India’s highest court has ordered a judicial inquiry into the reported gang-rape of a tribal woman as claims emerged that the 20-year-old had been assaulted on a raised platform in front of her entire village.
The woman remains in a serious condition in hospital after a village council apparently ordered her to be gang-raped as a “punishment” for having a relationship with a Muslim man, who was not part of the community. Police have arrested more than a dozen men, including the headman of the village.
On Friday, India’s Supreme Court ordered a judge to visit the site of the alleged attack and report back. It described the case as “disturbing” and asked the district judge in Birbhum, the area where the alleged assault took place on Monday, to go to the village and file a report within a week.
The court acted amid growing outcry over the incident and the influence of village councils over people living in rural parts of the country. Activists have repeatedly said that politicians do not do enough to speak out against such groups because they rely on them for political support.
“The politicians need to do a lot more,” said Kavita Krishnan, of the All India Progressive Women’s Association. “I remember Dr Ambedkar [Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, author of the Indian constitution] saying there was a gap between the constitution and parts of Indian society. I think some politicians try and exploit this gap.”
The attack, involving anywhere up to a dozen men, was said to have been carried out after villagers found the woman with the Muslim man on Monday. They reportedly tied her to a tree before hastily convening a village council.
The elders said the man and woman should pay a fine of the equivalent of up to £485. When the couple and the woman’s family said they could not pay such a sum, the headman apparently ordered that the woman be gang-raped as a punishment.
“We were dragged to a gathering where our community-headman was present. They told me to pay Rs50,000. When I said I couldn’t, they brutalised me,” the woman told The Times of India newspaper.
Other villagers said that the men had erected a bamboo platform on which the gang-rape was carried out. Police arrested 13 men who have been brought before a court and placed in custody.
The assault comes after a spate of high profile rapes in West Bengal which have brought Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee under fire for not doing enough to stop violence against women.
West Bengal recorded the highest number of gender crimes in the country at 30,942 in 2012 – almost 13 per cent of India’s total recorded crimes against women. These crimes include rape, kidnapping and sexual harassment and molestation.
Earlier this month, Kolkata witnessed public protests against police who have been accused of failing to act on the gang rape of a 16-year-old girl who was later burnt alive.
Amid the political row, the West Bengal state government on Friday transferred the top police official of the district for failing to follow proper procedures while arresting the suspects.
The woman is a member of the ethnic Santhal tribe. Her religion has not been disclosed but reports suggest the tribespeople are often animist, The man with whom she had been having a relationship for a number of years is Muslim and lives in a neighbouring village.
The women told police that the man visited her village, Subalpur, in Birbhum district of the state, on Monday to propose marriage, but was caught by other villagers.