Throughout Pink Sari Revolution, the stick carried by the Gulabi Gang is referred to as a pink-painted "baton." More accurately it is a lathi a traditional Indian weapon, made of bamboo, with a long history of martial use.
Lathi (pronounced LAH-tee) literally means "bamboo stick" in Hindi. It is widely considered to be one of the oldest weapons in the world, and its use can be traced to aboriginal times throughout what is now eastern India and Bangladesh. Made from the male bamboo, it is usually six to eight feet long and is sometimes bound at intervals with iron rings or tipped with a metal blunt. It is an inexpensive, readily available weapon that is extremely effective at close range, operated by swinging like a bat or twirling and thrusting. The Times of India says, "When moved back and forth like a sword and aimed at someone, it cuts through the air, lands with a thwacking sound, peels off a thin layer of skin and sends waves of pain through the body, even as it splinters bone. One hard blow is numbing. A few solid whacks can cripple a man for life. A thrashing can dispatch someone to another world."
The lathi was originally used by tribes or individuals to settle disputes, but over time its function expanded to agrarian functions. Employed by farmers to manage livestock, similar to the way a shepherd might use a crook, it gave rise to a proverb well-known throughout many South Asian countries: "Whoever wields the lathi keeps the buffalo." As feudalism emerged, local warlords would use armies of lathial (those who wield a lathi with proficiency) for protection, battle, to intimidate and punish commoners, and to control their peasants in the field. Eventually the rich began hiring lathial guards for security as well as for a visual display of status.
During the Mughal Empire (1526-1857), the zamindar, a class of wealthy, land-owning aristocrats arose. They introduced a taxation structure on farmers known as the Zamindar System, which allowed for extraordinarily burdensome taxes to be levied and collected (by lathial) no matter what the land yields were. The system continued during British rule and was dismantled shortly after India gained independence in 1947 (the Bollywood film, Lagaan (aka Tax), hugely popular in India, is based on the zamindar tax system and its exploitation by the British. The movie was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2002).
The British Raj adapted the methods of lathi operation already in place thanks to the Zamindar System into the "lathi charge" a coordinated military-style rush designed to disperse crowds. India's riot police still rely on the lathi charge as their primary weapon, although it's become a very controversial practice since it often leaves protesters permanently crippled. Because of this controversy, as of June 2013, the lathi is being phased out of many police units. Delhi police announced that the lathi would be replaced by a plastic baton "that will hurt less when it comes into contact with the human body."
Fighting with lathi sticks has long been considered a sport, although its popularity is waning. Every three years a nationwide convention is held in Kushtia, Bangladesh, having been changed from an annual competition after 1989 due to a drop in participants and audience. It remains more popular in rural communities, and displays of lathi expertise are sometimes seen at festivals and weddings.
The lathi is also employed in a spiritual practice. The continuous and repetitive movement is said to calm the mind and move energy throughout the body to balance it.
For Indians, probably the most searing image of a lathi in use is that wielded by Mahatma Gandhi. In his spirit of non-violence, he used the lathi as a walking stick, not as a weapon. The image of Gandhi wielding the lathi during the Dandi march to protest the taxation of salt by the British Raj, is an iconic one and the march itself galvanized the Satyagraha (civil disobedience) movement that ultimately was a key force in India's independence movement.
This article was originally published in November 2013, and has been updated for the
August 2014 paperback release.
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