The village elder delivered his judgment shortly before midnight. The woman was deemed to have sinned. She was a Hindu who’d had a relationship with a married Muslim outsider. To restore village honor, he said, she needed to be punished.
The sentence he settled on: rape by her neighbors.
A crowd of 300 people watched the trial on Jan. 20, and at least one captured the proceedings on his mobile phone. On the orders of the headman, the 20-year-old woman was untied from a tree in the remote Indian village, taken to a thatched shed and raped repeatedly over a period of about six hours, according to a police report of the victim’s testimony. Among her alleged attackers: the headman himself.
“These people do not fear the police, they fear their own tribal leaders,” said Ajoy Menon, a police constable in the Birbhum district in West Bengal state, where the rape occurred. “Most of them don’t abide by the same laws you and I do. For many of them, their leaders are the law.”
The latest Indian rape case to reverberate around the world reveals the workings of an informal justice system that sets rules and imposes sanctions for many of the 800 million people living in rural India. In the world’s largest democracy, the village councils rule on issues including marriage, property and women’s attire. Many of them reinforce a religious and caste-based system that helps block India’s most marginalized from escaping illiteracy and a life lived on $2 a day or less.
Police in Birbhum say they also have mobile phone footage of the rape. Three officers stood guard outside the victim’s room at the hospital where she was being treated a week after the assault.
Thirteen men are in custody and have been denied bail. Their lawyer says they will plead not guilty. In the village, six residents denied the woman was raped, though they say she was tried and tied to a tree.
“Our village leader, he’s like a father figure to us,” said Mollika Todo, a female villager whose relative is one of the men arrested for the rape.
A 2011 ruling by the Supreme Court that ordered state governments to prosecute members of village councils who take the law into their own hands hasn’t put an end to this parallel justice system. About 90 percent of rural disputes in India are resolved at the informal level because of the paucity of judges and courts in remote areas, said Kripa Ananthpur, an assistant professor at Chennai-based Madras Institute of Development Studies who researches informal governments.
In parts of India where communities are segregated by caste and religion, people have paid with their lives for ignoring local custom. Those who flout traditional mores barring marriage outside of their community or religion can face social ostracism, including eviction from their village, by order of the councils.
About 1,000 people, mainly women, are murdered in honor killings every year, many ordered by village councils that ruled the victim had brought shame on family or clan, according to the Honour Based Violence Awareness Network, a London-based research organization that fights honor killings around the world. In Birbhum district, at least three women were stripped, beaten and paraded for several miles along a country road on orders of a village council in 2010. Their alleged transgression: having relationships with men from neighboring communities.
Council leaders have issued bans on women wearing jeans and carrying mobile phones in some parts of the country, according to local media reports. In an incident that grabbed headlines nationally, a village chief blamed the consumption of chow mein for the rise in rape cases in Haryana in 2012. He explained it caused hormonal imbalances that led to rape, according to a report in the Times of India.
“Modernity, the perception of western values, it’s encroaching on the villagers who are clutching at their ancient, cultural identity,” said Biplab Mukherjee, a coordinator at the Kolkata-based group Masum, which researches police abuse.
About 125 miles north of Kolkata is Subalpur village, where the rape took place. Accessible only via a narrow, bumpy dirt road, it is home to about 400 people living in a warren of thatched mud-brick homes. Many have an adjoining pen with cows or water buffalo.
Villagers said they were aware the woman was having a relationship with a married Muslim man from another village. She had recently returned from a trip to New Delhi that had changed her, said Sunil Murmur, a man from a neighboring settlement who said he knew the woman.
She came back speaking Hindi, in a region where Bengali is the main dialect, said Murmur. A visit to her hut on Jan. 26 showed Bollywood posters adorning one wall, name-brand creams and imported snacks sitting on a shelf affixed to another wall, and glass bangles hanging from a rod.
“Her family denied the affair, but she continued to misbehave,” said Murmur. “So the village chief decided she would be punished.”
Villagers in Subalpur agreed on the events that led up to the punishment. After being dragged out of her hut and tried in a dusty 40-square-foot clearing in the center of the village, the woman and the man with whom she had had the relationship were fined a total of 50,000 rupees ($800) by the local council.
The woman’s family was too poor to pay her share of the fine. It was reduced to 2,000 rupees, but they were still unable to pay. The village head then gave the order to “Go have fun with her,” according to the police report obtained by Bloomberg News.
The man’s family paid the fine and he fled the area. His wife, who lives in a nearby village, said she hasn’t seen him since.
It took the woman almost two days to escape from her village after she was raped, according to the police report. Neighbors prevented her from leaving and allegedly threatened to burn down the family home if they spoke to the district authorities. After reaching a police station, she was sent to a hospital about an hour’s drive from her village.
