The brutal gang-rape of a 20-year-old Adivasi woman by the same men who presided over a kangaroo court that judged her meeting a young man from another village as a violation of tribal mores points fingers at one of India’s worst-kept secrets. That these kangaroo courts — operating under various names among various backward communities in the country — often pass strictures that cripple the fundamental rights of citizens is by now well known. But it is the hesitation of the State to act against them for fear of upsetting votebanks and the regressive sentiments of an entrenched rural hierarchy that betrays reason and begets anger against these custodians of our Constitution. The victim and her friend were held captive by men heading a shalishi sabha; the rag-tag court asked them to pay Rs25,000 each; her family was driven away from the village; and the woman was then raped by at least 13 men she could identify, including the man who headed the “court”. Though most of the rapists have been arrested, official attempts to contain the damage have begun in a typically muddled fashion.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s undignified silence on the incident is the perfect foil to panchayat minister Subroto Mukherjee’s statement that the gang-rape was not an isolated incident. While one cannot fathom what Mukherjee intended, it is evident what the official strategy is. The state government will look to tide over this crime knowing fully well that the attention of the news media and the general public wavers with time to more pressing developments. When such is the response to even the most ghastly of crimes, there is little surprise that West Bengal or, for that matter, most states, continue to witness more violent and retributive incidents against women every passing day. These kangaroo courts claim legitimacy under the garb of India’s ancient tradition of deference to elders who preside over village, community and caste panchayats despite the intensified rule of law since Independence. With criminal and civil courts functioning at the taluka level, and police stations and outposts at the block and village level, the retention or appropriation of judicial powers by caste panchayats and kangaroo courts is untenable.
The reliance on official village panchayats or the unofficial gathering of village elders, politicians and zamindars, to resolve petty disputes is popular as a time-saving, inexpensive alternative to litigation. But too often the writ of such powerful individuals and groups extends to condoning and perpetrating criminality like the Birbhum gang-rape. These social pressure groups also work to settle sexual assault cases out of court by intimidating victims and their families. Powerful legal instruments like capital punishment for honour killings or a minimum 20-year-sentence for gang-rape are not deterring these unofficial panchayats, kangaroo courts or criminal gangs.
Instead of stringent action to forbid such groups from stepping on women’s rights, political parties court them assiduously for votes. Bhupinder Hooda squandered the opportunity to outlaw khap panchayats despite several violent crimes against young couples in love. Now, Mamata has an opportunity to regulate such shalishi sabhas. The state’s squeamishness about offending community sentiments pales before the difficulties faced by Indian women. When young women begin to assert themselves, the line dividing the revered patriarchal and the scorned lumpen blurs. And destroying the independent woman has been their time-tested stratagem.
Original published on 24 January 2014