By the time Sampat Pal rolls out of bed at 5:30 a.m., there’s already a line of people outside her door. They’re barefoot and illiterate, sweating beneath the blistering morning sun. One is here because she’s been raped; another has come because her in-laws have beaten her with a tire pump.

They’ve all come to Pal for justice.

"People know my name and they’ve come because they’ve heard about my work," Pal says from her home in Badausa, India.

Almost nine years ago, Pal founded the Gulabi Gang. Today it’s an organization with tens of  thousands of members spanning the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India. It's difficult to pin down the precise size of the group, but the Al Jazeera news organization and Pal herself have both recently put the membership at around 400,000. 

The gang’s mission is to challenge the caste system, empower women and crusade for the rights of the poor. Members wear bright pink saris (Gulabi means pink in Hindi) and carry bamboo sticks, more for intimidation than violence.

Their exploits have made Pal the stuff of legend.

She herself once beat a police officer after he refused to register a rape case. Pal also stormed the office of a utility company that was withholding power from a village, and paraded a corrupt city official along a decaying road that his administration wouldn’t fix.

Police as criminals

As the gang’s reputation has grown, so has the number of women who turn up on Pal’s doorstep every day, desperate for her help.

Gulabi Gang

Gulabi Gang members attend a rally in Uttar Pradesh. (Richard Johnson)

For women in India, violent crime is common and low-caste women are especially vulnerable. Ninety per cent of the country’s rape victims are Dalit women, formerly known as untouchables, the lowest of India’s lowest caste.

The situation is particularly dire in Uttar Pradesh, a state with the most cases of sexual violence against women in the country.

And the police aren’t much help.

An Indian high court judge recently described the Uttar Pradesh police force as the largest criminal organization in the country.

But the Gulabi Gang is offering a way out. It is making change simply by providing positive and powerful female role models in a country where few exist.

"I get a lot of respect and dignity when I wear the pink sari," says Maya Davy, a young mother of five who says she’s been a gang member for almost two years.

"Men speak nicely, they listen to me, they’re not authoritarian anymore, so it’s better," she says.

From zero to hero

Pal, like many women in Uttar Pradesh, is low caste and illiterate. She was a child bride and a mother at age 15.

Gulabi Gang

The Gulabi Gang enters the main square for a rally in Banda, Uttar Pradesh. (Richard Johnson)

But Pal rebelled against her in-laws, who viewed her as little more than a slave. When her eldest daughter was an infant, Pal moved out and an activist was born. She organized several empowerment groups for women, and it was one of those advocacy groups that later morphed into the Gulabi Gang.

Years later, Pal’s dramatic exploits have catapulted the gang from local to international fame.

In 2011, The Guardian newspaper named her one of the 10 most influential women in the world. The gang has also been the subject of numerous articles, books and several international documentaries.

But some have argued that Pal’s fame has gone to her head. She’s been accused of being authoritarian and more concerned with her own image than the welfare of gang members. Last spring she beat back a challenge to her leadership from a long-time colleague, with whom she has a close but antagonistic relationship.

Although Pal is now in her late-fifties, she has no intention of stepping down.

"It’s only people who are like me and who work the way I do passionately that can bring changes to India," she says.

Lasting social change?

But it's difficult to know how sustainable that change is.

Gulabi Gang

Members of the Gulabi Gang meet in a house in Chitrakoot, Uttar Pradesh. (Richard Johnson)

And that’s the problem. Pal represents both the strengths and weaknesses of the gang. She’s an effective and charismatic leader who inspires tremendous loyalty, but there’s also no one else like her.

There’s also the question of whether Pal’s brand of vigilante justice can really lay the foundation for lasting social change.

Abhilasha Kumari, the director of Apne Aap, a woman’s rights NGO in Delhi, doesn’t think it can.

"Fear always is something which intimidates you, but I never see fear as a solution," she tells me. "Fear may prevent people from doing certain things, but it is their mindset that has to be changed."

Pal agrees. She says that for women in India, the first battle begins at home. A woman must fight the oppression and abuse she faces from her family before she can become an effective member of the gang.

After all, real change is not going to come from the end of a stick.

(Listen to Ashley Walters' audio documentary on Sampat Pal and the Gulabi Gang on CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition on Jan. 23 at 9 a.m., or stream it here.)

This week on The Sunday Edition

On Jan. 23 starting at 9 a.m. on CBC Radio:

  • Michael Enright: This week's story about racism in Winnipeg represents an unprecedented triumph for magazine journalism in Canada, laying bare the many ways in which we have failed our aboriginal people.
  • Work-life balance:  Author Ron Friedman and Linda Duxbury, professor at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University, say the responsibility for a more sustainable, comfortable integration between work and life rests with employers.
  • Interview, Wally Lamb: There are popular writers and there are literary phenomena; rarely are they incarnated in one man. Wally Lamb is the author of four novels, two of which, She's Come Undone and I Know This Much is True, were selected by Oprah Winfrey for her book club. His latest novel, We are Water, explores the pain and the promise of a middle-class family in contemporary America.