Disgrace: on ‘tribal courts’ and the Birbhum gang rape

Bengalis tend to look down upon much of northern India for being a tad barbaric. Ask a Bengali why Bengalis are better than other north Indians, and invariably they’ll talk about how women have been traditionally been given more respect, greater access to education etc in Bengal. So it’s a little damning that in present-day India, Bengal has the highest incidence of crimes against women (as per statistics, 13% of crimes against women in India are committed in Bengal. This article offers some explanations for these numbers).

IMG_2157[1]The reports of gruesome crimes against women come swiftly and regularly from Bengal, and this week we read about a gang rape in Kolkata and then a gang rape in Birbhum. There’s no picking one over the other for its horror value. While the crimes are technically the same, the reasons the rapists were able to carry out their horrific acts of violence are a little different in the two cases. In the Birbhum case, which becomes more soul-destroying with every additional detail that’s reported, the gang rape was a “punishment” meted out to the young woman by a “tribal court”, which is a variation of the infamous north Indian “khap”. I wrote this piece yesterday on this alternative power structure that thrives non-urban India and enjoys far more authority than the country’s legal code. There’s such terrible irony in the fact that these “courts” are technically illegal and yet exert an enormous amount of power and influence while government sanctioned agencies like the National Commission for Women are, despite governmental support, effectively toothless and irrelevant.

“These councils are not exclusive to north India. They exist all over the country. In Bengal, it’s a “tribal court”; in Tamil Nadu, it’s a “katta panchayat”; in Haryana, it’s the khap. They have retained their power over their communities partly because they offer settlements much quicker than the legal process can provide, but also because they have the tacit support of the political establishment. And so, honour killings are ordered and executed. Women are humiliated, abused and raped as punishment. Men are beaten up and butchered for shows of resistance. These kangaroo courts, confident of the grey area they occupy legally, get away with ordering and enacting criminal actions. The state and the police will, at best, try to help the victims, but the system of khaps and such councils remains untouched. They’re not just allowed to survive, but thrive even.

You can read the whole article here.

Incidentally, the name Birbhum probably comes from the term “land of the brave”.


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