came out with their lathi sticks. Our women then got very aggressive and started beating up the police, and then we tied them up.
REEVES: Women's rights are high on Sampat's agenda. She's a shepherd's daughter who never went to school. She is now in her mid-40s. She says her parents arranged for her to be married when she was just 12.
Ms. PAL: (Through Translator) It's common in religious for girls to marry at 12 and 13. But now if I hear of anyone getting married at that age, I go and stop the marriage. I don't think its right.
REEVES: This is the village where Sampat was sent after her marriage. It's a cluster of whitewashed mud houses built around a now derelict well. There's no electricity. Sampat says her gang, known in Hindi as the Gulabi Gang, has 70 members just in this village. We meet five of them - weather-beaten women wrapped in their bright pink saris. They're all relatives of Sampat. They describe how Sampat's helped the village get a road and tackle a land dispute with its neighbors that had turned violent.
Mr. JAI PRAKASH SHIVHARI (Member, Gulabi Gang): The Gulabi Gang is against corruption. We want to stop corruption.
REEVES: That's Jai Prakash Shivhari, one of a handful of men who Sampat's recruited.
Mr. SHIVHARI: I really believe this type of woman can be changed.
REEVES: Can bring change.
Mr. SHIVHARI: That's it. Can bring change. Many person are thinking that she can do something because she's developing ideas.
REEVES: Shivhari seems enthralled by Sampat's powerful personality in the same way some men are entranced by the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
(Soundbite of woman singing protest song)
REEVES: But Thatcher didn't drive around singing protest songs lamenting the fate of the poor. Sampat is going to a public meeting held by a district government official doing his monthly rounds. She wants to confront him.
Ms. PAL: (Through Translator) We are going out today to complain about a problem that affects everyone in this state, the lack of electricity.
REEVES: The meeting is in an open-sided warehouse. It's full of hundreds of gaunt and grizzled men clutching dog-eared handwritten papers outlining a vast array of individual grievances. The official is sitting behind a desk, guarded by two policemen. A big crowd's lined up to speak to him. Sampat strides in - a splash of pink amid the dusty throng. The crowd parts respectfully. She heads straight to the front of the line. As the official listens to her complaint, there's fear in his eyes.
Unidentified District Government Official: In fact the concerned(ph) of (unintelligible) Electricity Department is coming right now. So, I'll ask...
REEVES: Whatever you think of her, Sampat is exceptional, if only because she's one of those rare people who seem to fear no one.
Ms. PAL: (Through Translator) A man will never have enough guts to raise a hand against me. I would just slap him back into place. If a woman really wants to, she can put a man in his place.
REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News.