Name: Sampat Pal; Constituency: Manikpur, Bundelkhand; Claim to fame: President, Gulabi Gang
Her life has inspired a Bollywood film—complete with songs, dances and slow-motion action—besides an award-winning documentary film, and books.
By any stretch of the imagination, Sampat Pal, president of Gulabi Gang, a women’s rights movement based in Uttar Pradesh, has led an extraordinary life. International fame has followed — there’s even a Paris chapter of Gulabi Gang.
Yet, there is one constituency whose stamp of approval eludes her — ordinary voters. Pal has twice contested UP assembly elections unsuccessfully. In 2007, she fought as an independent and in 2012 as a Congress party candidate, finishing fourth in drought-hit Bundelkhand region’s Manikpur assembly constituency.
But she is back — once again contesting on a Congress ticket from Manikpur and is confident that the result will be different this time. “Last time, I made rookie mistakes. My organizational skills were lacking. This time things are different, I can feel it. People come up to me now, share their problems. I feel very positive." Pal will be contesting against the incumbent Chandra Bhan Singh Patel of the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s R.K. Puram, a former member of Parliament. In 2012 she polled a little over 20,000 votes as opposed to Patel’s 43,818.
“People are not happy with the sitting MLA (member of the legislative assembly), they want change. The entire district of Bundelkhand is drowning in debt. We have suffered because of lack of rain, our area is backward and needs development and this is my poll plank," she says.
Pal came into limelight after she formed the Gulabi Gang (all members dress in pink saris and carry a stick), which started off at the turn of the millennium as a group of women in the villages of Bundelkhand who would stand up against gender violence — whether domestic violence or sexual assault.
Having drawn attention to a rape case in which BSP MLA Purshottam Naresh Dwivedi was arrested in 2011 and exposed corruption and caste discrimination, the gang is often described as a vigilante group.
It has acquired a reputation for using violence, helped in no small measure by the sticks that the members carry. But Pal rejects the criticism of the activists’ work in a part of UP that is notorious for its feudalism, violence and low development indicators, including the status of women.
When she fought the election in 2007 as an independent, Pal says, people mocked her for being a woman whereas now there is much more acceptance of women in the political arena. “Political power will go a long way in ensuring women’s rights are not tampered with. In fact it was my fight for the rights of women that brought me to (Congress president) Sonia Gandhi’s notice in 2006."
Asked about the political mood in her constituency, she says, “Yahan logon ka mood badal gaya hai (here, the people’s sentiment has changed). Notebandi ne bahut tang kiya hai (Demonetisation has caused a lot of problems)."
In 2014 Pal was removed as president of the Gulabi Gang over alleged financial irregularities. But Pal has never accepted the ouster and continues to be identified with the gang.
Bundelkhand, a vast region that straddles both UP and Madhya Pradesh, has been plagued by farmer suicides, widespread poverty, poor road connectivity and law and order problems. However, this being UP, caste considerations are perhaps more important than development when it comes to casting of the vote. Pal belongs to the Gadariya caste, a backward caste.
Interestingly, Pal’s is not the only women’s movement to have been born in this region. In 2008 Pushpa Goswami launched the Belan Fauj (the Rolling Pin Army) where women have used the rolling pin as a symbol of their anger.
The Belan Fauj pledges allegiance to the BJP.