Village Council in India Accused of Ordering Rape

By Gardiner Harris and Hari Kumar

NEW DELHI — A young woman in West Bengal was gang-raped this week on the order of a village council, to punish her for planning to marry a man from outside the village, according to the Indian police.

Thirteen people have been arrested in the case, including the village chief who both ordered and participated in the rape, said Suraja Pratap Yadav, a police officer in the Birbhum district of West Bengal in eastern India.

The episode began on Monday when Khaliq Sheikh, the man from outside the village, asked the young woman to marry him, and she accepted his proposal, the police said. When Balai Mardi, the chief of the village, heard about it, he quickly sought to block the marriage.

According to local news media accounts, villagers went to the young woman’s house and detained Mr. Sheikh, and the next day, he and the young woman were taken to the village square, tied to separate trees and accused of breaking community rules.

Mr. Mardi ordered the couple to pay fines totaling 27,000 rupees, or about $442, Mr. Yadav said in a telephone interview. Mr. Sheikh paid his portion and was allowed to leave, but when the young woman’s family refused to pay, Mr. Mardi ordered villagers “to enjoy her,” said a police officer who spoke on condition that he not be named.

She was then raped repeatedly in Mr. Mardi’s mud-and-thatch hut, according to local media reports.

Mr. Mardi told the young woman and her family that if they reported the rape to the police, the village elders would burn their house down, Mr. Yadav said. They went to the police anyway on Wednesday, and within hours Mr. Mardi and 12 other suspects were arrested, he said.

The chief of police in the area, Sidh Nath Gupta, said that the 13 suspects were charged with rape, wrongful confinement, verbal threats and assault. The victim has been admitted to a local hospital, where she is in stable condition, Mr. Gupta said.

Sunil Soren, a leader from a nearby village, insisted in a telephone interview that people in the area “respect our women a lot.” But he said that Mr. Sheikh and the young woman were “in an objectionable situation,” and that such incidents “pollute the minds of youngsters.”

“In the excitement, some wrong things happened,” Mr. Soren said.

Village councils are common in rural India. They often enforce strict codes of conduct, and in some cases are deeply involved in deciding who will marry whom. Councils are often worried that marriages to outsiders will dilute communal land claims, among other concerns. Couples who defy the marital codes are sometimes murdered. Genetic researchers have found that India’s population has hundreds of distinct subgroups, in part because village councils have been enforcing marital codes and limiting intermarriage for centuries.

Several widely publicized rape cases over the past year have sparked outrage over sexual violence and violence against women in India, and prompted changes in laws and greater awareness of the problem, although there is little evidence that rape or gang rape occurs more frequently in India than in other countries.

With just 7.5 percent of India’s population, West Bengal in 2012 accounted for nearly 13 percent of reported crimes against women. Whether that demonstrates a higher incidence of such crimes or a greater willingness on the part of local police to take such reports seriously is unknown.

Local politicians sometimes react angrily to the publicity given to rape cases, which they believe reflect badly on their administration. The chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, lashed out at rape victims last year, saying in one case that a victim was lying, even though police found evidence supporting the victim’s account.

The gang rape of a 23-year-old student on a New Delhi bus in December 2012 prompted protests across the country. In response, the government doubled the maximum prison term for rape to 20 years, created special courts to prosecute cases more quickly, and made voyeurism and acid attacks specific crimes under the law. Whether those changes have improved women’s safety in the country is unclear.

 

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