In rural India, social and class divisions can be very stark, especially when it comes to relationships. Women and men alike are expected to maintain romantic relationships within their own social groups, and premarital sex is strongly frowned upon in many regions. In cases where people are accused of overstepping the line, tribal councils known as salishi sabha step in — although they have no legal authority, their words are taken seriously in communities where people believe in respecting their elders.
This has led to tragedy in multiple cases — such as that of a woman who was forced to walk naked in her village as punishment for an illicit relationship, and that of a 2009 double suicide committed by a Muslim woman and her Hindu husband after they were ordered to annul their marriage or face death — and it did again in early January, when a young woman was gang-raped on orders from her tribal council, a group of her elders, by men whom she described as friends and neighbors.
“I have lost count of how many men took turns to rape me. They were more than five. It could even be 10 [note: 13 men have been arrested in connection with the crime so far],” said the woman. ”It’s horrific. They (rapists) are all our neighbours and I call some of them as kaka (uncle) and some others as dada (elder brother) or bhai (brother).”
Why? For the crime of engaging in a romantic relationship outside her tribal affiliation. As a member of the Santhal tribal group, she was expected to keep her romantic relationships within the tribe, and she was dating a non-tribal man, a Muslim who was purportedly planning to propose marriage to her. When he arrived at her home with an offer of marriage, other members of the tribe saw him, and the tribal elders met in a council where the victims were forced to sit with their hands tied during a mock trial, which ended in a sentence of a fine of $400 each. The man was able to pay his share of the fine and was released, but she couldn’t afford it, so instead, the council invited the men of the tribe to “enjoy” her.
Next, despite the fact that she was injured and reeling from the crime, the council threatened her with further penalties for dishonoring her community and pressured her to refrain from reporting the rape to the police. It wasn’t until two days later that she was able to access a police station, and medical attention. The news of the crime quickly spread across India and the world, bringing back painful reminders of a brutal and fatal 2012 gang rape and highlighting the ongoing problem of tribal councils, vigilante justice and rape in some rural Indian communities.
According to Al Jazeera, such councils are common in rural India, and while they operate outside the law, thus far it appears that the Indian government has had trouble intervening to protect young women and girls in India. While cases like this one attract international attention for their brutality, issues within police forces and government agencies create stumbling blocks when it comes to removing officials who aren’t acting swiftly to condemn such crimes.
Unfortunately, the Western media also tend to paint a picture of a hopelessly corrupt, backwards India, stressing “mud huts” and the caste system heavily to create an image of a country that may be irredeemable, rather than one where social progress is propelling the country forward and many people are working within India to fight the authority of tribal councils and improve rural life for women and girls.
While such crimes are undoubtedly a significant social issue in India, the depiction of India as a country mired in the inability to progress is grossly incorrect; as evidenced by the fact that gang rapes such as these are met by large-scale protests including people of all genders organizing in rural communities and larger cities and towns to speak out about crimes against women.
Photo credit: Christian Haugen.