The trope is as old as time itself – the overwhelming rise of the people against a mindlessly oppressive institution captures one’s imagination almost instantly and certainly, very vividly. The application of feminist rebellion in modern-day Bundelkhand is a story, which began with women in blooming pink saris who took the law into their own hands.
They sought to avenge rural women against abusive husbands, roadside molesters, and awry officials who took advantage of the abject poverty, depression and melancholia of the Bundeli woman in general. The Gulabi Gang was borne of a new hope, not of radicalism, revenge or rage, but one of a more retributive system of justice, stepping in where the law, embroiled in corruption and controversy, could not.
Established upon a foundation that is possibly as intersectional as it gets, the Gulabi Gang take on issues that plague non-dominant caste women, unemployed women, men who suffer the toxicity of gender and sexual inequality, all in their quest for a more egalitarian structure in the rural corners of the country.
Neither do they advocate violence for violence’s sake nor do they vie for a complete overhaul of the existing frameworks that govern everyday life in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. They work to create less hostile environments in existing family, village and social structures for women to work, live and lead safe and healthy lives.
women wield the physical power associated with the dominant caste men and bring them to book.
The most fundamental function of a mobilization like that of the Gulabi Gang is in its value as a counter-public to the circumstantial treatment of rural women across India. As Nancy Fraser visualized in 1997, the Gulabi Gang counter-public runs counter-discourse in a parallel arena which allows them to vocalize an alternate reality of sorts.
This is a reality where women wield the physical power associated with the dominant caste men and bring them to book where traditional elements of law and order do not hold them responsible for their misdeeds. They routinely began to use physical force to bring rapists, molesters and domestic abusers to book after the public beating of a rapist and the complicit policeman in 2007.
For instance in 2008, they caused an uproar at the Banda district electricity office which continually cut power for hefty bribes. The power was back on in no time. Fraser believed that counterpublics adhered to two distinct objectives of recognition and redistribution.
As a counterpublic, the Gulabi Gang seeks to create fresh forms of gendered and sexual citizenship. Undoubtedly, one might find the first battle won. With two books and three movies over the past decade and a controversial ousting of their leader in 2014, the Gulabi Gang has seen the limelight. However, one wonders if it is enough?
With inequality and the insidious treatment of women and the marginalized groups still persisting in the interiors of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, there simply isn’t enough evidence to infer that there has been any comprehensive recognition of the dilemmas that the Gulabi Gang seeks to eradicate. Recognition of their intersectional identity in terms of gender, class, caste has not translated into a concrete recognition of the stigma that arises from this collective identity.
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Coming to redistribution: as a counterpublic, the Gulabi Gang assures a safe space for feminist resistance against culturally and legally accepted subjugation. It is this space that is under peril, when vigilance becomes vigilantism in the face of lax polity and institutionalized corruption.
However, once cannot ignore from a rigorously legal point of view, how precarious the precedent of vigilante justice can be. Understandably the feminist interpretation of retributive justice, no matter how necessary or apt in the given circumstance, does ultimately impinge upon the sanctity of the law.
This is in no way a criticism of the Gulabi Gang’s efforts at procuring social justice. This piece simply examines the necessity of a more permanent solution to vigilantism. No matter how watchful a group of citizens may be, institutionalized violence, abuse, unemployment and corruption remain burdens that the state must, in all good faith, take upon itself. Moreover, the efficacy of the Gulabi Gang as a counterpublic is ultimately nullified by its eventual consequences, if polity and progress continue to fail the people.
The very first consequence to consider is the danger of hierarchy. The Gulabi Gang in its own right fights the hierarchical imposition of unjust practices at home from abusive husbands and parents-in law, sexual assault and abuse at the hands of the police who often refuse rape survivors the assistance they need and from government agencies who continue to block development through viciously embedded corruption and bribery.
As a counterpublic, the Gulabi Gang seeks to create fresh forms of gendered and sexual citizenship.
However, gender-based violence doesn’t just come from foreign entities; it springs from those in positions of power. Within the burgeoning numbers of the Gulabi Gang itself, a significant number of women who join have someone at home to look after the traditional roles of cooking, cleaning and caring. This may be a daughter-in law, an unmarried daughter or a widowed sister in-law but ultimately their participation at the cost of another woman’s exclusion reinforces the very hierarchy they choose to violently resist.
There is no contention that violence, even the token violence that the Gulabi Gang engages in, with their lathis and chilli powder and basic martial arts training, is often their most effective resort against the physical brutalities that are continually heaped upon them.
Consider two arguments- the sensationalist picture the media paints of the Gulabi Gang circles back to the improper recognition they receive in addressing their problems. This sensationalism takes away from the essence of their vigilantism, which points to a breakdown of law and order in the land, to misconstrue their token violence for a more bloodthirsty and vengeful rendition. This effectively leads to an oversimplification of women’s resistance in general where the objective of affirmative action boils down to a surge of anger and hostility.
The ultimate salvation of the Gulabi Gang lies in overhauling community values as a whole. Retributive justice alone cannot be called upon for real change to be affected; for anyone who doesn’t happen to be an dominant Hindu male to feel secure, the law must step in, with effective enforcement and active implementation.
While the Gulabi Gang has been impactful in creating a counter-narrative to violence, oppression and inequality, for the upward social mobility of rural women as a whole; political prominence, adequate representation, economic stability and social relevance have to be actively prioritised.
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Featured Image Credit: Al-Jazeera