Schoolchildren in Subalpur, India, Jan. 24, 2014.
Credit: Dibyangshu Sarkar

SUBALPUR, India — Villagers here are used to being ignored. By authorities. By everyone.

“The last time I saw a policeman was six months ago for the elections,” said a villager named Tunu Mandi. And before that? “I never saw one in the village.”

These days, police outnumber villagers. They tread the mud track through the West Bengal village wearing combat fatigues and holding semi-automatic rifles.

They have come to investigate an allegation that the village headman, known as the "morol," ordered the gang rape of a 20-year-old woman for having a love affair with the wrong man. 

West Bengal’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee and India’s supreme court have turned their full attention to the affairs of Subalpur.

Indians had hoped nothing could match the dreadful rape of a 23-year-old woman on a bus in Delhi in 2012. She died of internal injuries inflicted by her attackers.

Yet the idea that the village elders could hold a meeting — known locally as a "salisha sabha" but described in other parts of India as a "khap panchayat" — and order a rape has horrified India.

How could any authority figure think gang rape is a suitable punishment for anything?

No one in the village is prepared to answer that question.

Many of the men have gone elsewhere while police investigate. Of the few who remain, most refuse to acknowledge the presence of journalists, let alone address what happened on Jan. 20.

But the villagers who do speak agree how it began.

They describe the 20-year-old woman in question. She grew up in Subalpur, a village of about 400 people from the Santhal tribe, which is designated as a "scheduled tribe" whose culture is protected under the Indian constitution.

Electricity arrived at the village just a few years ago. Women use a green-tinged pond to scrub their cooking pots with straw.

The young woman worked as a helper to a Muslim mason, Sheikh Khalek, who lives with his wife and two children in another village, a half-hour bicycle ride away.

Most villagers have never traveled beyond Suri, a town about 20 km away, but three or four years ago the 20-year-old decided she wanted to go to Delhi.

She worked there as a maid, making more money than most of her old neighbors would see in a decade. But she soon became homesick and returned to live with her parents and brother.

Delhi had changed the young woman, according to a villager named Mandu Kisku. The young woman now wore jeans — a sign of lax morals — and her manners, Kisku said, were “very bad.”

The young woman went back to working for Khalek, and lived next door to her parents in a single-room mud-brick house, thatched with palm leaves.

At 7 p.m. on Jan. 20, some villagers found her at home with Khalek.

It’s unclear whether the villagers were more upset about the fact that she was unmarried, or about the idea that she was carrying on with a Muslim.

“The Muslim came to our village and was sitting with that girl in her house,” Kisku told GlobalPost. “We caught them red-handed then we tied them up to the tree.”

Khalek and the young woman were forced out of her house and dragged down the road to the center of the village, at the house of the morol, with its corrugated iron roof.

Next to the house stands a tall palm tree, its trunk slapped with cowpats left to dry in the sunshine, to be used as fire fuel. The couple were tied to the tree while the morol and the other elders decided their fate.

The morol, Balai Murdy, who was elected by popular acclaim, would sit near the palm tree every evening. Villagers would approach him to resolve their problems.

“He would deal with things like land disputes, domestic violence, an argument about who would water the farm,” Mandi said, through a translator. “The morol listens to both the parties and he decides what needs to be done. Sometimes he solves the problem, sometimes he decides a punishment, like a 100 rupee fine.”

He usually has an audience of a dozen or so people. That night, around 500 people had gathered, some of them from neighboring villages who had heard the commotion.

The morol decided that both Khalek and the young woman should pay a fine of 25,000 rupees ($400).

At this point, villagers' stories diverge. The young woman told reporters that after her family said they could not pay, she was dragged into a shack and raped by about a dozen men.

“The morol ordered that I be enjoyed by the men of the village,” she said. “Following his orders, at least 10-12 people, including [some] members of a single family, continuously raped me. I lost count of how many times I was raped.”

On Saturday, as police began a forensic examination of the shack, a pair of jeans hung with other clothes from the wall. Some reports say doctors have found "clinical evidence" showing that rape took place.

When GlobalPost contacted Asit Biswas, the medical superintendent at Suri hospital where the woman was treated, he refused to comment.

The 13 men arrested by police two days after the incident deny the allegations.

According to Dilip Ghosh, the lawyer representing the accused, the rape allegation is a “fabrication.”

“The whole night, 100 to 150 people were present,” he told GlobalPost. “The next day, Jan. 21, at about 10:30 a.m., they fined them 25,000 rupees. Khalek’s relatives came there and gave them 25,000 rupees in cash.”

Khalek’s wife, Hasiba Bibi, 34, had sold some gold earrings and a gold necklace that had been given to their 15-year-old daughter as an engagement gift, according to her neighbors. She went to Subalpur to pay to free her husband.

Hasiba was being comforted by several relatives when GlobalPost approached her Saturday.

“She is crying all the time,” said her neighbor Salim. “She is lying down. We don’t know where Khalek is. It is a very unfortunate incident. First time anything like this happens in the whole of India.”

Except it’s not.

Last year, a 24-year-old woman was gang raped in the village of Kamheda in Uttar Pradesh, reportedly on the orders of village leaders. Her brother had eloped with another girl from the village, and the aggrieved family were given permission by the village elders to rape the woman — and then marry her.

In 2009, a woman said she was punished by gang rape after her husband accused her of having an affair. The woman, from the village of Moyada in Ajmer, Rajasthan, claimed she was stripped, tied to a tree and had chilli powder thrown in her eyes on the orders of a village court. Three men were arrested but the outcome of the case has not been reported.

Village elders have handed down other decisions which seem extraordinary. The family of a 6-year-old girl in a Rajasthan village were told to marry her to the 8-year-old son of a man who had raped her. The family of an 11-year-old girl were told not to report her rape to police, and offered medical compensation of 1,500 rupees ($25).

Khap panchayats feel able to issue edicts on whether or not girls are allowed to wear jeans, or use mobile phones, listen to raucous music or perform "vulgar" dances.

Some village elders have even called for couples who marry within the same sub-caste, or "gotra," to be hunted down and killed. One of the most notorious of these so-called honor killings came in 2007, when a couple were kidnapped and killed for marrying within the same gotra.

Unusually, the village elders who ordered the killing were arrested and convicted of murder. Caste leaders across the state of Haryana where the murder took place were united — this was an outrageous slur on the good men of the panchayat.

The villages are struggling to adapt to the rapid changes coming from urban India, according to Professor Rani Mullen of the College of William and Mary, who has done extensive research on village governance.

“It goes back to a very socially conservative, patriarchal society with certain norms of behavior,” she told GlobalPost. “They are confronted by a societal change that is happening within their generation.”

Western societies have had hundreds of years to adapt to technological changes, she said. “It’s opening up a whole new domain of freedom for women. Elder men are keen to maintain the power they hold.”

A common link in the extreme cases seems to be the absence of the state, Mullen said.

“These communities are neglected. When you look at how tribal communities across India have fared, things have not improved for them very much.” Access to electricity, to the police and to basic government services is limited.

In other parts of India, the neglect is political. In Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, the khap panchayats are often from communities which can deliver large numbers of votes for politicians. Interfering would cost votes.

That’s pretty clear in Subalpur, where the villagers seem to prefer the state’s neglect to the sudden interest in their affairs.

“People don’t want to go to the police,” said Tunu Mandi. “If you go to the police, things get expensive. We can’t afford them. Why would we need police? There are no robberies or thefts. We have nothing to steal.” 

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