On a recent afternoon, a throng of nearly two dozen women, all wearing candy-pink saris, gathered in the shade of a banyan tree. They listened raptly as a tiny woman they called 'commander' delivered what seemed like a military briefing. 'If your husband beats you for stepping out of the house, you firmly tell him you are not his slave,' she thundered, her face beet-red. 'You tell him that he should sit at home and take care of the kids.' All heads nodded in agreement. The commander is Sampat Pal, a 46-year-old woman with a Grade Eight education. She heads an all-female, pink-clad vigilante group that strikes fear in the hearts of 'wrongdoers'. They are called the Gulabi Gang (gulabi means pink in Hindi). In the two years since its inception in a village in Banda, a poor and lawless district in the rural interior of Uttar Pradesh, the gang has gone after wife-beaters and 'eve-teasers' (men who sexually harass women) with lathis, the Indian bamboo baton. The group, which has grown to thousands of members, has taken up cudgels against corrupt police, and, in this rural landscape where bureaucracy makes life difficult, they have shamed apathetic government officials into action. Last year the gang unearthed corruption in the local public food distribution system. A government-run shop was siphoning off tonnes of grain, meant to be handed out to the poor, to sell on the black market. One night, the gang stopped two trucks loaded with grain. They were headed for a market, where the shopowner intended to pocket the profits. Despite threats from two knife-wielding drivers, the women deflated the tyres and confiscated their keys. The pink vigilantes pressured the local government to seize the grain and distribute it. 'We function in a man's world where men make all the rules,' Ms Pal said. 'Our fight is against injustice.' The Gulabi Gang's unconventional ways of dispensing justice have fired the imagination of Banda's locals. Gang members are widely hailed as heroes for giving a voice to the voiceless in this caste-ridden and feudalistic rural landscape. Banda is among the poorest districts in India, and over one-fifth of its 1.6 million population across 600 villages lie at the bottom rung of India's caste hierarchy. This district is also notorious for its robber bandits, or dacoits. Dadua, a 65-year-old dacoit who had a large reward on his head, evaded the police for 33 years in Banda's ravines before being gunned down in 2007. In some quarters, he drew the sympathy of locals for taking on the government. 'There is a pervasive feeling of helplessness here,' Ms Pal said, 'a collective belief that fighting back is just not possible. But that is slowly changing.' For Ms Pal, the seeds of rebellion against an oppressive social order were sown young. When her parents refused to send her to school, she protested by scribbling on the village walls and floors. They finally relented, only to marry her off at nine. At 12, she went to live with her husband, an ice-cream vendor years older than her, and at 13 she had the first of her five children. But she was too ambitious to remain hidden behind a veil. Moved by the deplorable plight of local women, she began engaging with non-governmental organisations to combat common social malaises like child marriages and domestic abuse from alcoholic husbands. Getting out of the house to rub shoulders with men, and relinquishing her ghunghat - the Indian veil - was initially opposed by her family, but her zeal changed their attitude. Her experiences emboldened her to form her own fiery pink sorority, run solely by women. Since its inception, thousands of women have come forward to become members, many of them victims of domestic abuse and violence. For Chuniya Devi, a diffident 30-year-old mother of four sons and two daughters, joining the Gulabi Gang meant fighting her husband's alcoholism and violent outbursts. But observing Ms Pal, she says, was enough inspiration for her to challenge his abusive ways. On the afternoon that her leader summoned her to the banyan tree, she was about to leave home when her husband, Seevan, a broad-shouldered middle-aged man, blocked the entrance. He was enraged that she would leave the house without shrouding her face. 'Don't you have any shame going out uncovered?' he demanded. 'You don't care if men gawk at you?' She was up to the challenge. 'Don't men gawk at me when I go out in the fields?' she retorted. Before she joined the Gulabi Gang she would never have argued with her husband, she acknowledged. 'Women continue to be brutalised by our patriarchal society,' she said. 'The more you suffer silently, I realised, the more your oppressor will oppress you.' Over time, however, it dawned on Ms Pal that their fight was not just against abusive husbands. Corruption, she said, was like a cancer that was eviscerating the economy and stalling development. Bribery made it all the more difficult to improve the country's infrastructure and feed the population. Last year, Transparency International ranked India at a dismal 74th in the world for corruption, two notches lower than in 2007. And Indians, particularly the poor, paid US$4.5 billion in bribes to get services due to them. Mr Pal tells how locals in Atarra pleaded for years with the local administration to get the village's deeply rutted dirt roads paved. But the pleas fell on deaf ears, she said. 'They will not act until their palms are greased, we realised,' Ms Pal said. So, in 2006, the Gulabi Gang took it upon themselves to get the job done. They swarmed the office of the local district magistrate, G.C. Pandey. There was an immense clamour as Mr Pandey was roughed up. Besieged by a group of feisty women, he authorised the road to be built. The villagers were jubilant. However, Ms Pal was charged with 11 offences, including rioting, attacking a government employee and obstructing an officer doing his duty. Ms Pal is often criticised for operating outside the law. 'She is a bold woman,' said Ashutosh Kumar, Banda's superintendent of police. 'But she works like a kangaroo court.' Mr Kumar admits he admires Ms Pal's grit, but says her gang is under suspicion of having links to the Maoist rebels. Ms Pal rubbishes such allegations, calling it a conspiracy against her. 'To face down men in this part of the world, you have to use force,' she said. But now, her reputation for getting things done scares officials into action, and she manages to 'get justice done without using force', she says. Increasingly, she gets called upon by far-flung villages for help, even by men. 'Come help us,' was the message she received one recent afternoon from Kalyanpur, a poor village in neighbouring Chitrakoot district. Villagers complained that their requests for work under the rural employment guarantee scheme had been ignored for months. Ms Pal dashed to Kalyanpur, this time leaving her pink-clad platoon behind. After hearing the villagers' grievances, she called the district magistrate. He was busy in a meeting, so she left a message. Moments later, her phone rang. It was the district magistrate himself. She murmured something into the phone. Seconds later, she hung and assured the villagers: 'Your work will be done.'