Alleged Gang Rape In India Draws Spotlight On Village Justice

Allegations that a young woman in India was gang-raped on the orders of an informal "Village Council" have sparked outrage across India. The woman was apparently punished for having relations with a man from outside her community. Critics have called for a crackdown on village councils, saying that they are based in a traditional and outdated concept of morality and that they undermine India's established law.

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In India, allegations of another gang-raped of a young woman last week have trained a spotlight on tribal justice. The rape allegedly took place as a punishment. The woman was accused of having relations with a man from another community. Informal village councils in India can impose fines, ostracism, sexual humiliation and even death. Critics liken them to kangaroo courts, and say this traditional system undermines India's current law.

From West Bengal, NPR's Julie McCarthy has more.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Across India Sunday, Republic Day commemorating the constitution drew people to parades. Delhis bristled with armaments.

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MCCARTHY: And in the West Bengal town of Suri, a six-hour drive north of Kolkata - formerly, Calcutta - residents strained for a glimpse of drill teams and the city's water cannon.

Across town, beneath the hospital room of the young woman at the center of India's latest alleged gang-rape, students staged a silent parade. Removing the tape covering his mouth, 20-year-old Subhadeep Mondal says incidents of rape are rising in West Bengal and that it's a social massacre.

Social massacre.

SUBHADEEP MONDAL: Yeah, because when we open the newspaper in the morning, then we see at least three or four cases per day. (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: Slipping into Bengali, he says the increase of such crime makes a mockery of Republic Day. Since the fatal gang rape of a student in Delhi, in December 2012, sexual crime is at the center of debate in the world's largest democracy. But social attitudes, especially in rural India, remain widely out of sync with those changes.

The woman recovering in the hospital filed a police complaint alleging that at least 12 men gang-raped her in her village of Subalpur one week ago. She said the justice council there tied her up along with a married Muslim man she had been seeing, tried them, and fined them about $425 each. He paid the fine; she was unable to pay.

A look around her meager living quarters - a small hut - makes it doubtful she could afford even the smallest fee. The walls are adorned with film stars and small paintings of Hindu gods. But again, nothing extravagant here. This is a very poor village and, as she said in her complaint to the police, she was a very poor woman.

Her complaint alleges that because she could not afford the fine, the head man of the council told the 12 others to, quote, "Have fun. Do whatever you want to do with her." After that, she says, "they took me to a shed beside the head man's kitchen, and the 12 men started raping me one after the other." Thirteen men have been arrested on the basis of the victim's statement.

The infuriated village says all of the accused have been framed. One of the few villagers willing to talk denies that the local council ordered anyone raped. Sunil Mur-mu says the victim fabricated the story because she'd been caught in a compromising position. The victim, who cannot be named under Indian law, had worked in Delhi for several years, the first female in her village to do so. Mur-mu says her behavior threatens the community.

SUNIL MUR-MU: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: Because, he says, we don't know what the women are up to while they're gone.

As for the victim who brought a man from the outside into our village, he says, she gave us a bad name. If women get married or start having affairs outside, that erodes our culture and our tribal identity, says the village life insurance agent.

Mur-mu's three-piece, fraying suit seems out of place among the rows of mud huts and golden fields of mustard. As competing narratives emerged over what happened in this village, one official source downplayed some of the more sensational aspects of the victim's complaint. The two people who could best clarify events are the two who are not available. The victim and her mother are prevented from talking to the media, by orders of the hospital.

But Superintendent Dr. Asit Kumar Biswas says the young woman is improving and suffering more mental anguish than physical pain. The same could be said of the wife of the Muslim man the victim wanted to marry. She leans her slight frame against the doorway of her home, and says she is horrified by the reports of the rape. It should never happen to anyone, she says.

As for her husband, she will take him back. But there is a sad bitterness. What else can I do? she asks. When the Subalpur village council took her husband prisoner last week, she was forced to sell her daughter's jewelry to secure his release.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: We are poor people, she says. It's terrible that we had to pay this amount to the village.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Kolkata.

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