SURI: Cops in Bengal’s Birbhum district on Thursday arrested 14 men, including a village headman who had ordered the gang-rape of a 20-year-old tribal woman for alleged sexual relations with a man from outside her community. As tempers flared across the state and another anti-Mamata Banerjee wave over rising gender crime swelled, the chief minister replaced the district police chief C Sudhakar with Darjeeling SP S N Gupta.
Even as the administration claimed it had acted promptly, more gruesome details emerged. Villagers told TOI on Thursday that after the kangaroo court ordered her to be sexually savaged, the woman was placed on a raised bamboo platform so that the gang-rape was viewed by the entire village, children included.
“If the family does not pay up, go and enjoy yourselves,” is what headman and now prime accused Boloi Murdy allegedly told the men.
The woman’s family alleged she and her lover, a man from a nearby village, were tied up in Murdy’s courtyard, where a kangaroo court was held and handed down the punishment — a Rs 50,000 fine for the man and gang rape for the woman. Some villagers told TOI that the woman’s cries rent the air all night but no one stepped forward to help her. Even her family, who lives 50 metres away, could not rescue her.
Doctors attending to the critically injured woman said on Thursday they had “clinical evidence” of penetration by several men. The report has been sent to police, said Birbhum medical chief Dr Asit Biswas.
The woman’s family was not given even a night’s time to arrange for the Rs 50,000. Once the headman ordered rape, it was a free for all. “Among those who raped her were teenagers and some old enough to be her father,” said a villager, who was willing to depose to escape arrest. “Almost the entire village — including children — had joined the kangaroo court. All of them hailed it as the correct move,” he said.
The village, 60km from Shantiniketan, the cultural and academic hub created by Rabindranath Tagore, is populated by adivasis and has no electricity or school. The administration has always been wary of interfering with tribal traditions, leaving the adivasis to live by their own laws. It saw a horrific humiliation of a teenage girl in 2010 for having an affair outside the tribe. She was paraded naked through four villages and anyone was free to grope her. Although it triggered outrage across the country, the Bengal government wasn’t quite proactive. All the accused are out on bail.
Even on Thursday, a day after the gang-rape by up to 13 people, the village didn’t show any hint of repentance. The women, in fact, barracked police, insisting the men had done nothing wrong and that the woman had to be punished. The women tried to stop police from arresting the accused and additional SP Prasanta Kumar Chowdhury had to rush in reinforcements. Journalists were barricaded until Santhal outfits intervened.
No less shocking is the attitude of the administration. Police didn’t seek custody of the accused—something unprecedented in gang-rape cases. The public prosecutor didn’t even turn up in court, apparently because it was a holiday. “We have arrested all the accused in quick time,” said Sudhakar by way of an explanation. Despite the prosecutor being missing, the court sent the accused to police custody for 14 days.
No government official—from the BDO to the district magistrate—bothered to meet the survivor’s family or visit the scene of crime. Armed policemen milled about the village and some were seen cordoning off the shack in which the rape platform stood, barely 20 feet from the hut of Murdy, the headman.
The villagers threatened to ostracize the woman’s family for cooperating with the authorities. “We will never allow the woman and her family to return,” cried out villagers. They accused the woman of framing the accused because she was ordered to leave the village if she continued her affair.
“We know that she lived elsewhere with that mason. She made a lot of money. How can we allow the family back? Nothing happened. She made false allegations against our family members because we opposed her illicit relationship,” said Panmuni Tudu, a villager.
Bhaju Hembram, who was the headman a few years ago, told TOI that he knew what was going on but since he had “lost his voice” he left without any protest. “What can I do? Now Balai is recognized as the headman,” he said. He acknowledged his son witnessed the gang-rape but he, too, refused to say anything.
At Mamata’s behest, Trinamool Congress leader Mukul Roy made a formal statement, saying: “The government is firm and will take strictest action against the culprits. It is a social malaise and we shall combat it politically, socially and administratively.”