The gangrape may have brought the tribal councils of this West Bengal district to notoriety, but it wasn’t the first sexual abuse on their orders. What is more at play here though is growing outside interference in a region considered a vote bank, writes Madhuparna Das.
On January 29 evening, 900 people of a village in Birbhum district’s Labhpur block gathered near the hut of their headman. The hut, located in a secluded part of the village, was deserted. The meeting was taking place after dusk. The villagers had met to elect a new ‘Majhi Haram’ or headman.
The new headman, 60-year-old Bhujuram Hembram, replaced the old Majhi Haram, Balai Mardi, who was arrested on January 22 following the gangrape of a 20-year-old tribal girl by allegedly 13 people, reportedly on his orders.
In his first decree as a headman, passed that evening, Hembram banned village girls intermingling with non-tribal youths, especially “Bidharmi (or Muslim)”.
The January 29 meeting officially did not take place. Following the January 20 gangrape, that made it to national headlines as another in India’s list of shocking sexual assaults, particularly because of the brazenness of it, superintendents of police were told to prevent tribal courts being held in their areas.
The villagers at that meeting said they had no choice. They had defied Section 144, prohibiting assembly, because a Majhi Haram is their first point of contact in the quick justice system in place in the villages of Bengal’s tribal belt, particularly Birbhum.
“Our community cannot function without a Majhi Haram. We are Santhals and we have our own style of living, we do not want any outside interference. We do not go to the panchayat or to the police station, we go to our village headman, and he resolves our issues,” says Ajit Soren, a 58-year-old member of the village council.
Insisting that “our god is different”, Soren is unapologetic about what allegedly provoked the assault on the tribal girl: that she had “relations” with a Muslim youth of a neighbouring village. “We have strict rules that we do not marry our daughters to Bidharmis. Our daughters should be taught with whom they should mix.” What no one denies though is that the gangrape, bringing the region and its tribal councils much notoriety, was an aberration.
The girl and her friend were tied to trees as a ‘tribal court’ passed a decree against them. The girl was allegedly gangraped as her family could not pay the penalty of Rs 20,000 imposed by the headman.
Experts on Santhals say this kind of an incident in a tribal community is unprecedented. What is clear is that the court that passed the order against the girl was not strictly a ‘tribal court’. Police investigations have revealed that local leaders of the Trinamool Congress were present at the meeting. Sources here say they influenced the tribal youths to commit the crime. Among those arrested are 13 villagers, including the headman and a non-tribal youth who is a local Trinamool leader. There is growing anger in Birbhum about the fact that mainstream political parties seeking to penetrate this region are influencing tribal customs and traditions.
In the past three years, the district where tribals make up 9 per cent of the population has witnessed at least six incidents of girls between the ages of 16 and 20 being subjected to sexual abuse and atrocities by ‘tribal courts’. In almost all the cases, outsider, non-tribal influences were at play, say locals. Under pressure, in most of the cases, the tortured girls did not go to the police.
One of them was an 18-year-old, working as a daily labourer in one of the stone quarries ringing her village, located around 6 km from the border with Jharkhand, in the Mohammad Bazar block of Birbhum. Business was booming, with 500 stone crushers coming up in the area, and in April 2010, the 18-year-old decided to buy a mobile phone with the money that she had earned. This defied a tribal council order against women being seen using mobile phones. A few days later, she was “caught” by villagers showing her new phone to a friend.
The ‘tribal council’ sat down again, this time with people from three villages. As punishment, the two girls were chased, stripped and sexually abused by tribal and non-tribal youths from both their village and outside, in front of everybody present. “They chased us. There was a thorny bush and we could not cross it. They tore our clothes. We were completely naked in front of hundreds. They tortured us like beasts. My parents and brothers tried to protect us, but they were beaten up,” the woman says. As she recounts the attack, she breaks down and, at one time, wails.
She says she wanted to go to the police but couldn’t as the village ostracised her family. A year later, she again joined work in the quarry and recently bought a new mobile phone. “Now I use it as all villagers have mobiles today. The whip is gone. The ban on our family was lifted last year,” she says. Her mother says they can only hope to get her married if some tribal youth approaches them himself asking for her hand. As the girl quietly cries again, the mother adds: “The incident took place as we had no Majhi Haram at the time and outsiders used to rule. We were threatened.”
