Pink Sari Revolution: A Tale of Women and Power in India

Image of Pink Sari Revolution: A Tale of Women and Power in India
Release Date: 
August 5, 2013
W. W. Norton & Company
Reviewed by: 

“. . . riveting, inspiring, and relevant.”

Pink Sari Revolution tells a remarkable story of vigilante feminist social justice—one that is reminiscent of the days of the infamous bandit queen Phoolan Devi (1963–2001)—set in Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh (UP), and its surrounding areas, in north India.

The events narrated in the book take place over roughly a two-month period, from December 2010 to January 2011, during which time Sheelu Nishad, the 17-year-old daughter of an illiterate farmer, is jailed on false charges of theft after she has been allegedly raped by a prominent UP politician, Purushottam Naresh Dwiwedi.

Sampat Devi Pal, the leader of the Pink (Gulabi) Gang and the person around whom this book revolves, starts to agitate in her inimitable style for Sheelu’s release and begins her own investigation into the truth behind the theft charges, certain that they have been fabricated and are being used as a smokescreen to cover up a larger scandal.

Ms. Fontanella-Khan, a Mumbai-based writer whose articles have appeared in a variety of well-known publications—among them the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor,, Slate, the Financial Times, and the Hindustan Times—has created in Pink Sari Revolution a fast-paced, powerful, and sympathetic portrait of a victim and her subaltern champion in the dusty heartlands of northern India.

Sampat Devi Pal emerges as a feisty, headstrong, and fearless Dalit woman who believes in “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” system of justice. Her “gang” of activist women, many of whom have been abused by their own families and husbands, dress in bright pink saris and carry lathis (large sticks), and appear in large groups to physically intervene, either by various forms of protest or with their lathis, in situations where the poor and oppressed—usually, women—are being victimized by some form of societal injustice.

The injustices range from persecution at the hands of individuals, such as a woman being harassed by her in-laws or beaten by her husband, to institutional injustices, such as being abused by corrupt police officers or politicians, or being denied medical care by indifferent and apathetic hospital systems.

Through the story of Sampat Devi and her Pink Gang, Ms. Fontanella-Khan paints a vivid portrait of rural life in India and astutely shines a light on the failure of key institutions—police, political, and legal—to protect their citizens and deliver justice.

The activism of the Pink Gang is testimony to the disturbing fact that in these less developed hinterlands of the Indian subcontinent, the institutions that are supposed to ensure the protection of their citizens are often guilty of actively putting them in harm’s way and of denying them their basic, fundamental rights.

Drawing upon an exhaustive repertoire of contemporary media accounts, Ms. Fontanella-Khan ably showcases how the many injustices faced by women every day in India as a result of child marriage, rape, discrimination, casteism, and poverty are further exacerbated by corrupt networks within the political machinery in the country and stridently opposed by courageous journalists, activists, and vigilantes.

Pink Sari Revolution also offers a riveting, if chilling, account of how rape victims are frequently ill treated and blamed by the police and justice system in the more rural communities in India, and how high-level political dealings often influence whether or not the victim ultimately sees justice being served.

What stands out in Ms. Fontanella-Khan’s account of Sheelu’s experiences in jail is the extent to which a women who alleges rape must establish her “virtue” in the public eye. For example, the author writes, in chapter 7:

“When a woman in India claims that she has been raped, it is very common for her to be subjected to a demeaning, unscientific test called the ‘finger test,’ designed to undermine her reputation, character, and perceived reliability. To perform this test, a doctor inserts two fingers into the vagina of a rape victim to determine whether it is ‘narrow,’ ‘roomy,’ ‘lax,’ and so forth. From these “conditions,” the doctor is then required, according to Indian Medical Association protocol, to draw conclusions about the sexual habits of the woman, which can then be used against her in court.”

The author’s descriptions of various doctors’ complicity in covering up or denying evidence of rape, especially if powerful people are involved, invite some searching and urgent questions about responsibility and professional accountability.

Sheelu, furthermore, claims that the doctors who examined her not only did so without using gloves, but also pressured her “into dropping her allegations of rape against the legislator,” even trying to get her “signature” on a blank piece of paper.

Through the interlocking narratives of Sampat Devi Pal and her Pink Gang, and of Sheelu Nishad’s incarceration and eventual, triumphant release, we are transported to a world that exists beyond the pale of justice, freedom, and liberty for all, a world in which vigilante justice offers the only means of redressing wrongs that are deeply entrenched in the caste system and further perpetuated by gender inequality.

Amana Fontanella-Khan is a talented writer from the Indian subcontinent to watch out for. Pink Sari Revolution is riveting, inspiring, and relevant.