India: Woman gang-raped on orders of 'kangaroo court'

Couples deemed to have violated local codes face 'shocking' unofficial punishments in India's villages, as Andrew North reports

Police in India's West Bengal state have arrested 13 men in connection with a gang rape of a woman, allegedly on orders of village elders who objected to her relationship with a man.

The 20-year-old woman has been admitted to a hospital in a critical condition.

Unofficial courts in India's villages often sanction killings of couples deemed to have violated local codes.

Scrutiny of sexual violence in India has grown since the 2012 gang rape and murder of a student on a Delhi bus.

At the scene

It was on Wednesday night that the 20-year-old came through the gates of the Siuri district hospital, seeking urgent medical help.

The man in charge there, Dr Asit Biswas, told me that she was now in a stable condition, but that she needs counselling after her ordeal. He said she was a brave woman. He would not discuss the details of the case saying that a full medical report had been sent to the police.

On a road near the hospital, a small group of sari-clad women held a protest demanding justice for the victim.

Her family have not spoken to the media and local journalists who have been to her village say that many residents are too scared to speak about the case.

I left the hospital with many questions still unanswered. But the scale of India's problems can be seen by the latest case here - a seven-year-old girl was being rushed in after allegedly being raped by her teacher.

The government tightened laws on sexual violence last year after widespread protests following the attack.

But violence and discrimination against women remain deeply entrenched.

The suspects were produced in court and have been remanded in custody. They have not yet made any public comment.

Police said the latest incident on Monday night was prompted by the relationship between a woman belonging to the Santhal tribal group and a non-tribal man from a nearby village in Birbhum district.

Start Quote

Santhals have been known for living in peace in closely-knit communities bound by ritualistic codes, with none of the caste-based hierarchies and conflicts which mark India's majority Hindus. ”

End Quote

Clan-based village councils made up of local elders wield great influence over life in large swathes of rural India and often mete out punishments for offences deemed to contravene local traditions and mores.

Although honour killings, sanctioned by unofficial courts that are common in parts of northern India, are unheard of in the tribal Santhal community, women are still treated as second class citizens.

'Crime of falling in love'

The woman went to the Siuri district hospital seeking urgent help

"The relationship was going on for almost five years. When the man visited the woman's home on Monday with the proposal of marriage, villagers spotted him and organised a kangaroo court. During the 'proceedings', the couple were made to sit with hands tied," Birbhum police chief C Sudhakar told the BBC.

He said the headman of the woman's village fined the couple 25,000 rupees ($400; £240) for "the crime of falling in love".

The man paid up, but the woman's family were unable to pay, police said.

The headman, who is a distant relative of the woman, then allegedly ordered the rape, Mr Sudhakar said.

"Her family could not pay, so go enjoy the girl and have fun," the headman reportedly told villagers, according to a complaint filed by the woman's family.

India map

The 13 men arrested in connection with the incident include the headman.

Although the attack took place on Monday night, the family of the woman gathered courage to go to the police on Wednesday afternoon. The woman was admitted to a hospital only on Wednesday night.

She is currently being cared for by a five-member medical team in hospital, local officials say.

Village 'justice'

  • July 2012: Asara village in Uttar Pradesh state bans love marriages and bars women under 40 from shopping alone, using mobile phones outside, and orders them to cover their heads when outdoors
  • May 2011: Eight people arrested in Uttar Pradesh for stoning to death a young couple who had a love affair
  • September 2010: A Dalit (formerly "untouchable") woman in Madhya Pradesh is ordered to pay 15,000 rupees ($330) compensation to the high-caste owners of a dog for feeding their pet. The owners say the dog became "untouchable"
  • August 2010: Village elders in West Bengal order a woman to walk naked in front of large crowds for having "an illicit love affair with a man from a different community"
  • June 2009: A Muslim woman and her Hindu husband kill themselves after the local village council orders them to annul their marriage or face death

The incident has led to outrage in India with some describing it as "inhuman and completely outrageous" and many calling for a quick trial and punishment for the rapists.

"In a democratic country, based upon the rule of law, no vigilantism can be permitted," India's Information Minister Manish Tewari said.

"The West Bengal police must thoroughly investigate the alleged gang rape... and bring to justice those responsible. Authorities must also ensure that the woman and her family receive immediate and adequate police protection," Amnesty International's Divya Iyer said.

Correspondents say rape is a common occurrence in India with many cases still going unreported, despite the heightened media attention in recent months.

Although India has tightened its anti-rape laws and society is more openly discussing cases of violence against women, women across India still live with the daily fear of sexual assault and victims still often have to deal with police apathy.

In 2010, village elders in Birbhum ordered at least three tribal women to strip and walk naked in front of large crowds in West Bengal, police say.

The women were being punished for "having close relations" with men from other communities.

More on This Story

Rape scandal

More India stories

RSS

Features

  • How ebola spread graphicPatient zero

    Tracking first Ebola victim and how virus spread


  • A young Chinese girl looks at an image of BarbieBarbie's battle

    Can the doll make it in China at the second attempt?


  • Prosperi in the 1994 MdSLost in the desert

    How I drank bat blood and urine to survive in the Sahara


  • Afghan interpetersBlacklisted

    The Afghan interpreters left by the US to the mercy of the Taliban


  • Flooded homesNo respite

    Many hit by last winter's floods are struggling to pay soaring insurance bills


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.