What happens when, in a country more in the news for rapes, women wield the stick and take on real-life villains?
It makes for a rare but very emotive story of women empowerment that is worth capturing on celluloid in a cinema-obsessed nation.
No wonder an all-women vigilante group from the badlands of central India finds itself in the spotlight for exactly the same reasons. Known as the Gulabi Gang or Pink Gang, it has just inspired two films - a documentary and a full-length feature film which captures the collective imagination.
"Yes, we fight rapists with lathis [sticks]. If we find the culprit, we thrash him black and blue so he dare not attempt to do wrong to any girl or a woman again," boasts Sampat Devi Pal, the group’s founder and head.
Devi first discovered the power of the stick in the 1980s when she used it against a neighbour who abused his wife.
Power of stick
Devi’s intervention had the desired result and the recalcitrant husband was forced to mend his ways. More importantly, Devi’s model of delivering alternative justice inspired a movement that now boasts of a network of 400,000 women - dressed in pink sarees and all wielding a stick - across 11 districts of India’s largest province of Uttar Pradesh.
From fighting violence against women, preventing child marriages, arranging weddings of couple in love despite local resistance, to ensuring delivery of basic rights for the poorest of poor, the Gulabi Gang's vision is to 'protect the powerless from abuse and fight corruption' has found easy resonance across much of India’s hinterland, blighted by unending reports of sex crimes and gang rapes.
"When a woman seeks the membership of Gulabi Gang, it is because she has suffered injustice, has been oppressed and does not see any other recourse," says Suman Singh, the group's deputy commander, from Mahoba district. "All our women can stand up to the men and if need be seek retribution through lathis," she adds.
Bundelkhand is one of India's most impoverished regions, with more than 40 percent of the population living below the poverty line trapped in the unending cycles of hardships, drought and illiteracy.
The region spread across the two provinces of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh had also thrown up strong-willed women in the past - from the brave princess ‘Jhansi Ki Rani’ who revolted against the colonial rule of British, to the more recent Phoolan Devi, who sought revolt against her rapists by turning into a bandit.
Mayawati, an influential politician from the most backward community who rose to become the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, also has her roots in the region.
|Sampat Devi Pal insists women must fight
for their rights [Al Jazeera]
Yet, the ground reality for women in the region remains abysmal. Female illiteracy tops 47 percent and evils like infanticide, child marriages and domestic violence are rampant.
For that matter, Uttar Pradesh ranks as one of the most unsafe provinces for women in the country, with 1,963 cases of rape, 7,910 cases of kidnapping and 2,244 cases of dowry death reported last year alone.
It is against this background that Devi and her vigilante group had their tasks cut out. The sticks are an integral part of the gang’s identity.
When an incidence of crime, corruption or malpractice is brought to their notice, the group seeks redress through dialogues, rallies and hunger strikes. But when nothing works, their sticks do the trick.
"The justice system in Bundelkhand is dysfunctional and unreliable," says journalist and author of Pink Saree Revolution, Amana Fontanella Khan. Khan says that Devi’s goal of gender equality and freedom has found success in Bundelkhand due to her bold and creative way of protests and has further empowered women here.
"The Gulabi Gang has stepped into the vacuum left by the state and offers an alternative means of attaining justice."
Force to reckon with
The gang has even won the grudging recognition of the state authorities. "The Gulabi Gang has created such a force of women's rights and awakening that it has brought a new desire to fight against women's exploitation," acknowledges Arvind Sen, the superintendent of police of Banda district.
It is ironic that in one of India's most backward regions, women are forced to become 'masculine' and aggressive in their fight against machismo and patriarchy
An award-winning documentary released in India last month celebrates the exploits of the Gulabi Gang. In it, Devi is seen pressing the police to register a criminal case over the death of a 15 year old girl reportedly burnt to death by her in-laws.
As the documentary later reveals, the girl had been killed by her husband, who was having an extra-marital affair.
Filmmaker Nishita Jain, who followed Devi and her group for five months while shooting the documentary, has come back impressed.
"It is ironic that in one of India's most backward regions, women are forced to become 'masculine' and aggressive in their fight against machismo and patriarchy," she says.
Even Bollywood has been moved by the women barging into houses to beat up errant men. Gulab Gang - a film featuring two famous actresses Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla and complete with customary song and dance sequences - is set to release next week.
Devi is not exactly impressed with the commercial depiction of her gang. "This Bollywood tamasha [show] is a fabricated tale … I will not allow the movie to release," she says, despite denials by the makers of the film that it was a biopic on her life.
Devi, though, has her hands full fighting bigger battles instead. With sex crimes on the rise across the country, she wants women to organise themselves and teach the wrongdoers a lesson. "Men who commit these atrocities should be beaten by women. They should be caught and have a tattoo of ‘I am a rapist’ engraved on their forehead," she says.
Whatever her means, there is little denying that Devi's tough talk is finding ready listeners.