Nature Talk

Media (AFP: Tribal elders in India order gang-rape of woman has reported an extremely bizarre incident to have occurred in a tribal village of Santhals in the district of Birbhum in West Bengal on Monday, the 20th January 2014. ‘A 20-year-old tribal girl was allegedly raped by at least 10 members of a kangaroo court’ in the village ‘as punishment for having an affair with a youth from another community’. The girl’s mother is reported to have said, ‘the crime was committed by our own people. They tortured my daughter and dumped her home late at night. We were threatened not to go to the police. We tried to go to Bolpur hospital but they stopped us’. However, the police had swung into action and all the thirteen accused including the headman have been arrested. As the victimised girl says, ‘I had an affair with a man. We were dragged to a gathering where our community-headman was present. They told me to pay Rs 50,000. When I said I couldn't, they brutalized me.’ (Tribal girl gang-raped by members of kangaroo court as punishment for aff... January 2014). Never before it was heard of a village council of a tribal community in India having awarded a punishment of mass rape to a woman. It is obnoxious and heart rendering, contrary to the general perception that the ‘women in the tribal society in India enjoy a greater freedom to mix and move around’ (Status of Tribal Women in India by J J Roy Burman - Mainstream Weekly, March 10,2012, This incident also raises question as to what extent the village council can go to award a punishment to a woman held by it ‘delinquent’. Also arises the question if the customary laws and criminal justice system in the tribal society ever permits such inhuman punishment that too the mass rape to be committed by the villagers in kinship with the woman! Even the thought of it is repulsive, to say the least. It is, in the words of Sima Samar, Chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), told in the context of unprecedented level of brutality that the violent crimes against women reached in Afghanistan, , ‘against dignity, against humanity’. (‘Cutting the nose, lips and ears’ : Brutality against Afghan women at record... What is disturbing is that the punishment of her mass rape is in lieu of her inability to pay an amount, which, by any stretch of imagination, is highly prohibitive for a poor tribal girl. Could the village council not imagine that this penalty would be almost impossible for her to comply? Or they knew it and made it an alibi to subject her to mass rape where they could participate? Nothing could be a worse example of the demise of the tribal innocence. A thorough sociological and anthropological enquiry into such pathological behavior appears imperative to gauge as to what extent the status women has fallen in the tribal communities and how the attitude of the male folks of these communities is undergoing change. Should the composition of traditional village councils in tribal communities be changed to have in it women representation? Should the traditional criminal justice system followed in the tribal communities be reviewed and practices contrary to the human dignity are dropped? Or should village councils be completely disbanded and with it the traditional criminal justice system that they follow? This option might appear as contentious and invite criticism of forcible mainstreaming of the tribal communities and their consequent disappearance. As recently as the last fortnight the hon’ble President of India while inaugurating the ‘Andaman & Nicobar Tribal Research and Training Institute’ (ANTRI) has struck a discordant note on the attempts to assimilate tribals into mainstream. According to him, ‘the overwhelming view today is that assimilation has failed’. (Indian President’ s passionate plea against assimilating tribes - Survival In..., 16th January 2014). Therefore, that option should be tried where the tribal identity of the community with its tradition and culture remain unaffected and yet allows weeding out of the aberrations if visible in its practices.

-Birendra Nayak