A 20-year-old woman, accompanied by her mother, entered her local police station in Labhpur, India last week to report having been sentenced to gang rape by her tribal leader when she was unable to pay an arbitrary fine.
Her village of Birbhum, devoid of electricity or a operating school, is one of the small communities where Bengal’s Left government made an attempt to allow civil disputes to be handled by local leaders. This endeavor has resulted in cases of kangaroo courts (known as “shalishi sabhas”) where the villages fall under the power of corrupt leaders who have no regard for the law.
Allegedly, the young woman had fallen in love with a young Muslim man from another village. When he came to visit the family on Monday evening, he was taken by members of the community and kept until the next morning, when the couple was dragged out and tied to separate trees while the ‘court’ (made up of nearly all the males in the village, including children,) held a trial before the rest of the village.
It was decided that the couple would each owe the ‘court’ 25,000 rupees (roughly $396) for breaking tribal tradition, to be paid immediately. The young man was released when he promised to pay, but when the girl’s family explained that they didn’t have the money the community head, referred to as the ‘moral,’ told the members of the court, “If the family does not pay up, go and enjoy yourselves.”
The girl’s helpless parents and 15-year-old brother were confined to their home 50 meters away while the girl was raped by 13 members of the community, including the moral. When she was allowed to return home, her family took her to the block hospital in Labhpur for preliminary treatment. Her mother then took her to the police station, where she was admitted to a district hospital that later verified she had indeed been violently raped.
A slow response to this claim has called up a similar case in March 2013, when a 16-year-old girl was gang-raped, resulting in heightened laws for sex-related crimes. Memory of this recent embarrassment spurred government officials to take action in punishing these new perpetrators to avoid criticism for further negligence.
Police have met with denial and obstinacy from the village whose women defend their men, saying they are innocent and being framed as part of a conspiracy. None of them will testify to seeing the rapes; they claim the girl was simply asked to leave the village.
One woman, whose husband was among those arrested, said angrily to police, “It is this under-construction school that has brought shame to our village. It’s here that the two met. She has brought disrespect to our community.”
Hambram, a graduate from India’s Institue of Technology, agrees that this case has brought shame on the small village, but for different reasons. “In our tribal community, the will of a woman is respected. What happened in Birbhum is a crime. No tribal custom advocates brutality like rape.” What happened in Birbhum was clearly outside the jurisdiction of the village court and contrary to the model of rural life in Bengal.