Police take a suspect in the gang rape of a woman to a courthouse on Jan. 24. (Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images)

Latest alleged gang rape of young woman in India highlights vigilante role of village elders

India’s Supreme Court ordered an investigation Friday into the case of a young tribal woman who reported having been gang-raped by village elders and other men as a punishment for falling in love with a Muslim.

The incident again turned a spotlight on the prevalence of sexual assaults on women in ­India. But it is also focusing attention on the powerful role of village clan councils, which often hand out crude penalties, outside any official judicial system, for those who defy traditional social norms.

The 20-year-old woman told police Wednesday that she was raped Monday night by at least a dozen men in her village of Labhpur, in the eastern state of West Bengal, after the village chieftain conducted an informal tribal court hearing and ordered men to punish her with rape.

She was assaulted for hours in the chieftain’s hut, authorities said. Thirteen men have been arrested in the case.

Sexual assault cases are being reported more often in India since the fatal gang rape of a young woman on a bus in New Delhi 13 months ago. The attack sparked a national outcry and an unprecedented public conversation about women’s safety.

The Labhpur incident highlights the challenge entailed in efforts to enhance women’s freedom in line with modern norms within tightly knit village communities largely governed by ethnicity, caste and deeply patriarchal practices.

In recent years, informal clan councils, which operate separately from elected village councils, have forbidden women in northern India to go to bazaars in the evenings, wear jeans or use cellphones.

In the northern state of Haryana, village elders have ordered the killing of young couples who fall in love and elope in defiance of caste and clan restrictions. Such killings, the elders have said, are necessary as a deterrent and to preserve the honor of the community. Families have also been ostracized for flouting village verdicts.

In Monday’s alleged rape, local officials in West Bengal said, village council members first tied the woman and her lover, a Muslim construction worker from a neighboring village, to a tree. The woman belongs to a tribe that has its own religious traditions, and elders frown upon marriage and romantic relationships outside that group.

Elders demanded a penalty equivalent to $800 from the woman and her lover, officials said. When the woman’s relatives said they could not cover her share, the council held a meeting and allegedly ordered the gang rape.

Analysts say village council punishments often occur in socially and economically backward areas where government authority is weak and people are ignorant about issues such as gender equality and human rights.

“The village community gets together and hands out punishments like stripping a person naked, forcing them to wear a garland of shoes, tying them to ropes, making them ride on donkeys. But this kind of gang rape is unusual,” said Ramesh Nayak, a sociologist. “A woman is punished and humiliated to teach her a lesson, so that she never raises her head again or defies the traditional social customs.”

On Friday, India’s Supreme Court called the West Bengal case “disturbing” and ordered the district judge in West Bengal’s Birbhum area to visit the village and file a report within a week. The court also asked the state government for an explanation.

The woman has been hospitalized, but her life is not in danger, local officials said.

Many of the men in Labhpur have fled, according to local reports. Those who remain have become hostile to reporters and social activists who have descended on the small village about six hours north of Kolkata, the state capital.

“There is a lot of anger in the village now. They are saying, ‘This is our internal matter, why are outsiders interfering?’ ” said Shashi Panja, minister for women and child welfare in the West Bengal government. “These are village courts that we do not recognize. They are illegal. My question is, what did the elected village council members do when this was going on? Did they just accept this verdict silently?”

Ajoy Mondal, an elected member of a council from the neighboring village of Ramjibanpu, said he suspected that villagers did not protest the alleged punishment out of respect for time-honored practices.

“Nobody defies such an order, because it is seen as preserving tribal traditions,” Mondal said.

On Thursday, Amnesty International India urged Indian authorities to provide police protection for the woman and her family and to ensure that “women’s rights to choose their partners are respected and protected,” senior researcher Divya Iyer said.

Reports of rape have increased in West Bengal in recent weeks, a development that officials attribute to more women being willing to come forward.

Just Tuesday, nearly 3,000 marchers protested in a suburb of Kolkata to demand police action in the gang rape of a woman who worked in a fitness center in a city mall.

“Every other day, we are reading about a new case of rape in West Bengal,” said Sibaji Pratim Basu, an associate professor of political science at West Bengal State University who took part in the protest. “Whether in villages or our cities, it is the same psychological mind-set, which says women’s bodies are objects through which you exercise social power and domination.”