Several atrocious gang rapes have been reported in India over the past year or so, and the one this week in West Bengal has a particularly sinister twist.
An all-male village tribunal was allegedly upset that a 20-year-old tribal woman had fallen in love with a man outside the community and ordered that she be gang raped as punishment.
The young woman is being treated in a hospital after telling authorities that she was sexually assaulted by 12 men.
According to police, when her “unauthorized” relationship was discovered, the village council first imposed a fine on the young woman equivalent to hundreds of dollars.
But her family said they were too poor to pay, and the council in the village of Subalpur, 110 miles north of Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, ordered her to be sexually assaulted.
“Go enjoy the girl and have fun,” the head of the tribunal told villagers, according to the complaint filed by the woman’s family.
The chief of the tribunal, identified as Balai Mardi in news reports, was arrested along with 12 other men. They appeared in court on Thursday.
“The crime was committed by our own people [who] tortured my daughter and dumped her at home late at night,” the victim’s mother said. The victim told reporters that her neighbors were among those who brutalized her.
In 2010, village elders in the same area ordered a young woman to strip naked and walk before large crowds for the crime of having “close relations” with a man from a different caste.
Clan-based village councils, commonly known as khap panchayats, generally consist of powerful elements of the dominant caste who wish to be seen as guardians of the public morality. While not legally binding, their decisions do wield influence over life in large swathes of rural India.
India’s Supreme Court has said the village councils “often decree or encourage honor killings or other atrocities … [of] boys and girls of different castes and religion, who wish to get married.”
The court ruled in 2011 that “this is wholly illegal and has to be ruthlessly stamped out.”
Despite strengthened rape laws, many women across India still live in fear of being sexually attacked.
Last week a Danish tourist was gang raped near a busy train station in central New Delhi, deepening anxieties that the country’s capital is not safe for women.
And in October, a 16-year-old girl was gang raped twice by the same group of men in a suburb of Kolkata. She was attacked the second time as she returned home after lodging a police complaint about the first assault. She died of burn injuries in December. Some reports suggest suicide, others murder. Her death prompted furious street protests.
Now there is a rising chorus for the harshest punishment possible against the men who allegedly raped the 20-year-old tribal woman for having a relationship with the “wrong” man.