Amal Karmar, a doctor who treated the victim and who helps manage the hospital, said in a Jan. 25 interview that her injuries clearly indicated she’d been raped by multiple people. The woman was in stable condition, he said.
The hospital has barred public entry to the gynecological ward where the victim is being treated. Two of her brothers are in police custody for their own safety, according to two police officers who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the case. Requests to interview the family of the victim were denied by the hospital and police.
Indian law prohibits identification of a rape victim. Bloomberg News has not used the victim’s name nor that of the man with whom she had a relationship and his wife.
In nearby villages, residents condemned the rape. “What the leader has ordered is unacceptable,” said S.K. Chowdhury, 52, a shopkeeper in Labhpur village, about a 25-minute drive from Subalpur. “There’s nothing wrong with village councils, but there is something wrong when one person uses his power to do something as terrible as this.”
Sheikh Jogral, who owns a fish shop in Chowhatta village, where the Muslim man lived, said it’s better to take disputes to local leaders. Elected politicians and police don’t understand the village way of life and may be corrupt, while local councils offer swift justice, he said.
“Normally we prefer to settle things among ourselves, among our own people,” said Jogral. “We don’t have any connection to the local government, ministers or police if we can avoid it.”
Village leadership is usually passed on from father to son and tends to remain within the family until there are no more male offspring, said Ananthpur, the Madras institute assistant professor. When that happens, the village meets to appoint a new leader, who will probably come from the dominant caste and have some education, she said.
“Some have now included women in the councils while others have appointed lawyers as their village leaders,” said Ananthpur. “This particular example is horrendous. I’ve never seen anything this bad.”
Tupa Baski, who lives in Chowhatta, inherited his headman mantle. “Whenever there is a problem we meet as a village to solve it,” said Baski, 36, wearing a purple polo shirt with a torn collar. The most recent gathering was to deal with a “husband and wife conflict,” he said, as villagers crowded around in the street to hear him.
Phiroj Kumar Pal, a public prosecutor in the district, said all 13 men arrested for the rape have confessed to the crime in writing. The Supreme Court in New Delhi, the country’s highest court, on Jan. 24 ordered a local judge to investigate the case and report back within a week.
Dilip Ghosh, the lawyer for the accused, said his clients admit to tying the couple to a tree and asking them for money, but not to sexual assault. Ghosh, 52, who has a neatly trimmed moustache and thick red-framed glasses, said he wasn’t aware of any written confessions.
“The people of the village say the rape didn’t happen,” he said in an interview at the courthouse where the men had been denied bail three days earlier. “There were so many people there that evening that they can’t all be lying.”
Kazi Mahammad Hossain, a sub-inspector at the Labhpur police department where the victim filed her complaint, said he has “no doubt” that she was raped repeatedly. “When she came in, she was in very bad condition,” he said. “She could barely walk.”
The mobile phone footage of the village council ruling and the rape will be used to prosecute the men, according to the two police officers who spoke anonymously.
Six miles from Subalpur, across a golden carpet of wheat and mustard fields, is another woman whose life was irrevocably changed by the events on the night of Jan. 20. The wife of the man accused of having the affair sat on the floor of one of the mud shacks lining the dirt lanes of Chowhatta, leaving just enough space for a car to squeeze through.
Propped up by a neighbor, the woman wailed for several minutes before composing herself enough to tell her story. The first time she heard about the affair was when men from the neighboring village arrived asking for 27,000 rupees to free her husband. To pay the fine, she had to sell her most prized possession and one that held the key to her 16-year-old daughter’s future: a gold necklace intended for her dowry.
“I have now lost my husband, my jewelry and any chances of getting my daughter married,” said the 35-year-old woman, dressed in a blue sari.
On the night of Jan. 22, a group of policemen advanced down a path toward Subalpur to arrest the suspects in the rape, according to the two police officers. As they approached the village, arrows flew out of the darkness, hitting one policeman in the shoulder, they said.
After establishing that no one was seriously hurt, the officers called for reinforcements and made a second push toward the village. This time they were blocked by a makeshift barrier comprised of cattle carts, trees and bamboo sticks. Having dismantled the barrier, they moved toward the village, only to be hit by a barrage of bricks.
The suspects were finally arrested and taken to the local police lock-up after the villagers were overwhelmed by sheer force of numbers. But they still weren’t done: Two trucks filled with men from Subalpur pulled up outside the police station and demanded that the suspects be released. The threat only diminished after police called officials from the All India Trinamool Congress party, which rules West Bengal, and asked them to intervene.
“We don’t allow Muslim men to enter our village,” said Todo, whose relative was arrested for participating in the rape. “That’s just the way it’s always been. It’s just not done.”