LONG BEACH, CA - The Yadunandan Center for India Studies at California State University Long Beach held its 12th Annual Uka and Nalini Solanki Foundation Lecture on Apr. 30. The over 300 guests and faculty enjoyed a lecture centered on the topic of female empowerment that featured keynote speaker Amana Fonantella-Khan.
Uka and Nalini Solanki formally inaugurated the Yadunandan Center for India Studies in 2005. The center is named after Nalini Solanki’s great-grandfather, an early advocate of education in northern India. The endowment helped establish the Uka and Nalini Solanki Lecture Series, an annual event that brings a well-known scholar in the field of India studies to the CSULB campus.
Dave Newman, Site Director for the History Project at CSULB presented the SarDesai Award, which recognizes effective teaching of India in K-12 history and social science classrooms. The prize is named in honor of Damodar Sardesai who has authored more than a dozen books and over 200 articles on India and Southeast Asia. Professor Damodar Sardesai has been at UCLA since 1961, first as a doctoral student (1965) and since as a member of the History faculty (1966). The Yadunandan Center for India Studies offers a $1000 grand prize to the best lesson plans submitted. This year’s winners were former CSULB students Swetha Singh and Blair Fidor. The keynote speaker for the night was Amana Fontanella-Khan, a highly respected journalist. She is a contributor to Slate, the Daily Beast, the New York Times, and the Christian Science Monitor. She was also formerly a contributing editor at Vogue India. Before starting her journalism career she worked as an Assistant Director in Bollywood. She is a world traveler and has lived in many countries such as Austria, France, Spain, England, and India. Her book “Pink Sari Revolution” was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week and chosen by The San Francisco Chronicle as one of the Top 100 Books of 2013.
Fontanella-Khan’s lecture covered female empowerment in India and centered around one specific pioneer in this movement named Sampat Pal. In 2006, Pal formed the Gulabi Gang in the Banda District of Uttar Pradesh in Northern India. With a population of about 200 million people, this state is one of the poorest districts in the country and is marked by female illiteracy and domestic violence. Fontanella-Khan even described the region as lawless, stating “the police force is one of the largest criminal organizations in the country.” Therefore, the people of Uddar Pradesh have to be able to fend for themselves. Sampat Pal witnessed this oppression first hand and thus started a movement known as the Gulabi Gang. The name comes from the members wearing bright pink saris to differentiate themselves from other groups.
Sampat Pal grew up in a very humble setting. Her parents were shepherds and she was born into a lower caste. She was married off at the age of twelve and had the first of her five children at the age of fifteen. She was also denied an education because of her gender. Pal’s eagerness for equality could be traced back to the age of eight, when she started her first protest against a bully she encountered around the village she grew up in. This determination has led her to take on corrupt politicians and officers in the present day.
Due to the lack of respect given to women in the region where Pal lived, she realized a new approach would be needed to instill change with the state. She quickly gathered a large base of women who shared her values. As Fontanella-Khan stated, “when you’re opponent is more powerful than you are, you need to compensate with more people on your side.” Today, the movement has tens of thousands of women members.
The Gulabi Gang was initially enacted to punish oppressive husbands and fight against domestic violence. The members would confront male offenders and insist upon them to change their ways. If the men refused, the women would publicly shame them until the men would give in. The women also carried around bamboo sticks, which they would use as a weapon if the men resorted to use force. After a few victorious protests, Pal’s efforts became known to a small grassroots NGO that eventually recruited her. This allowed her to enter civil society and evoke change through politics. In 2004, Pal was able to start self-help groups along with the assistance of various NGO’s. These groups would assist in lifting people out of poverty. Pal would go from village to village to recruit women to join the cause and help themselves become more self-sufficient.
The Gulabi Gang helps bring awareness to this issue by stating that love conquers all and there is nothing wrong with couples that wish to marry outside of their caste. Pal and various other members of the gang even help conduct marriage ceremonies for couples that have fled from their families due to death threats.
In 2012, Pal became aware that she would be able to make a bigger splash in her movement by going after government change. She was courted by Sonia Gandhi to join the Congress Party. Although she lost the initial the election, Pal was able to receive more votes than any previous Congress candidate in the past. Pal believes the only true way to change government is from the inside. Therefore, she continues her efforts to make waves within the political forum. Whether it is ensuring proper public distribution of food grains to people below the poverty line or preventing the abuse of women and children, Sampat Pal and her sisterhood will continue to champion change and give a voice to the voiceless. As Fontanella-Khan stated at the culmination of her lecture, the gang is vital to empowerment because they succeed in showing women that they are relevant.