Rein them in



The gang-rape of a 20-year-old woman in Sabalpur village in West Bengal’s Birbhum district on the orders of a salishi sabha – a traditional village tribunal -- is shocking.

The woman was reportedly in a relationship with a man from another community. The two were tied to a tree and assaulted, then asked by the sabha to pay up Rs 25,000 each. When the woman pleaded inability to pay the sum, the sabha ordered she be gang-raped in full public view. Thirteen men, including the village headman, are reported to have raped her repeatedly, even as the rest of the village watched. While the alleged rapists have been arrested, the incident raises several troubling questions. One is that the enactment of a strong law to deal with sexual assault has not prevented sexual assaults.

Of particular concern is the kangaroo court-like functioning of the salishi sabha. Like the khap panchayats in northern India or katta panchayats in Tamil Nadu, salishi sabhas are illegal entities, which have appropriated to themselves the right to act as courts, trying people for what they deem are ‘illicit relationships.’ Elsewhere these kangaroo courts have ordered social ostracism, beatings, cutting off of limbs, even murder of the ‘guilty.’ In Birbhum, the woman was punished with gang-rape. Four years ago, a teenage tribal girl in another village in Birbhum was stripped, paraded naked and groped by villagers. This was punishment meted out to her by a tribal panchayat for falling in love with a non-tribal boy. The victim was awarded a national bravery award; cold comfort it seems as her assailants and the panchayat which ordered her punishment were never taken to task. The 13 men who gang-raped the girl in Sabalpur have been arrested and while they may be tried and even punished by our courts, this is not enough. Those who watched the rape without acting to prevent it must be brought to justice too. 

 India needs a separate, strong legislation to deal with traditional community councils doubling up as kangaroo courts. But fearing a rural backlash that may cost them votes, politicians are reluctant to act against these entities. The lack of political will as well as society’s silence has enabled these tribal and caste panchayats to survive and thrive. Public outrage over the ugly incident in Sabalpur is high. It must be harnessed to push for legislation on community crimes.

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