WEST BENGAL, INDIA — Two months after a woman was gang raped in eastern India at the orders of a tribal court, the Supreme Court has directed the state of West Bengal to compensate the tribal woman, saying it failed to protect her fundamental rights. The incident not only highlights the continued problem of sexual violence in India, but has led to increased scrutiny of tribal councils and the punishments they are said to dole out.
Life in the quiet village in the Birbhum district of West Bengal state was shaken in late January after what is said to have taken place in a hut.
A 20-year-old member of the Santhal tribe said she was raped by neighbors in the Subalpur village for having a relationship with a man from a different community. Police have arrested 13 men in connection with the attack, including the tribal headman who allegedly ordered the rape as punishment after the woman’s family failed to pay a $420 fine (25,000 Indian rupees).
Villager Mallika Tudu says she witnessed the proceedings and that Santhal tribe members were not involved in the decision.
“Santhal villagers were there as bystanders and had no role in the trial," she said. "The political leaders, just to save themselves from trouble, are now putting the whole blame on the Santhals.”
Such village courts are not uncommon in India’s vast rural area, where elders settle disputes and deliver judgments on those accused of violating local traditions.
But Nityananda Hembram, a senior leader of India’s largest tribal community says the gang rape was ordered by politically-linked village leaders and not Santhals.
“They [Santhal councils] have a very high order of a decision-making process," he said. "Their judicial system is that they will never give any punishment to the people concerned. They amicably solve the problem.”
Prasenjit Biswas, a professor at North Eastern Hill University in the eastern state of Meghalaya, says tribal councils have been “hijacked” by political parties.
“The identity of the Santhals as a tribe here is under grave threat because the very social order on which this identity is based can be played with by some external forces using their political economic and social influences," he said. "And the influences are so disparaging that it completely denigrates the tribal social custom and tries to project it as something outdated.”
Amid the outrage surrounding the gang rape and sharp criticism of kangaroo courts, members of West Bengal’s Santhal tribal community have taken to the streets to defend their traditional practices.
Demonstrators have called for India’s Central Bureau of Investigation to intervene to determine who exactly was involved in ordering the gang rape of the young tribal woman.
She was released from the hospital in February and is not expected to return to her village. The Supreme Court says the tribal woman’s case, which comes more than a year after a shocking gang rape aboard a bus in the Indian capital, is the “epitome of aggression against a woman” and that it could have been prevented.