At dawn on an otherwise quiet morning in the town of Atarra, in the backyard of feared liquor don and state legislator Purushottam Naresh Dwivedi, Achchhe Lal Nishad was writhing over the licking tongues of a fire. Two beefy men were dangling the wiry farmer over the flames, one holding him by the arms, the other by the legs. A third man was slapping him around the head and punching him sharply in the ribs.
Achchhe, an illiterate farmer, had not been there long—half an hour at most, though time was hard to measure when you feared being burned alive. He had received the phone call summoning him around 4 am on 13 December 2010. The ringing wrenched him out of his fitful, uneasy sleep and caused him to bolt upright in his rope-bed. He knew that bad news awaited him at the other end of the line.
‘Wake up, bastard! Your daughter has stolen from the legislator and run away! You come here right now or we’ll drag you out of bed ourselves,’ the voice on the other end of the line growled. It was one of the politician’s men.
The line went dead.
It had been only five days since his daughter Sheelu had gone to live at Dwivedi’s house—officially the arrangement was that she would be his maid—but Achchhe had felt uneasy about it since the beginning.
After receiving the phone call, Achchhe hastily borrowed a motorcycle from a neighbour and then, with his eldest son, Santoo, the widowed father of four travelled from his mud-hut village of Shahbajpur to the town of Atarra. They bounded down the potholed roads for two hours as fast as the motorbike could go; by the time they arrived, dawn was breaking.
Achchhe parked the motorbike on the main road, near the front entrance of the politician’s house. A timid man at even the best of times, Achchhe instructed Santoo to wait for him there, and then he proceeded down the dim alleyway that led to the politician’s backyard. After what seemed like a long time, Santoo decided to creep around to the back of the house to see what was going on.
When he reached the end of the lane, along the edge of which flowed a stream of sewage, Santoo saw his father. He was being tortured in the centre of the politician’s yard, which sat well shielded from prying eyes.
‘Your daughter is a thief. Is that why you left her at the legislator’s house?’ one of the musclemen bellowed, as Achchhe squirmed over the flames.
Santoo silently watched his father snivel and plead before the men.
‘It wasn’t my idea—the vidhayak said she should stay here,’ Achchhe whimpered, referring to the legislator.
‘And it was the vidhayak’s idea for her to rob him also?’ one of the henchmen shouted back.
‘You have a hand in this. You told her to steal!’ another one barked, slapping Achchhe around the head.
‘No, I didn’t! Come see my house!’ Achchhe cried out desperately.
At this they dropped Achchhe next to the fire with a thud. Kicking him, they said, ‘Get up! Go to the car! Now we’ll see what you have in your house or not. Don’t you tell us lies!’
They dragged Achchhe and Santoo, who had been spotted by the men, into a black Scorpio jeep and retraced the same route father and son had taken in the predawn darkness.
When they arrived at Achchhe’s home, the politician’s men crashed cooking pots, banged doors but found nothing. Cursing loudly, they turned Achchhe’s house upside down. Some of the other villagers stayed in their houses, while those who were already outside slipped away and out of sight.
‘This bastard thinks he can hide his loot from us, but we’ll show him!’ one of the men shouted. Achchhe and Santoo were bundled into the car once again and delivered to the Atarra police station.
‘Lock up these dogs,’ the men told the police officers. ‘They have dared to steal from us!’
Though they hadn’t been charged, Santoo and Achchhe would later claim that they were locked in a cell by obliging police officers. ‘We’ll slice off your asses,’ one of the policemen allegedly hissed through the bars.
Finally, after several long, anguished hours, the politician’s men came to pick them up. ‘Okay, you can let them out now,’ they ordered the police, who opened the cell door. No documents exist recording their confinement.
The henchmen took father and son back to the politician’s house, and there Dwivedi informed them that his men had found Sheelu and were going to take her to the police station. When Achchhe and Santoo asked to see her, the men threatened them with another beating and ordered them to go home.
Achchhe ignored their warnings and went to the police station anyway, but the police turned him away too, as he had feared they would. ‘I was not able to talk to the girl. They didn’t allow me to meet her…They said that my daughter is as good as dead and that I should just leave now. The inspector said, “I will break your legs if you don’t leave right away,” ’ Achchhe would later say.
Achchhe and Santoo rode back home for the second time that day, sick with fear and at a loss as to who could help them. The villagers in their community had not stood up for Achchhe and Santoo when the politician’s men were threatening them, but Santoo did not blame the villagers. ‘In Shahbajpur, all are poor people, who can help? All of them are farmers who only eat what they get from the earth,’ he later said.
As the fragile structures of support and justice that he had relied on crumbled around him, Achchhe considered joining the bandits. Outlaws have historically hidden in the ravines and forests surrounding Achchhe’s village, attracting men who have not received justice through the state and have taken up arms instead.
He might well have done so had not, quite unexpectedly, another solution presented itself.
A Rose in the Badlands
Even God can’t Control Crime in Uttar Pradesh
Times of India headline
Winter mornings in Bundelkhand are teeth-chattering, body-stiffening affairs. In homes that are designed to stay cool in the blistering summer months, even the faintest warmth—such as the kind that resides in a blanket heated by your body overnight—flees in an instant. Getting out of bed is the hardest part. In uninsulated brick houses, an insidious dew-damp chill lingers on the polished concrete floors, clinging to the soles of your bare feet.