Her friend also works at the stone mine. She refused to talk about the incident. Unlike the 18-year-old, a minor girl, Sunita Murmu from Rampurhat block in Birbhum, refused to let her assaulters go free. Now 17, she was stripped by 10 youths, including tribal and non-tribal, and made to walk 8 km through the village. Even though the incident took place in May 2010, a month after the 18-year-old and her friend were chased and abused, the minor’s ordeal came to light much later, after clips of her being paraded surfaced. Her father lodged a complaint and she identified six of the 10 tormentors. The girl was sent to a welfare home to ensure her safety.
The district administration later proposed her name for the national bravery award for her courage and cooperation in the investigation. She was awarded by the then president of India Pratibha Patil on January 26, 2011 . “I am now studying and trying for a government job. I want the toughest punishment for those who insult women this way,” she says.
In another incident in 2000, a 16-year-old tribal girl was stripped and her hair chopped in a village of Rampurhat block as she was allegedly found to be involved in a relationship with a non-tribal Bengali youth. A complaint was registered and police arrested two persons, including a tribal youth of the village and a non-tribal Bengali youth who belonged to a local NGO. She works at a nearby stone quarry now.
Interestingly, while several Bengal districts, including West Midnapore, Bankura, Purulia, Burdwan, Malda, Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling, and North and South Dinajpur, have large tribal populations, incidents such as these have been reported mostly from Birbhum. There are also reports of people being made to rub their noses against the ground, forced to lick spit and sometimes facing social boycott by the tribal council. However, monetary compensation as imposed against the gangraped girl is rare. “No headman asks for monetary penalty. They can ask for few kilogrammes of rice, which can be used to prepare country liquor,” says Robin Soren, secretary of the Adivasi Gaonta, an outfit working for tribal welfare.
At a tribal council meeting being held at Abinashpur village in Suri-II Block — also under the radar — Majhi Haram Anil Mardi decries the outside influence, and the charges being flung their way. “We never hold a salishi sabha (kangaroo court), neither does the word morol (it was alleged by the gangrape victim that she was raped after morol ordered tribal men to do so) exist in our system. We hold a council court where villagers come with their problems. All the villagers are called to the meeting. We hear both parties and then ask the villagers for their opinion. The opinion of the majority is accepted and that is passed as the decree. We, the Majhi Harams, never pass a decree. If the issue is not resolved in one meeting, we call a bigger meeting of three villages. If it is not resolved there too, we call a meeting of 10 villages. Majhi Harams of 10 villages remain present as judges,” says Anil Mardi, adding that is not quite unlike the lower courts, high court and Supreme Court system that exists in a formal judicial system.
The tribal council meetings are called “Kulhi durup (people sitting on road)”. To announce a meeting, the tribal council sends out a man appointed by them, called dharua, to roam around in the village with a mango tree branch tied to a bamboo. “This is the symbol of a meeting. We fix a date, which the dharua announces,” says Anil Mardi. There is a separate appointee to deal with marriage-related issues, called ‘Jhak Majhi’. “However, the absolute authority lies with the Majhi Haram,” he adds. Sukumar Hansda, the tribal minister in Mamata Banerjee’s Cabinet, who holds the charge of western region development, including Birbhum, also acknowledges the role played by tribal village councils for years here, and the respect they show towards women. “The panchayat system was also modelled on the tribal social justice system. But now tribal communities are becoming victims of political forces. We are studying the issues in Birbhum.”
Jaya Mitra, an author and a social activist who has worked with tribals, says: “If we study such incidents, we see that in each one of them, there are outsiders involved.” Noting that tribals are known to be much more liberal than general society, she adds as an example: “They do not have the concept of calling a baby without the name of a father illegitimate.” Magsaysay awardee Mahashweta Devi, most of whose literary works are on tribals and their traditions, also finds the gangrape surprising. “The tribals hold their own courts, but they never insult women in these courts. All these incidents are rare and unprecedented. External factors have to be involved.”
