The Baddest Woman in India

Sampat Pal, head of India’s vigilante pink gang.

Sampat Pal Devi, the founder of Gulabi Gang.
Sampat Pal Devi, the founder of Gulabi Gang.

Photo by Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images

This article is excerpted from Pink Sari Revolution.

“Just who do you think you are?” is a question that Sampat is used to hearing. At times, she acts like she is running a small detective agency; on other occasions, she behaves like a police officer patrolling Bundelkhand, a hardscrabble region in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state. In Atarra, where her office is based, Sampat’s endless meddling has nettled many and left others slightly baffled. It has been like that of all her life, wherever she has lived.

Sampat does not know exactly why she has persistently felt compelled to get involved in other people’s business—indeed, it represents one of the greatest mysteries that she has encountered in her life. She once declared that “not even I understand Sampat Pal.” She paused and then, wrinkling her brow as she pondered the enigma that she represented to herself, came up with an idea. “When I die, the Indian government should look in my brain and find out how I have become like this.” It was an earnest, if somewhat humorous, suggestion. After a moment, she added, “They should look into my heart too, that could help.”

Sampat Pal is the founder and commander-in-chief of India’s Pink Gang, known as the Gulabi Gang in Hindi. Three years ago, I wrote an article in Slate about the gang, which is best-known for its vigilante tactics. Named after their pink sari uniforms and pink-painted bamboo sticks, this group of around 20,000 members take on everyone from abusive husbands to crooked police, who often refuse to register and investigate rape cases. Since then, I have spent two years writing and researching a book on them called the Pink Sari Revolution, which was released last week. I wanted to write a book on these women because they teach us an important lesson about power which in times of extreme inequality is easy to forget: Even the absolute weakest members of society can manage by extraordinary acts of will, luck and some recklessness to fight back. The person who best teaches that lesson is Sampat Pal, who was married off at the age of 12, bore the first of her five children at 15 and is essentially illiterate. Despite all this, she has not only empowered herself but thousands of women just like her.

Sampat is confident that any postmortem examination of her brain would reveal a fascinating, highly developed mind; she is quite possibly one of the smartest people she knows. “That’s why people listen to me. They say that if Sampat-ji does something, it’s not without any logic. Even good, learned professors fail in front of me, and they agree with what I am saying. They say that although I am not educated, I have gained knowledge from my vast experience. One professor asked me, ‘Sampat-ji, you don’t have any formal education, so how did you get such vast experience? You speak so well nobody has any answer to it. Where did you learn all this?’ I said I don’t know. Then I asked him, ‘Where did the person who invented school study? Someone must have come up with it on their own, right?’ ” she recounted to me when I spoke to her in the village of Badausa, where her family lives. Few of Sampat’s closest friends deny that her raw, intellectual strength was cultivated entirely on her own. “Sampat is sharper than I am. I am very straightforward. That’s why I’m behind. Though, I’m more educated than her, I’m miles behind her,” Babuji willingly admits.

Looking into Sampat’s past offers few clues into the origins of her formidable understanding of the machinations of power and society. Her hometown, Kairi, is a small, windswept farming community in the heart of Bundelkhand. When Sampat was growing up in the 1970s, Kairi—like many parts of Bundelkhand—was a place where injustice against women, the lower castes, and the poor was an accepted part of life. The cries of a woman being beaten by a drunk husband in the middle of the night; a Dalit denied participation in village celebrations for fear that he and his family, considered “untouchable,” would “pollute” the communal thalis, metal dishes, heaped with biryani; girls married off to widowed, older men who would use them like maids: These occurrences were, for the most part, accepted as being “how things were.” Parents, grandparents, and cousins—everyone—had stoically born life’s injustices without so much as a wince. If you could not, there was little hope for survival.

Sampat’s parents were farmers. “They were simple people, they didn’t take much interest in things,” she says, but they taught her good values. “We were all kind-hearted. No one in my family treated women badly.” Sampat had one sister and two brothers. Of the four children in the family, two were precocious and turned into rather remarkable people. “I was brightest and most dynamic in my family,” Sampat states simply. Sampat’s brother, Ram Lal Pal, also differed radically from all the other children in the village—he became a saddhu, an ascetic holy man, at the age of 10. “He used to find small stones and worship them. When we went to the village fair, he rang a bell and started praying. He used to collect ants in a box and feed them with sugar and ghee. He burned wood and made a tilak”—a Hindu religious marking often made using sandalwood paste or red kumkum powder—“on his forehead,” Sampat remembers. Then, one day, he ran away to live with a holy man, a baba, and became his disciple. “We all cried. We were very unhappy. He grew his hair and left for Vrindavan”—a holy city. “I think my mother never recovered from the story with my brother. It was hard for her to have two children who had sacrificed their lives—one to God, another to society,” she adds.

It must have been evident to Sampat’s mother early on that her daughter was not a typical girl; for one, Sampat was the most outgoing of all the children in Kairi, well known among her friends for her bold arboreal explorations, which she started around the age of 5. “There was a mango tree in my village. I saw boys climbing the tree and I thought, Why can’t I climb it? One friend, a girl, supported me while I climbed it. That’s how I began. Once we were many girls at a jamun tree. I said to them, Come, let’s climb. They said, ‘No, we can’t do it.’ They helped me up. The branches of the tree were very fragile, so I fell. When I came back, we hid from the elders as I was hurt.”

