The tin-roofed, mud-walled house at the entrance of the predominantly Santhal tribal village at Subalpur in India’s West Bengal state looks deserted.
The doors are open. Utensils and clothes lie scattered around the open veranda. Those who lived there have left in a hurry.
This is the house where on January 21, neighbours had spotted a 20-year-old female wage labourer from their Santhal tribe together with her lover, a married Muslim mason, from a nearby village.
Furious, they accused the woman of being in an illicit relationship with the man. They dragged the couple to a makeshift tribunal in the middle of their village, calling on the male elders to punish them.
Two days later, news broke that the young Santhal woman had been raped by up to a dozen men as punishment, on the orders of the tribal headman of the village. The rape was ordered because her family had been unable to pay a fine of Rs 25,000 ($400) for her perceived misdemeanor.
"Ten or twelve men, my neighbours, took turns raping me throughout the night. Some were my father’s age," the woman told local TV channels.
But the villagers of Subalpur, 180km northwest of the provincial capital Kolkata, claim the woman told a lie.
"When the villagers caught the woman in a compromising position with her non-Santhal lover, she said she would marry him. She was defying our tribal custom. But after they pledged in the Santhal tribunal that they would not see each other in future, both were released," Sunil Mardi, 61, a Santhal subsistence farmer in Subalpur, told Al Jazeera.
"The story of rape is totally false," Mardi insisted.
Tests confirm rape
However, police officers told local media that the medical and forensic reports confirmed that the woman had indeed been raped and that investigations would soon confirm how many people had been involved.
Some tribal community leaders and a human rights activist told Al Jazeera that a letter circulating in the region seemed to implicate the leadership of a political party, rather than a genuine council of tribal elders, in the crime.
As the news spread that a Santhal salishi sabha (meaning ‘grievance committee’ in the Bengali language) had ordered the gang-rape, similar committees in the tribal as well as non-tribal communities in the region came under criticism.
West Bengal governor M K Narayanan said that the rapists deserved corporal punishment, and that governments should not allow any kangaroo courts in the country.
"There is only one law, and one justice," he said.
|West Bengal governor M K Narayanan said that governments should not allow any kangaroo courts or makeshift tribunals in the country [Shaikh Azizur Rahman]
"In a democratic country, based upon the rule of law, no vigilantism can be permitted," said federal Information Minister Manish Tewari.
In parts of northern India, similar clan-based traditional courts called khaap panchayats are notorious for the practice of violent retributive justice. These illegal courts have sparked outrage for banning young women from wearing western clothing and using mobile phones, for supporting the archaic practice of child marriage and, most cruel of all, for ordering the lynching of lovers or married couples in so-called “honour killings”.
The other widely practiced illegal or kangaroo courts are those run by armed Maoists in India’s rural hinterland. Here, in the “people’s courts”, instance justice is handed down mainly to police informers. Punishments can range from cutting off the limbs of informants to ordering their deaths.
But unlike these kangaroo courts, traditional Santhal salishi sabhas have until now a reputation for being more progressive. They are believed to settle community disputes peacefully.
"If a member of a tribe marries outside the community, a tribal court usually advises other members to boycott him or her socially. Sometimes grains, and occasionally a small amount of money, are demanded as fine," Gladson Dungdung, general secretary of the Jharkhand Human Rights Movement, in neighbouring tribal-dominated Jharkhand state told Al Jazeera.
"Violent punishment like physical torture or rape is completely untraditional in such a situation."
Not a traditional sabha
Santhal community leaders in West Bengal insist that it was not a traditional Santhal sabha that conducted the "trial" in Subalpur.
"If it was a Santhal tribal court, only Santhal people should have been present at the village trial. But it is clear from the document prepared at the end of the trial that a non-Santhal local political leader took the lead role," said Rabin Soren, secretary of the local Santhal organisation 'Adibasi Gaonta' in the district headquarters Birbhum.
"It was not a traditional tribal village trial at all. Many outsiders are unfairly tainting our Santhal society in this case," he said.
On February 2, more than 20 Santhal social organisations have scheduled a public rally in Birbhum to stress that no tribal body was involved with the Subalpur gang-rape.
|Copy of the purported "settlement letter" after the trial in Subalpur [Shaikh Azizur Rahman]
Journalists, including this correspondent, have been given photocopies of a letter purportedly signed by a local panchayat (elected village body) leader who belongs to West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) party.
The letter outlines the January 21 settlement between the family of the gang-rape victim’s Muslim lover and the Subalpur villagers.
Kunal Deb, a researcher and rights activist who works among Santhals in Birbhum district, said that he too had seen a photocopy of what he called the "settlement letter", and alleged the "trial" was led by local TMC leaders.
"The letter shows that a non-Santhal Muslim man was tried in the court. A traditional Santhal court is held only among Santhals," he said.
"The letter also tells us that only two persons - the political party leader and another outsider - represented the villagers of Subalpur in the trial," Deb added.
"It is clear that it was a salishi sabha under the control of the mostly non-tribal TMC leaders. Because it is a predominantly Santhal village, Santhals were indeed present. But, in no way was it a traditional Santhal trial."
Ruling party accused
Police have arrested all 13 accused, including Balai Mardi, the tribal headman of Subalpur. Interestingly, the name of Ajay Mondal, the leader of the political party, is missing from the list of accused.
Despite many attempts, Mondal could not be reached. Senior TMC leader and the state’s Women and Child Welfare Minister Shashi Panja said that he would not be spared if his involvement was proved in the case.
"Be it any member of any party...we would view an offender as an offender. If he is an offender, he will not be viewed differently by our party. But I am not confirming that he was present there," Panja said.
Mixing up revenge and deep-seated bias carried over from mainstream Hindu society is a double-edged sword.
However, many believe that the Subalpur rape victim would be denied justice if Mondal is kept out of the list of accused.
"We know very well that it was Mondal who stopped the villagers from taking the woman and her alleged lover to the police after they had been found in a compromising position and that he took the lead in holding the trial. Yet, the TMC is shielding him to save the image of the ruling party," Deb alleged.
"It shows how the ruling parties have usurped the salishi sabhas in the state," he added.
North Eastern Hill University professor and social activist Prasenjit Biswas pointed out that the practice of politicisation of village sabhas in West Bengal began decades ago when the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was in power in the state.
"The convivial character of salishi sabha got distorted during the days of the Left in West Bengal," Professor Biswas told Al Jazeera.
"Most salishi sabhas cannot work without the presence of the bosses of the TMC because it is now the most powerful party in the state."
"Justice in a Santhal sense is free from revenge. Mixing up revenge and deep-seated bias carried over from mainstream Hindu society is a double-edged sword. It penalised a Santhal woman for what is viewed as 'pollution' in an orthodox Hindu sense," he said.