birbhum gang rape courtyard

Birbhum tribal gang rape is a mirror of Indian progress

On the night of 20th January 2013, a young tribal woman was gang raped on the orders of a shalishi sabha (kangaroo court) led by Bolai Murdy, the Morol (tribal village head) a remote Santhal tribe village in the Labhpur police station area, in West Bengal as a punishment for having an affair with a youth from another community. The story  of this tribal gang rape unfolding speaks not only of a crime committed without remorse, it speaks of an entire people whom civilization has passed by.

60 kilometers from Rabindranath Tagore’s Shantiniketan, is this tribal village that doesn’t have electricity and a school under construction and police usually do not enter the village at all. This courtyard of Bolai Murdy,  the morol (village headman) was the scene of this gang rape saw people from teenagers to those old enough to be her uncles rape her. People she had grown up with. People she saw as family. The previous morol Bhaju Hembram left the shalishi sabha without comment. His son watched the gang rape happen.

Her crime? Having an affair with a man from Chowhatta village she met at the still under construction school. He was a mason and not from their community. The aftermath of the rape also saw village women give media opinions about the bad influence of that under-construction school on their village – the scene of the crime according to the village, for whom the gang rape was merely a punishment that they are belatedly denying happened at all.

birbhum gang rape courtyard
Platform in courtyard of Bolai Murdy where a young tribal woman was gang raped on the orders of the village council. Image:ToI

The man and woman had been caught sitting together and brought to Bolai’s courtyard (though the current morol is someone else). He demanded a fine of fifty thousand rupees from the man, and ordered a gang rape of the woman. The news broke in unbelievable updates on Thursday. It began as five men gang raping a woman on the village head’s orders, rapidly went up to ten, then twelve and fourteen as more information became available. Initial information that she had been thrown into a shed to be raped proved incorrect as further information stated she was put up on a platform to be publicly raped. Most of her rapists were part of the tribal village council.

Media is still spewing unbelievable details about how there was consensus in the village that she should be raped, how her family was not allowed to help her or even seek medical help after the tribal gang rape and were confined to their homes for a day. It was in the afternoon on Wednesday that they slipped away with her and took her to the Bolpur subdivisional hospital, from where her injuries were deemed serious and she was taken to Suri hospital. There are villagers speaking about how the school is already a bad influence, that she met this man there. Days after the very public rape, 13 rapists were identified, all of whom openly living in the village, and an unprecedented “zero” of them arrested. They were arrested only after public outcry.

Meanwhile, the girl, whose sins also include speaking in Hindi and having been to Delhi, is in a critical condition and fighting for her life. The man’s family has received a threat for a fine to be paid, and his brother is selling off valuables he accumulated for his daughter’s dowry to save him. His wife bears no ill will to the girl and is only interested that the life of her man be spared.

It is ghastly, and one way or the other, justice must be ensured. The Supreme Court has taken suo motu notice of this incident.

That is as far as the crime goes.

But the larger picture almost one feel sorry for this village that will now be held to account for a wrong they think is right.

And why wouldn’t it be so? Decades after independence, this place has no electricity. Along with the missing electricity is the missing influence of evolving social dialogue that comes with television or radio. This is a place that has no school. Police don’t enter the village. Something as routine as traveling to Delhi is a black mark on a girl’s character as was her being educated or having an income. They have always been marrying within the community and enforcing that and while their punishment was undoubtedly barbaric, 67 years after independence, they simply have not got the memo that individuals have rights and they may marry whom they choose. They do not see the wrong in a severe punishment being meted out to people who will marry out of the community.

As far as the community is concerned, they have no idea why outsiders have taken an interest in this incident. They see the police case itself as a betrayal of the village by the girl’s family. They see their men as innocent in delivering a punishment that was openly and transparently decided in front of the whole village. And they are standing by their rapists and barricaded their village against the police and media. They are in agreement that the behavior of the girl was not acceptable and it deserved punishment. They do not see the village elder councils as against the law. They do not understand why it is wrong to rape a woman. The disconnect with the values we take for granted is so complete, that there isn’t even any point bringing up questions like adultery (the man was married) or misogyny.

Of course, they will now discover that there is a world beyond their barbaric village that isn’t going to let them get away with inhuman customs. But there is also an ethical dilemma here. How do you expect people to obey laws that they don’t know exist?

This is a failure of the state, that a pocket lives untouched by modernity, communication or national law till it suddenly comes in a violent clash with it, when a dramatic incident highlights their primitive capsule of a world after a human has paid a horrendous price for this neglect.

Beyond the crime, which must be punished in a manner the courts and state see fit (how do you punish a whole village?), this incident is also an eye opener on how the lack of basic development like electricity or education also results in an isolation of thought and abdication of rights of inhabitants.

What is India’s responsibility in this situation? Is it only to punish rapes after they happen? Where is the awareness, where is the reform? Where is the knowledge of laws and rights? I suspect this village may get a crash course.