Airdate: 
Sunday, March 7, 2010 - 20:30
Channel: 
SBS One

Sampat Pal from Uttar Pradesh in India had little education, was married off at 12 and became a mother at 15.

It's a familiar story in the impoverished area, but now she's literally hitting back against such age-old traditions, and the men who enforce them.

She's the leader of the Gulabi (or Pink) Gang, which has 40,000 members, dressed in their trademark pink saris.

They tackle abusive men and corrupt officials, first with words, then ultimately by wielding the 'lathi', a wooden stick used by police.

Her tactics seem to be working, but they're not popular with everyone. Watch video journalist Amos Roberts's report for Dateline.

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Transcript

A story on a bunch of women in India who have had enough of male corruption, abuse, and violence - led by a woman on a mission, the so-called Pink Gang is not to be messed with. Here's Amos Roberts.

REPORTER: Amos Roberts

These women may not look that tough but they're all hardened gang members. They've left their fields and villages in rural Uttar Pradesh for a special meeting.

WOMEN (Translation): The Pink Gang! Long live! Sampat, keep on fighting! We are all with you.

Sampat Pal is the leader of the 'Gulabi' - or 'Pink' - Gang.

SAMPAT PAL (Translation): This is a great place, isn't it?

This feisty crusader for the poor and downtrodden believes in speaking loudly and carrying a big stick.

SAMPAT PAL (Translation): Like this, this way, then this way, then this way.

Today she's teaching these women how to wield the 'lathi' - a long, wooden staff.

SAMPAT PAL (Translation): If someone aims for your head, how will you protect yourself?

WOMAN (Translation): I'll hold it like this.

SAMPAT PAL: Alright, I'll hit you.

India's founding father, Mahatma Gandhi, famously preached non-violence. Sampat Pal says times have changed.

SAMPAT PAL (Translation): I salute Gandhiji. He was the father of our nation. But my style is different.

I am Sampat Pal. I do what I think is right...

That involves striking out at corrupt officials and men who abuse women. Gang members seem to relish the chance to hit back.

SAMPAT PAL (Translation): Now who wants to be hit by me? Here, take this.

WOMAN (Translation): What a good leader!

The gang's vigilante tactics have included attacking police and publicly humiliating a district magistrate.

SAMPAT PAL (Translation): Why do I have to take the law in our hands? I'll tell you. The government doesn't obey its own laws. Police and government officials take bribes. Now people look up to me and don't go to the police. Sampat can do what the police can't. That's why people respect me.

Perhaps it's no surprise that a women's vigilante group has sprung up here. The Banda district of Uttar Pradesh is one of the poorest and most feudal parts of India. MUSIC 20% of the population are born into the bottom of the caste ladder, which dictates where they can work, whom they can marry and even where they can bathe. Above all, it's women who bear the brunt of discrimination.

Sampat Pal herself is illiterate and low-caste. She was married off at 12 and had her first child at 15. Even then, she says, she was angered by a world in which people are considered 'untouchable'.

SAMPAT PAL (Translation): It makes me angry. How could people hate another human being? They don't even hate dog piss. If a dog pisses near the water where they are worshipping, they still drink that water.

But they hate touching a human being. That's why I had to do all this. I've always argued and fought since childhood.

Those officials who don't listen

Kick them with your feet!

Today, Sampat Pal is leading the gang members in a protest. The target of her anger - bureaucrats accused of excluding poor people from a government jobs scheme.

SAMPAT PAL (Translation): Those officials who take bribes - Kick the thieves!

This former health worker spent years working quietly behind the scenes with local women. But it was only when they adopted a uniform and threatened violence in 2006 that they were finally taken seriously. The gang pickets the office of the man responsible for the jobs program and calls on him to "come to his senses". Then Sampat decides to barge in with the women's complaints.

SAMPAT PAL (Translation): I'm here to discuss what needs to be done. I'm Sampat Pal.

OFFICIAL (Translation): Hello, this is our first meeting.

SAMPAT PAL (Translation): Why are people are dying of hunger? Why aren't they people given work when there's work to do? Nobody gives them work. They're making fools of everyone. Well, I just came over today to meet you

OFFICIAL (Translation): Look, list the names of all the people in this village.

SAMPAT PAL (Translation): Yes, make a list.

OFFICIAL (Translation): List those who need work.

SAMPAT (Translation): That's it. Then I'll

OFFICIAL (Translation): I'll see what can be done.

The Gulabi Gang has only resorted to violence on a handful of occasions. Sampat says most people now see reason.

SAMPAT PAL (Translation): It is quite straightforward. Firstly, we simply approach people with our requests. "Please do what we ask. If that is wrong, don't do it. If it is right, then do what I ask." But those who have been dishonest and are taking bribes, they are not able to help us. So, when I know that my request has not been considered, I go there once, twice... If they still don't listen I hit them with the lathi.

Sampat Pal's supporters make a list of everyone who's been left out of the public job scheme, which is handed over to the beleaguered bureaucrat.

SAMPAT PAL (Translation): Yes it's all there, where they're from, all the details.

OFFICIAL (Translation): Alright, I'll see that something is done about this.

SAMPAT PAL (Translation): That's good, you are listening.

But when Sampat is told about another official here accused of taking bribes, she wastes no time.

SAMPAT PAL (Translation): If you've done the wrong thing you must change your ways.

OFFICIAL (Translation): I have changed.