Even though there are two tribal organisations in the district holding influence over the community — Adivasi Gaonta and Birbhum Majhi Mandwa — both are inclined towards mainstream parties. They campaign against each other. While the Trinamool Congress is said to provide active support to the Birbhum Majhi Mandwa, the Adivasi Gaonta, which had spearheaded the movement against the stone mines in Birbhum and against “exploitation” of tribals, is said to enjoy the discreet support of the CPM. With Trinamool leaders said to be involved in the gangrape incident, Robin Soren, the Adivasi Gaonta secretary, says: “The tribals never hold a kangaroo court. Neither does the community charge a penalty or insult its own daughters. This is a conspiracy to defame the community and take it backwards.”
Opel Mardi, the chief of the Majhi Mandwa organisation, says: “The community is being misled by some fake tribal organisations. They are being paid by politicians and owners of stone mines, who don’t want the tribals to develop.” Khagen Rajbanshi, the Trinamool unit chief in the gram panchayat area, claims the party is gaining in the area. “This area was earlier ruled by an Adivasi organisation that took all decisions. Even though there was a panchayat, they hardly played any role. Police never came into the village after sunset. The village panchayat was then controlled by the CPM and in the last election in 2013, the CPM won. Of 12 seats, Left parties won six and the Adivasi Gaonta won five, while the Trinamool Congress got one seat. However, the situation has changed now.” Loton Roy, CPM panchayat pradhan, claims their party never interfered in tribal matters. “The community does not like interference.”
Of West Bengal’s 16 Assembly seats reserved for scheduled tribes too, the Left controls the majority (10), followed by three for the Trinamool. If the Trinamool Congress is making inroads, it has been aided by the complete lack of governance here under the long years of Left rule. The village to which the gangraped girl belongs has one tubewell and a well to cater to around 900 people. The nearest government hospital is located at least 50 km away, in Suri.
The Labhpur block has 42 all-tribal villages, making it the block with the maximum tribal population in the state. It has nine all-tribal primary schools, two high schools and one college. According to records of the government-aided Tribal Development Cooperative Society, not more than 10 per cent of the tribal population has studied beyond higher secondary. “The literacy rate is very low. I have visited some tribal villages in Burdwan district, where not a single youth has studied beyond Class VIII. Not more than 25 per cent of our youths pass Class X. Moreover, girls are not encouraged to study. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee distributed cycles among tribal girls of Junglmehal, but our district did not come under that scheme,” says Sujan Soren, former chairman of the Tribal Development Cooperative Society of Labhpur block.
Soren adds that not more than 40 per cent of the total tribal population in Birbhum district has BPL cards while all the tribal families in Junglemahal are registered under the scheme. Sohan Lakra, the leader of the Adivasi Vikash Parishad, sees this as one reason why tribals are so susceptible. “They are innocent and treat the orders of an educated non-tribal man as the order of god. This is the problem. Mainstream political parties treat them as only a vote bank. They bring them to their meetings, to polling booths and to any other political activity. And in exchange, they treat them with hanriya (desi liquor).” Claims Subhas Biswas, a Backward Class Welfare Department officer in the district, “We try our best to provide them developmental schemes. But at times they do not want to avail them. We give pensions to more than 13,000 old tribals in Labhpur block. We provide scholarships to students. But for that the people need to come forward themselves.”
As for the Muslim angle to the gangrape episode, villagers say while there has been Muslim migration to the area, there is no tension as such. Most of the tribal villages are surrounded by Muslim settlements, with the community making up at least 30 per cent of the population in Birbhum. “Muslims are migrating from Jharkhand and Bihar, to work in stone quarries. While some Muslim villages were there earlier, most of them have come up recently,” says Rabin Soren. While Soren claims “these settlements are taking a toll on our daughters”, Birbhum SP Alok Rajoria, brought in when the old SP was removed after the gangrape, says: “There is no such conflict between tribals and Muslims. There can be resentment between them, but it has never taken the shape of an open conflict. The restrictions over marriages are there in every community, but we are trying to curb these kinds of grievances. Even though we cannot take an active part in tribal traditions and tribal meetings, we indirectly try to maintain law and order.”
Interestingly, the story of tribal women in the neighbouring district of West Midnapore, which too has a substantial tribal population, is completely different. It has a woman MLA and almost a dozen panchayat pradhans.