Amana Fontanella-Khan’s book Pink Sari Revolution: A Tale of Women and Power in India tells the story of Sampat Pal and her Gulabi Gang, a vigilante group of women and activists originally from Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh, a region plagued by corruption. Read the following excerpt from Pink Sari Revolution to find out what happens when Sampat Pal and a woman named Sushila who seeks out the Gulabi Gang’s help go to the police station to make a complaint.
Excerpted from Pink Sari Revolution: A Tale of Women and Power in India by Amana Fontanella-Khan. Copyright © 2013 by Amana Fontanella-Khan. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company.
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On August 2, 2006, less than a year after Sampat started the gang, she was sitting on her patio with Babuji and Lakhan when she received a visit from a woman called Sushila, a mother of eight living below the poverty line. Between sobs, Sushila told Sampat that the police had beaten up and taken away her husband, Bare Lal, after a dispute he had had with a neighbor a few days earlier. Sushila’s husband was being detained without any charge, and the police hadn’t provided his family with any information about the arrest.
Sampat was not surprised by Sushila’s story — by then she had handled numerous cases involving illegal detention, which was rampant in many parts of India where domestic law allows the police to arrest individuals on the mere basis of “reasonable suspicion.” There are virtually no remedies available to wrongfully imprisoned citizens, and offending officers are rarely disciplined. It is a system in which police can wield their power to arrest for a myriad of unlawful purposes, including to extort, to inflate arrest quotas, and to silence citizens who dare to make complaints about them. This is why Sushila felt powerless in the face of her husband’s sudden arrest.
“I go to the police station to meet him, but they always tell me to go away,” Sushila told Sampat that day, breaking down. “How will I look after my children on my own? Who will feed them?” she asked tearfully.
After Sushila narrated her story, Sampat promised to accompany her to the Atarra police station. “I’ll beat them with my own hands if they don’t listen to us,” Sampat told her confidently as they walked the short distance to the station. Sampat often illustrates how she would make good on such threats by wildly slapping and punching her imaginary opponent, until she snaps out of her violent reveries with a torrent of hoarse, hearty chuckles that make her cheeks rosy.
In India, the majority of complaints are made by traveling to a police station, as emergency helplines are barely functional or existent. Many ordinary Indians, especially women, enter police stations with a sense of dread and anxiety and often refuse to go after dark. Far too often, newspapers carry reports of sexual molestation, rape, and even murder carried out by officers in stations. One of the stories that recently hit national headlines told of a woman who alleges she was gang-raped by officers after they forced her to drink alcohol. She had gone to the station because she had been told, erroneously, that she had been offered a job.
When Sampat arrived at the police station with Sushila in tow, Sampat approached the station officer, a man called Zameer Ul Hassan. “Why are you keeping her husband? You should charge him or let him go!” Sampat snapped.
The officer demanded to know who she was.