January 24, 2014


[The 20-year-old woman told police on Wednesday that she was raped by a dozen men in her Labhpur village in the eastern state of West Bengal after the village chieftain conducted an informal tribal court and ordered men to punish her with rape.]

NEW DELHI —India’s Supreme Court ordered a probe Friday into the horrifying case of a young tribal woman who was gang-raped by village elders and other men as a punishment for falling in love with a Muslim.

The incident once again shone the spotlight on widespread sexual assaults on women in India. But it is also focusing attention on the powerful role of village clan councils, who often hand out crude punishments — outside of any official judicial system — for those who defy traditional social norms.

The 20-year-old woman told police on Wednesday that she was raped by a dozen men in her Labhpur village in the eastern state of West Bengal after the village chieftain conducted an informal tribal court and ordered men to punish her with rape.

She was assaulted for hours in the chieftain's hut, authorities said, and 13 men have now been charged in the assault.

Sexual assault cases are being reported more often in India since the fatal gang-rape of a young woman in New Delhi in a moving bus 13 months ago. The attack sparked a national outcry and an unprecedented public conversation about the safety of women.

The Labhpur incident highlights the challenge faced by India in trying to enhance women’s freedom to reflect modern norms within tightly-knit village communities that are still largely governed by ethnicity, casteand deeply patriarchal practices.

In spite of the rapid economic and social changes sweeping India, informal village elders’ groups and clan councils routinely resolve local disputes and react to behavior they deem socially inappropriate by ordering their own punishments.

In recent years, these informal clan councils, which work separately from elected village councils, have forbidden women in northern India from going to the bazaar in the evenings, wearing jeans, or speaking on cell phones.

In the northern state of Haryana, village elders have also ordered the killing of young couples who fall in love and elope in defiance of caste and clan restrictions. Such killings, they have said, are necessary to preserve honor of the community and deter others. Families have also been ostracized from the village for not obeying village verdicts.

Monday’s rape was by far one of the most violent assaults in recent times, analysts said.

According to local officials in West Bengal, the village council first tied the woman and her lover, a Muslim construction worker from a neighboring village, to a tree. The woman belongs to an indigenous tribe that has its own religious traditions; marriage or romantic relationships outside that group is frowned upon by tribal elders.

Elders demanded a penalty equivalent to 800 U.S. dollars from the woman and her lover, officials said. When the woman's relatives said they did not have the money, the council held a meeting and ordered the gang-rape.

Analysts say that village council punishments often occur in socially and economically backward areas, where official administration is weak and people are ignorant about issues like gender equality and human rights.

Elected village councils, or "gram panchayat," are often powerless to stop such incidents, said Ramesh Nayak, a sociologist who hasinvestigated such cases.

“The village community gets together and hands out punishment, like stripping a person naked, forcing them to wear garland of shoes, tied to ropes, made to ride on donkeys. But this kind of gang rape is unusual,” Nayak said. “A woman is punished and humiliated to teach her a lesson, so that she never raises her head again or defies the traditional social customs.”

On Friday, India’s Supreme Court called the West Bengal case “disturbing” and ordered the district judge in Birbhum to visit the village and file a report in a week. The court also asked the state government there for an explanation.

The woman is still in the hospital but her life is not in danger, local officials said.

Many of the men in Labhpur have fled, according to local reports. Those who remain have become hostile to the reporters and social activists who have descended on the small village, about six hours from the state's capital of Kolkata.

“There is a lot of anger in the village now, they are saying, ‘this is our internal matter, why are outsiders interfering?’,” said Shashi Panja, the minister for women and child welfare in the West Bengal government. “These are village courts that we do not recognize, they are illegal. My question is, what did the elected village council members do when this was going on? Did they just accept this verdict silently?”

Ajoy Mondal, an elected member of a council from the neighboring village of Ramjibanpu, said he suspected that, out of respect for tradition, nobody in the village resisted or did anything to stop the rape.

“Nobody defies such orders because it is seen as preserving tribal traditions,” Mondal said.

Incidents of rape have increased in West Bengal in recent weeks, a fact that officials attribute to more women being willing to report such violence.

Just Tuesday, nearly 3,000 marchers protested in a suburb of Kolkata to demand police action in the gang-rape of a woman who worked in a fitness center in a city mall.

“Every other day we are reading about a new case of rape in West Bengal,” said Sibaji Pratim Basu, an associate professor of political science at West Bengal State University who took part in the protest. “Whether in villages or our cities, it is the same psychological mind-set, which says women’s bodies are objects through which you exercise social power and domination.”