Sampat Pal was unflinching in the harsh cold. On the morning of 14 December 2010, like all others, the commander-in-chief of the Pink Gang rose at dawn and trod from her two-room office to the courtyard in the centre of her landlord’s house, to bathe.
She grabbed the cold steel lever of the handpump and thrust it up and down, causing the metallic, hair-raising sound to echo against the chilled walls. A few seconds later, water gushed forth into an old paint bucket. When it was full to the brim, she dunked a small plastic beaker into the water and poured it over her brown, goose-fleshed body.
Sampat Pal barely noticed the biting cold. Her thoughts, like a tenacious hound, were digging over the details of a suspicious story that had been brought to her attention the day before. One of her district commanders, Geeta Singh, had told Sampat that her brother-in-law Suraj Singh had come to ask Geeta for help.
Suraj worked at a small shoe shop located near the house of Purushottam Naresh Dwivedi, a member of the Legislative Assembly in the state of Uttar Pradesh. As a result, Suraj was an acquaintance of the politician’s son, Mayank, who had in the past invited Suraj to their home. Suraj had recently heard that a mysterious girl was living there. Shortly afterward, he saw a girl taken out of Dwivedi’s house and shoved into a police van. ‘She’s stolen from the vidhayak’s house,’ people told him, but Suraj felt that something fishy was going on, so he alerted Geeta, who in turn informed Sampat.
Sampat’s eyes, unusually virescent, are specked with hints of gold and amber. They narrow when she is in deep thought and her feathery eyebrows plunge south. Such concentration causes her to resemble a child busily working out demanding arithmetic calculations in her head. This is especially so when, in pursuit of a thought, she pokes out the tip of her tongue.
‘None of this is true!’ Sampat said to herself, rinsing the soap bubbles off her body with a beaker of tepid water. ‘How could a girl steal from a politician? Who could she be? A maid? A lover?’
Sampat had good reason for being suspicious. In Uttar Pradesh, over a fourth of the elected representatives in the Legislative Assembly had been charged with criminal offences. 19 per cent had serious charges pending against them, including attempted murder, rape, extortion and kidnapping. Sampat, now fired up, rushed to get out of the house. When short of time, she hastily wraps herself in her sari and, if it is winter, throws on a knitted cardigan to keep the cold at bay. After dressing, she grabs her comb and rigorously drags it through her shoulder-length black hair, working out the dripping knots and tangles until it is smooth. Most days she gathers her hair in a damp ponytail and, giving it one quick twist, clips it into place with a metal barrette. With that, the precious few moments that she has for herself everyday between the toilet and the bucket bath are over. Wiping the sleep from her eyes a final time, she then marches outside in her webbed toe socks and rubber-soled flip-flops—her usual winter footwear—to face the day.
Sampat’s patio overlooks Bisanda Road—so-called because it leads to the nearby town of Bisanda—which is one of the main thoroughfares in Atarra. The haphazardly arranged town, with a population of 10,700, is still largely undeveloped: part rural village, with its pockets of simple mud huts. The traffic on Bisanda Road is composed of trundling, garishly painted trucks, tricycle rickshaws with their steel bells ringing, wandering cows and people carrying produce in woven palm-leaf baskets carefully balanced on their heads. A low cloud of dust, kicked up by this endless toing and froing, hovers perpetually over the ground.
For all the dreariness of Bisanda Road that morning, Sampat felt a certain pride when she looked at it, for the road did not exist prior to her arrival here in 2005. Before, a rocky, rutted path made the axles of wooden carts jolt out of their wheels and doubled the journeying time of anyone who took it. ‘See this road?’ people in Atarra say. ‘It’s thanks to Sampat Pal that it got laid.’ One day in 2006 she and a group of disgruntled women had convened on the road and, with wooden hoes in their hands, proclaimed loudly, ‘This is a road, what? Looks like a field to me! Come on, let’s grow vegetables here, at least we can eat them!’ They started sowing seeds, tilling the stony dirt road and blocking the traffic. Passersby stopped and stared. People got off their carts, or gearless Atlas bicycles, to get a better look. Sampat had called the district magistrate to show him the state of the roads and made him make a promise in front of the crowds: ‘Yes, Sampat ji. We’ll fix the road. Definitely.’
Her gang of women, who wore striking pink sari uniforms and carried pink-painted lathis, had made their first public appearance that day. The local journalists who covered the event christened them the Gulabi Gang, Hindi for the ‘Pink Gang’. At the time, they numbered but a few dozen. By 2008, however, there would be about 20,000 members, making the gang double the size of the Irish army and eight times
larger than the estimated number of al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan.
larger than the estimated number of al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan.
‘Now I am so feh-mas,’ Sampat likes to say, using the imported English word in a thick accent and spreading her arms out wide to demonstrate the scale of her notoriety. A friend of Sampat’s says that in just a few years she shot, to use his expression, ‘from zero to hero’.
Excerpted with permission from Picador India. Pink Sari Revolution releases in book stores across India on 30 August.