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Under fire

Srinivas MazumdaruJanuary 28, 2014

Reports of the gang rape of a tribal woman in India on the orders of village elders has drawn attention to the often controversial role played by unelected caste-based village councils in the nation's hinterland.

Indien gang rape - Suspects in a gang-rape case are led by police to a district courthouse in Birdhum district near the village of Subalpur, some 240 kilometres (149 miles) west of Kolkata, on January 23, 2014. (Photo: AFP/Getty)
Image: STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images

Subalpur is a village located about 180 kilometers north of Kolkata, the capital city of the Indian state of West Bengal. This tiny and remote village was the scene of an alleged horrific attack on a 20-year-old woman marking the latest in a string of high-profile rape cases in India that have sparked widespread outrage and made headlines across the world.

According to a complaint filed with the police, a young woman from the Santhal tribe was sexually assaulted on January 20 by a dozen men on the orders of the local village council. Her alleged crime: she entered into a relationship with a man from a different community and religion.

"The morol (village headman) ordered that I be 'enjoyed' by the men of the village. Following his orders, between 10 to 12 people, including (some) members of a single family, continuously raped me. I lost count of how many times I was raped," the victim told Indian news agency IANS.

A village in the Indian state of West Bengal (Photo: DW)
Councils in Indian villages such as this one enjoy social sanction and political patronageImage: DW

Police have so far arrested 13 suspects (main picture) in connection with the case. The Supreme Court described the incident as "disturbing" and ordered an investigation into the alleged assault.

The issue of sexual violence in India has received widespread attention since the fatal gang rape of a young medical student on a bus in the capital New Delhi in December 2012. The brutal crime highlighted the issue of women's safety in the South Asian nation and prompted changes to the country's laws governing sexual crimes.

The recent episode in West Bengal has also put the focus on the role of informal village councils, a common feature reflecting the conflict between ancient feudal traditions and modern values in India.

These unelected bodies, known as "khap panchayats" in northern India, are usually comprised of people at the top of the local hierarchy. They are often accused of setting up 'kangaroo courts' to settle local disputes and sanction members of the community for flouting traditions.

A clash of values

In recent years, these village elders have issued diktats to enforce strict social norms and customs. They have forbidden love marriages, imposed dress codes on women and banned them from using cell phones, arguing that these restrictions would help uphold moral values in the community and protect local culture by preventing the intermingling of boys and girls.

NGO's and women's rights activists have long criticized these caste-based councils, comparing them to practices employed by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Ranjana Kumari, director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Social Research (CSR), explains these local councils are remnants of the older, feudal social system that was supposed to have been replaced with the democratic system. However, "this hasn't happened and the influence local councils exert over their communities is immense even today," Kumari told DW.

These bodies, which usually thrive in areas where law enforcement is limited or completely non-existent, are known for ruthlessly administering their own laws. They often have a free hand in deciding the fate of young couples who dare to transgress societal boundaries, particularly in deeply conservative and patriarchal regions of the country.

Anyone who breaks these rules is subjected to social ostracism or even harsher punishments. The assault on the young tribal woman is just the latest example of the extent to which these councils are willing to go to maintain a tight grip over their communities.

'No legal basis'

"Informal village courts, run by local male elders, are frequently responsible for dealing inhumanely with 'social violations' such as marriage without their consent," said rights activist Kumari. The expert argues such 'courts' also promote so-called honor killings by encouraging relatives to take the law into their own hands.

Indira Jaising, a senior lawyer in the Indian Supreme Court, explains that the councils have no legal basis and their existence seems mainly to enforce caste divisions and prevent inter-caste marriages. "Marrying outside the caste or outside a defined community invites severe violence and retribution," the legal expert told DW.

According to the United Nations, around 5,000 honor killings are reported every year across the world and cases in India alone account for a fifth of them. The majority of these killings are said to take place in regions where land ownership and caste play a dominant role in people's lives.

Political ties

The village councils also maintain ties with political parties. "Politicians rarely admit to these alliances, but they get into implicit agreements with such bodies that secure power for the council and votes for the political party," said Kumari, adding that, in some cases, state governments express no concern about the rulings of these councils.

An Indian girl holds a candle during a candlelight vigil to seek capital punishment for rapists in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012. (Photo:AP/dapd)
The issue of sexual violence in India has made headlines across the worldImage: AP

Although the government reacted quickly to the horrific gang rape by arresting all the accused, activists are convinced that the incident is a symptom of a problem that will not be solved either by arrests or harsher prison sentences.

"The crime is an example of the terrible power that local councils enjoy in rural India and as long as they remain in the position of prominence they currently enjoy, crimes like this will continue unabated," said Kumari.