‘This is a social massacre’: protesters’ anger over India’s latest, brutal, 'gang-rape in West Bengal'

Demonstrators gather at hospital after woman tells police she was punitively raped by 12 men

Subalpur

It was a silent demonstration so she may not have even known they were there.

But had the young woman looked from the first-floor window of her hospital ward, she would have seen a line of students protesting over the brutal sexual assault she had endured, allegedly on the orders of a tribal council.

It was Republic Day on Sunday and as students stepped in sequence through the grounds of the hospital in the town of Suri, West Bengal, they passed an Indian flag hoisted for the occasion. Yet the protesters said incidents such as the gang-rape of the 20-year-old woman eroded the meaning of the national celebration.

“When we open the newspaper and see three of four incidents like this every day, how can we not say this is a social massacre,” said Subhadeep Mondal, a geography student. “Our country is celebrating Republic Day. It is a mockery that such crimes are being committed.”

The young tribal woman at the centre of the latest assault to both shame and anger India, has told police she was last week gang-raped by anywhere up to a dozen men. She said the men were acting on the instructions of a village council who were punishing for her having a relationship with a married Muslim man.

In her statement to officers, she said she and the man were given the option of paying a fine of Rs27,000 (£260) each. The man managed to raise the money – his wife was forced to sell their daughter’s gold jewellery – but the young woman’s family could not.

In her statement, completed with a thumb-print, she claimed the village headman, Balai Maddi, had announced to the assembled village men: “Since they cannot pay the fine you all take the girl and have fun. Do whatever you want to do to her.”

She added: “After that they took me to a shed beside the kitchen of Balai Maddi and he and the 12 men mentioned in this report starting raping me one after the other from around 11.30pm.”

A week after the alleged attack rocked India, a series of competing narratives about what transpired 120 miles north of Kolkata has emerged. Some members of the village claim that no such attack took place and that the woman invented the allegation to get back at the council members who had issued the fine.

Officials believe an assault took place though they remain unsure of the details, even as to when it precisely happened. They are also unsure about the role of the council.

District police chief Alok Rajoria, who on Sunday morning was standing on a podium saluting participants in Suri’s Republic Day parade, said officers were trying to reconstruct the events with the involvement of those accused. A forensics team had come from Kolkata. A total of 13 men are in custody, among them Mr Maddi, the headman or morol.

“Our inquiry is still going on,” said Mr Rajoria, who was appointed last week following claims the previous chief had been slow to respond. He was transferred.

The people who could probably best through light on what took place and the events before and after – the young woman and her mother – are being prevented from talking. Two of her three brothers are in protective custody and a third out of the area.

Asit Kumar Biswas, superintendent of the hospital, said the woman was responding to treatment and that her psychological injuries were worse than the physical. He said she was too traumatised to be allowed to speak to the media. He had no answer for why he would not allow the woman’s mother to speak. “Perhaps in a couple of days,” he said.

In the young woman’s village, Subalpur, most people have turned hostile to the television crews who have descended on the dirt paths and date palms that rustle in the afternoon breeze. Those who do speak say the Vichar Sabah, or justice council, gave no such order for the woman to be raped. It did, however, issue a fine for the man and woman to pay.

One man, Amos Das, a 22-year-old student who lived nearby, raised doubts about the woman’s claims. “Nothing has come out that proves she was raped. Perhaps she had some enmity with those people and tried to frame them.”

Yet Mr Das said he understood why the village would want to punish woman who had a relationship with someone from outside the village.

His own community would do the same, he said. “More and more tribal women are having affairs with men from outside the village,” he said, standing on the edge of a field of mustard. “As the incidents have grown, they are feeling more threatened.”

In her absence a picture emerged of the victim, a young woman who had pushed at the constrains of her tribal society and had earned opprobrium for doing so. Several years ago, she had gone to Delhi to work, taking up a position and sending home money to her mother and brothers. She was the first woman from the village to do so.

When she returned, about eight months ago, she build one of the few brick huts, next to her mother’s hut. On her walls, next to several photographs herself and family members, were some posters for Bengali movie stars. Dozens of brightly coloured bangles were resting on a set of eye make-up was on the shelf.

Sunil Murmu, a villager who said he sold life assurance, claimed the woman and man had been found in her hut on Monday in a “compromising position”. The villagers previously had told the couple they should get married rather than continuing the affair.

“Her attitude was different. The other women did not mix with her,”claimed Mr Murmu. He said an increasing number of women were choosing to marry outside. “If they get married outside it erodes our culture and our identity. That is why there is the anger.”

Some experts have expressed surprise over claims the village council would ordered such a punishment. Ruby Hembrom, a Calcutta-based publisher of books on tribal affairs, said that the most extreme punishment used by the groups was to eject somebody from the community. “It would be impossible for a traditional tribal council to have made that decision.”

The gang-rape has created challenge for West Bengal’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, whose opponents accuse her of doing insufficient to prevent attacks on women. Tribal activists have warned against any moves to interfere with the village councils.

The young woman apparently started her relationship with the Muslim man, a builder, after she began assisting him as he worked to build the village’s first secondary school. On Sunday there was no sign of him and his wife, who had been forced to part with the family’s savings as a result of his affairs, said she had not seen him since last Monday.

She said she was angry and upset but that should her husband return, she would have no choice but to take him back. “I have a son and a daughter. Who is going to look after me if he is not here” she said, speaking from the doorway of her home, located four miles from Subalpur. “Who is going to get my daughter married?”

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