SAMPAT PAL (Translation): People are aware. If you have taken from anyone, return it. Just do it. You better give it back or it will cost you dearly. People join the Pink Gang if they're being robbed. The more you rake in, the bigger the Pink Gang gets. It's not right. This is not what you should do. Give me a list of the women who have given you money. I will keep track of it. Right? Don't make things worse for yourself.

Tackling corruption is just a small part of what Sampat Pal does. Every day women come to her to plead for help.

WOMAN (Translation): They hit me here, too.

SAMPAT PAL (Translation): Oh my God, they've really beaten her.

Sometimes they're victims of domestic violence and Sampat takes up their case with the local police.

SAMPAT PAL (Translation): First, I have to make them understand and if they don't understand I'll have to beat them up.

Others are being exploited by their in-laws. This young widow's mother-in-law won't give her a share of the family home.

MOTHER-IN-LAW (Translation): I know about being dishonest. I don't want to go to jail. We divided into four parts. Four parts. Then she said something that wasn't for her to say.

WIDOW (Translation): She was abusing me and not giving me my share.

Sampat frequently steps in to sort out these quarrels, acting as judge, jury and, today, property surveyor. Although she's fought with the police and still faces criminal charges for her vigilante attacks, Sampat Pal tries to stay on the good side of the law.

SAMPAT PAL (Translation): Sir, when did you come here?

OFFICER (Translation): Recently.

SAMPAT PAL (Translation): Yes, they told me the sahib is here.

OFFICER (Translation): I'm just about to go patrol

SAMPAT PAL (Translation): I just came to meet you.

She figures it's more effective to shame the authorities into doing the right thing than to make headlines by beating them up. But the headlines have also helped. With up to 40,000 members across Uttar Pradesh, the Gulabi Gang has become a mass movement. And, thanks to supporters around the world, it's raised the funds to start its own school. Now Sampat Pal can provide poor children from low-caste families - especially girls - with the education she, herself, missed out on. Of course, the uniforms - and sometimes even the chalk - are pink. And Sampat's bought sewing machines, too - an unlikely weapon for a gang member, but an important one. If girls learn to sew, they can earn some money - a good reason for parents not to marry them off too young.

Sampat Pal is just as determined to stamp out child marriages and dowry payments as she is to eliminate corruption. Today she's brought her posse to this Muslim village in order to celebrate a wedding, if she can make sure it happens. Sampat was approached by the bride when her parents wouldn't let her marry the boy she loved.

SAMPAT PAL (Translation): Tell the story from the beginning about beating the girl.

MOTHER (Translation): Yes, I beat her. As her mother, I did beat her.

SAMPAT PAL (Translation): Because of the marriage?

MOTHER (Translation): Yes, for that.

Sampat has been here three times and spent hours cajoling and browbeating the girl's mother and father.

SAMPAT PAL (Translation): You weren't happy about it?

FATHER (Translation): No, I wasn't. I wasn't happy, so I beat the girl. I could have killed her. That's what happens when the community is let down. If I'd beaten her really badly I could have been sent to jail.

SAMPAT PAL (Translation): If you love your daughter, then it's good to agree to the wedding. In the films we watch, they show such stories. The children of enemies marry and families come together. You must have seen films like that.

The groom's parents had also refused to let him marry, according to him, because they hoped to sell him off for a higher dowry. Now, despite having eventually agreed to the marriage, the groom's father signals his displeasure by refusing to turn up.

SAMPAT PAL (Translation): Where is his father? Call him here. Tell him to come here.

Sampat is beginning to lose patience by the time the groom's father arrives.

SAMPAT PAL (Translation): I'm not going to ask you any more. He's not listening to his village and his community. Are you speaking to your son and daughter-in-law or not? Soon you'll be playing with your grandchildren. They will climb all over you and you will like that. And you're going to sabotage all that. I'm bringing two souls together. God will help me. You are feeling Sampat is being unjust to you. Sampat is never unjust. I've seen enough of your drama.

SAMPAT PAL (Translation): They fear me. I'd never been to this village so people didn't know me. When I came the other day, people argued with me. But, gradually, they found out who I was - the same Sampatji who had once beaten the police! Then they became fearful and showed me respect. They did what I told them to.

As the fine points of the marriage contract are worked out, the gang leader gives the groom a clear warning.

SAMPAT PAL (Translation): If you do anything illegal or wrong to the girl, you will feel the full wrath of the law - that is the simple truth. Don't hit the girl. You need to guarantee this. If you hit her, I will come back. If the boy does wrong, can the girl hit him? Tell me, council members.

MAN (Translation): She won't do that.

SAMPAT PAL (Translation): Why not? Boys have faults and girls have faults. They must tolerate each other. The contract implies that.

After the wedding, the bride prepares to leave her parents' home forever.

DAUGHTER (Translation): Father, forgive me.

FATHER (Translation): It's all forgotten.

SAMPAT PAL (Translation): All is forgiven, child.

FATHER (Translation): It's all forgiven. Go now, we'll all be here for you. Everything is forgiven. May you have a good life.

Despite the frustration, this has been a good day for the Gulabi Gang - love has triumphed over adversity. There's no doubt the threat of violence plays a big role in Sampat Pal's success. But, for the women she helps, her common sense and compassion are her most revolutionary qualities.

SAMPAT PAL (Translation): More women are pouring in. Like an ocean flood, there's a flood in the Pink Gang!


Reporter/Camera
AMOS ROBERTS

Researcher
MELANIE MORRISON

Fixers
SURESH PANJABI
TAPAS CHAKRABORTY

Editor
NICK O'BRIEN

Translations/Subtitling
AESH RAO

Original Music Composed by
VICKIE HANSEN