KOLKATA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A 20-year-old woman in eastern India said 13 men raped her on the orders of a village court as punishment for having a relationship with a man from a different community, a senior police official said on Thursday.
The woman, who is now recovering in hospital, says she was raped by the men – among them the village head - on the night of Jan. 20 in Birbhum district in West Bengal state.
Police said her male companion was tied up in the village square while she was assaulted.
"We arrested all the 13 men, including the village chief who actually ordered the gang rape. The accused have been produced in court which remanded them to jail custody," Birbhum Police Superintendent C. Sudhakar told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The victim's family told local media the village court ordered the gang rape and told the couple to pay a fine of 25,000 rupees because the woman had violated the rules of her tribe by falling in love with a man from another community.
Human rights groups say it is not uncommon for self-appointed village courts to issue rulings which have no legal basis in rural areas of India.
In northern India, illegal village councils known as "Khap Panchayats" act as de-facto courts, settling rural disputes about everything from land and cattle to matrimony and murder.
Such councils are coming under growing scrutiny as their punitive edicts grow more regressive – ranging from banning women from wearing western clothing and using mobile phones to supporting child marriage and authorising the lynching of young couples in "honour killings".
SPATE OF RAPES
The alleged gang rape follows a spate of high-profile rapes in West Bengal which have led to complaints that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, the first woman to hold the post, has not done enough to stop violence against women in the state,
West Bengal, bordering Bangladesh, recorded 30,942 crimes against women in 2012, 12.7 percent of the national total and the highest number for any state. The crimes included rape, kidnapping, sexual harassment and molestation.
Earlier this month, protesters demonstrated against police in West Bengal's capital Kolkata, accusing them of failing to respond to the gang rape of a 16-year-old girl, resulting in her subsequent killing by her rapists.
In June last year, Banerjee was criticised for calling protesters against police inaction in another rape case "Maoists". The protesters were demanding justice for a 20-year-old college student who was abducted, raped by nine men and killed in a factory.
"We are simply … worried by the trend of such incidents occurring every second day. We urge the chief minister to take note and act immediately to prevent this," said Sukanya Gupta from Swayam, a women's rights group in West Bengal. "I think just street corner protests by us will not help any more."
India toughened its laws on sex crimes in March last year after the death of a woman gang raped on a moving bus in Delhi in December 2012. The case led to nationwide demands for better security and helped sparked a broad debate about gender inequalities in India.
Local media highlighted the issue again last week after a 51-year-old Danish tourist was gang raped in central Delhi by at least five men whom she had asked for directions.
The incident prompted the British Foreign Office on Thursday to revise its travel advisory to India, saying that "women travellers should exercise caution when travelling in India even if they are in a group."
(Writing and additional reporting by Nita Bhalla)