A GANG-RAPE in an eastern India village has reawakened outrage first sparked by the death of a young student after she was assaulted on a bus in New Delhi just over a year ago.
In the latest incident, a 20-year-old woman was allegedly raped by 13 men on the orders of a village court as punishment for having a relationship with a man from a different community.
The woman, who remains in hospital, told police she was assaulted by the men on the night of 20 January in the Birbhum district of West Bengal.
Television footage previously showed the woman, her face covered by scarves, being led into a hospital with an intravenous drip in her arm.
TV news reports said the woman is a member of an ethnic tribal group and the man is a Muslim from a nearby village
Police said that her male companion was tied up in the village square, while the assault on the woman happened in a mud-brick house. The woman told police that she lost count of how many men raped her.
“We arrested all the 13 men, including the village chief who ordered the gang rape. The accused have been produced in court which remanded them in custody,” Birbhum’s superintendent of police, C Sudhakar, said.
India toughened laws on sex crimes in March last year following the fatal gang rape of a student physiotherapist on a moving bus in New Delhi in December 2012. The case led to nationwide protests for better security and has helped sparked national debate about gender inequalities in India.
The issue was highlighted in local media again last week after a 51-year-old Danish tourist was gang-raped in central Delhi by at least five men from whom she had asked directions.
The West Bengal victim’s family told the media she was raped because the court ruled she had broken a taboo by falling in love with someone outside her own community.
The couple were ordered to pay a fine of 25,000 rupees (£240). The man’s family was able to pay, but when the woman’s family said they were too poor, the council ordered the gang rape, police said. Human rights groups say diktats issued by kangaroo courts are not uncommon in rural regions.
In northern parts of India, illegal village councils known as “Khap Panchayats” act as de facto courts settling rural disputes on everything from land and cattle to matrimony and murder.
But such councils are coming under growing scrutiny as their punitive edicts grow more regressive – ranging from banning women from wearing western clothing and using mobile phones to supporting child marriage and sanctioning the lynching of young couples in so-called “honour killings”.
Four years ago, a village council in Birbhum district ordered a young woman to be paraded naked through the village. She was accused of falling in love with a man of a different caste.
Annie Raja, general secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women, said women’s rights were being trampled on by such courts. “They are dead set against giving basic human rights to women,” she said. “These are non-constitutional bodies and the West Bengal government should take stringent action against them.”
The latest assault comes after a spate of high-profile rapes in West Bengal. Chief minister Mamta Banerjee has been heavily criticised for failing to deter such attacks. West Bengal recorded the highest number of gender crimes in India at 30,942 in 2012 – 12.7 per cent of India’s total recorded crimes against women. These crimes include rape, kidnapping and sexual harassment and molestation.
Earlier this month, West Bengal’s capital, Kolkata, witnessed protests against police accused of failing to act on the gang rape of a 16-year-old girl, who was later murdered.