Apart from her courage, Sampat also picked up skills very quickly. She was the first person in her town to learn how to sew. “No one in Kairi could sew. Not my mother, nor my sister. God gave me this wisdom—I don’t know why, but he did,” Sampat says. She fell in love with sewing the first time Chunni Lal, her uncle, took her along with him to the tailor. This uncle, who was the only one in her family at the time with a college degree (“He did a BA in Atarra. He was an educated man”), was Sampat’s favorite—“He treated me like a man.” Chunni dispensed life lessons like, “If someone hits you, hit them back.” Sampat wanted to please Chunni, who treated her better than most people, so it was a lesson she tried to put into practice as often as she could.

Standing with her uncle in front of the tailor’s shack, Sampat looked on with fascination at the tailor’s sartorial movements, observing the swift up-and-down dance of his feet on the pedal-operated sewing machine and the way he carefully guided the fabric underneath the hopping needle. As Sampat watched him finishing off clothes for another customer, she thought about the doll she owned—her only one—and its tattered dress. Maybe she could make a dress for the doll? She thought. When Sampat asked the tailor if she could take a piece of fabric that had been discarded on the ground, he encouraged her to, and then pointed to the rubbish heap around the back that had more scraps she could help herself to.

After Sampat returned home that day, she stole money from her parents to buy a needle and thread, and then practiced sewing secretly in between her farming work until it became something of an obsession—she returned every other day with her friends to rummage through the tailor’s waste pile for scrap fabric. “I told my mother I was out in the fields, but I went there instead.” Once, when she couldn’t get her hands on a piece of cloth in the garbage dump, she tore off the bottom strip of her mother’s sari. “Back then, the edges weren’t hemmed, so she didn’t notice! I had a bad habit of stealing cloth—I was always scared of getting caught, so I tucked it into my underwear or armpit when my mum walked by. Look, even today I have this habit!” Sampat says, pulling out a rolled-up scrap of fabric from her bra and waving it around, chuckling heartily. This life skill would give Sampat an advantage in her adulthood—it allowed her to be financially independent.

Gulabi Gang.
Members of the gang walk around the village proclaiming the presense of Gulabi Gang, Dec. 10, 2011

Photo by Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images

More than the sewing, however, it was Sampat’s social consciousness that set her apart from all of the other people in her village. From her earliest days as a child, Sampat had always felt keenly the offense of injustice—the sight of it smarted her. When she was around seven or eight, one of her friends in the hamlet, a shepherd boy called Chand Pal, had been slapped by a girl called Gayatri Patel, who was the daughter of a powerful landlord. The little boy was crying bitterly and was being consoled by the other children. What had been his crime? He had gone to the toilet, there in the field, in between the raised banks of tilled soil, and was spotted by the watchful eye of the landlord’s daughter. Gayatri yelled hysterically that he should conduct his calls of nature off the field next time. The children were expected to defecate on the edges of roads, where the land belonged to no one. Many were killed this way after being hit by passing trucks, especially at dusk or when it was foggy. Yet if they relieved themselves on the property where they were working, they were beaten.

Sampat and her friends hated Gayatri. They thought she was a wicked brat. “That girl was a bully. The whole family had a fighting nature. She had an abusive tongue too. She quarreled with everyone. She used a Bundelkhand swearword at me, which meant I was a widow. I said ‘How can I be a widow? I’m not even married!’ ” Sampat recounts, chuckling at her ignorance. “She pulled faces at me. I bit my thumb at her or made big eyes.” Sampat’s father had gone to speak to Gayatri’s father to complain about what the girl had done. “My father went to that family and said that they shouldn’t beat children,” Sampat remembers. Her father’s intervention offended Gayatri’s father and resulted in the two men quarreling. “After my family had an argument with them, they said we should not walk on their land anymore,” Sampat recalls.

When Sampat heard what had happened, her body filled with rage. She was so cross that the most brazen of plans germinated in her mind. Gathering together a motley group of her friends, Sampat convinced the other children to “poo” in the fields at the same time the next day, when the young heiress to the farm was sure to be watching. Even at that age, Sampat knew that if her enemies were larger and more powerful than she was, she had to outnumber them. It was easy for Sampat to get the other children to agree: Back then, as now, she had a way of melting away their fears with her confidence. Under her direction, the children squatted down and pushed out whatever coils of excrement they could, giggling wildly as they did so.

Gayatri, spotting the defecators, rushed toward them with a menacing look. “Their house was far but she saw us from a distance. She had a stick with her. When she ran she shouted, ‘Just you wait, I’m coming!’ I said, ‘You wait! I’m going to show you,’ ” Sampat recounts.

“There was a scuffle. She had long hair. I grabbed it and pulled it with all my strength. We all got her and pinned her on the ground and rubbed her in shit. It was like playing with mud. I rubbed it in her mouth. I was so angry. I was a child, so doing these things wasn’t disgusting to me then! Some boys who were with me ran away when Gayatri’s brothers came. I said, Stay away, this is a girl’s fight. Then her father dragged her away and shouted, ‘Why did you get involved?’ ”

“My father was away that day but my uncle told him what happened. My uncle said, ‘You did the right thing. You had a good fight today.’ ”she said. “People think I am fierce now, but they should have met me when I was a child!” Sampat laughs, when telling the story.