Indian police said Thursday they have arrested 13 people after a 20-year-old village woman was allegedly gang-raped on orders from tribal elders who objected to her relationship with a man.
The attack again highlighted India’s dismal record on preventing sexual violence, after the fatal gang-rape of a student in New Delhi in December 2012 sparked protests and unleashed seething public anger.
Politicians denounced the latest attack as “outrageous”, while women’s groups said it showed how little things have changed for women since 2012 in a deeply patriarchal nation.
The incident took place Tuesday in a remote village in West Bengal state, where the unmarried woman from the Santhal tribal group was suspected of a relationship with a Muslim man from another village.
The elders, who comprise the informal village council, initially fined her family 25,000 rupees (400 dollars) but they were too poor to pay, district police superintendent C. Sudhakar told AFP.
“The girl was gang-raped for having an affair with a youth of another community and failing to pay the fine which was imposed by the village council,” he said.
“All 13 men, including the chief of the village council, who were named in the complaint before the police, were arrested,” Sudhakar said.
The woman, her head wrapped in a scarf, confirmed the attack when confronted by television crews, saying softly: “They raped me … all of them were my father’s age.”
Tribal or caste-based village councils composed of male elders exert enormous influence over rural life, particularly in northern India. They often issuing diktats and punishments for moral and other perceived offences.
The incident echoes a brutal attack on a woman in neighbouring Pakistan in 2002 on the orders of a village council, to avenge her 12-year-old brother’s alleged impropriety with a woman from a rival clan.
This week’s incident happened in the village of Subalpur, 240 kilometres (149 miles) west of the state capital Kolkata, after the couple were found together.
“The head of the village council held an urgent meeting in the village square on Tuesday when the girl and her lover were called,” Sudhakar said.
“The girl and her lover were tied to two separate trees and fined 25,000 rupees each for having an affair,” he said.
“As the parents of the girl, who were also present at the meeting, expressed their inability to pay the fine, the head of the village council ordered that she should be raped by the villagers as punishment.”
The man was freed after he agreed to pay the fine within a week, but the woman was taken to a shed where the attack was carried out, he said.
The woman, who was recovering in a local hospital in Birbhum district, identified to police all 13 attackers. They were all denied bail on Thursday after appearing in court in the nearby town of Bolpur.
Lawmakers from all sides of politics branded the incident “inhuman and completely outrageous,” while some called for the men to be swiftly prosecuted and sentenced to death.
“In a democratic country, based upon the rule of law, no vigilantism can be permitted,” Information Minister Manish Tewari told reporters.
But the incident shows the level of control that unelected male councils, known as “khap panchayats”, still have over women in India’s deeply patriarchal society, women’s groups said.
“This West Bengal case shows the yawning gap between our constitution and our society,” Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, told AFP.
“It is not only in remote rural areas, such mentality exists in metros like Delhi. The seeds are embedded deeply in our society and our caste.”
In the same district four years ago, a teenage girl from a local tribe was paraded naked through the streets for the same reason, according to the Press Trust of India news agency.
Last month India marked the first anniversary of the death of the 23-year-old student who was gang-raped in New Delhi on a moving bus, an attack that sent shockwaves across the nation.
Despite tougher laws and efforts to change attitudes to women across India, the number of reported sex crimes continues to rise.
Earlier this month, a Danish woman was allegedly gang-raped and robbed in New Delhi after she became lost on her way back to her hotel. Six men have been arrested over that attack.