Rape as retribution

Print edition : February 21, 2014

Policemen and forensic experts inspect the site where a woman was allegedly gang-raped at Subolpur village in Birbhum district, on January 25. Photo: AP

The main accused, Balai Maddi, the headman of Subolpur village, being produced in the Additional Chief Judicial Magistrate Court in Bolpur on January 24. Photo: PTI

The accused coming out of a court at Birbhum district on January 23. Photo: REUTERS

Judicial Magistrate Arpita Hira, DSP (Headquarters) of Birbhum Partha Ghosh, Chief Judicial Magistrate Rajib Chakraborty and Additional District Judge Subhodeep Mitra in front of the house where the crime occurred, on January 27. Photo: PTI

The women of Subolpur village. Many women in the village spoke in defence of the accused. Photo: SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

A case of gang rape of a tribal girl on the orders of a village kangaroo court sends shock waves across the nation, but the villagers rally around the accused.

SUBOLPUR in West Bengal’s Birbhum district is like any other tribal village existing on the fringes of modern society, a picture of economic and social backwardness amidst the quaint beauty of the rural settings of the region. This is the scene of a recent crime of such savageness that it placed the obscure, indigent village under the glare of the international media. A 20-year-old tribal girl here was allegedly gang-raped by men of her own village after she was made to spend the night in the cold tied to a tree as a punishment meted out by a shalishi (kangaroo) court. Her crime was that she was having an affair with a man who did not belong to the tribal community.

In her complaint to the police, the victim has reportedly stated that on January 20, she and the man she was involved with, Sheik Khalek, resident of a nearby village, were apprehended from her house by the villagers when Khalek had come to negotiate marriage with the girl. The two were then tied to a tree outside the house of the village morol (headman) all night. The next day, the shalishi court headed by the morol, Balai Maddi, imposed a heavy fine on the two of them—Rs.25,000 for Khalek and Rs.50,000 for the girl. Khalek paid up and was released, but when the girl expressed her inability to pay the fine, Balai ordered the men of the village to “have fun with her”. Then 13 of them, including Balai, took turns to rape her in a shack owned by Balai’s family, in full view of the village. The victim was also warned that if she went to the police, her house would be burned down. The accused as well as other villagers have denied the victim’s allegations; even the “mimansha patra” (settlement letter), composed after the trial, makes no mention of the rape.

Although all 13 of the alleged perpetrators were arrested immediately, the police and the Trinamool Congress government in the State came under severe criticism for not seeking police custody of the accused. The subsequent removal of the District Superintendent of Police on the orders of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee herself is being viewed in political circles as a face-saving move. On January 24, a three-member Bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice of India P. Sathasivam took suo motu cognisance of the gang rape and directed the district judge of Birbhum to “inspect the concerned place” and submit a report to the apex court within a week.

As of January 29, investigations were still on. According to reports, preliminary forensic assessments have confirmed rape; however, it is yet to be ascertained how many people were involved, as that would require DNA tests of the victim as well as the accused persons. Khalek, who had gone into hiding since his brother Sheik Farooq secured his release by paying Rs.25,000 on January 21, was brought from the neighbouring State of Jharkhand on January 27. He and the victim’s two brothers and sister-in-law gave their statements under Section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure to the judicial magistrate concerned in Birbhum on January 28.

Outside influence

A shalishi sabha is normally an internal tribal affair; in the Subolpur case, however, the presence of certain non-tribal elements from another village made matters murkier. Among those who allegedly took part in the rape was one Debraj Mondal from the neighbouring village of Bikrampur. Debraj, who does not belong to the tribal community, apparently wielded considerable influence in the area and in Subolpur village in particular, mainly because of his close links with the ruling Trinamool Congress. His mother, Shyamali Mandal, admitted to Frontline that she was a Trinamool activist, and that both she and her son had close ties with Subolpur village, though neither of them lived there. “My son was among those who caught her with the Muslim boy; that is her anger against him and that is why she has named him and he has been arrested. My son is innocent. It is the girl who is at fault,” she told Frontline. One of the signatories in the “settlement letter” following the trial was Ajoy Mondal, a Trinamool panchayat leader, whose name was not mentioned by the victim and who claimed that he was not present when Balai gave his order for gang rape.

The villagers have steadfastly been denying that a rape had taken place, giving rise to speculations that political forces may have been at work very swiftly and silently in the region, where the Trinamool Congress is particularly strong. After the initial round of denials, the mood of the entire village was one of hostile silence. There were hardly any men around when this correspondent visited the village. The women claimed that the menfolk had all gone for a tribal function nearby and would be back soon; outsiders, however, said the men had all fled the village fearing arrest.

It was made very clear that there were no sympathisers for the girl in the entire village, especially among the women. “Every society has its own rules and customs. Besides, nobody is publishing what we had been saying. Everyone wants to hear that girl’s [the victim’s] lies,” said a woman.

According to some local people who are not residents of the village, the Birbhum Adivasi Gaonta, an influential tribal rights organisation, had instructed the villagers not to speak to the media. Further, the Majhi Mandal (the locally elected body of a tribal community) had also appointed a person, supposedly to “help” the media by answering their queries and to refute the allegations made by the victim.

When the women were finally coaxed to speak, it was to protest the innocence of the men who were arrested and the guilt of the girl for breaking the community tradition. According to them, it was a “conspiracy” hatched by the victim and Khalek in retaliation for the fine the latter had to pay.

Another cause of resentment among the tribal people is the perceived interference in what they consider their “internal matter” or “their way”. This brings to the fore the larger questions of how to accommodate traditional tribal practices with modern laws, and whether concepts such as the shalishi sabha or similar “khap” courts (courts of caste councils) should still find a place in today’s society.

The tribal communities of the Birbhum region have been known to take extreme measures against those who violate their ethnic tradition and rules. In 2010, in Batak village near Rampurhat municipality, Sunita Murmu, a tribal girl, was paraded naked around three villages and had her hair shorn off, as per the orders of a kangaroo court, for having an affair with a man from outside the tribal community.

Her punishment and humiliation was recorded on a mobile phone by the villagers. In another, almost forgotten, incident in the same district, around 10 years ago, in Paruldanga village in Bolpur block, a tribal woman was caught having an affair with a truck driver from an outside community. Their bodies were later discovered tied to a tree in a forest.

However, this is the first time that the punishment meted out has been a gang rape in public view. Some feel the nature of the punishment may have some bearing on the rise of sexual offences in West Bengal.

“Almost on a daily basis we are reading in the newspapers about incidents of rape and molestation. The situation would undoubtedly have impacted the tribal people also, otherwise this kind of punishment is unheard of in their community,” a political source in the district told Frontline.

The opposition-less, virtually single-party rule in the region is also giving rise to lumpen behaviour, and according to informed sources in the district, armed miscreants have of late been having a free run in the Labhpur region where Subolpur is located. It would not be far-fetched to suggest that these influences may have surreptitiously found their way into the simple lives of the tribal people.

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