Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The Birbhum Rape Case: A socio-political conspiracy

Recently there were reports of a gang rape ordered by a panchayat in Birbhum District of West Bengal. The incident took place on the night of 20th-21st January. All the media houses had started pouring in with their versions of the story. The people of the nation also reacted strongly against the incident through their facebook posts, tweets and rallies. Some of them even compared the panchayat system here with the 'khap panchayats' in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. The social activists and the women's rights activists joined the brigade to raise their voices against such crimes against women.

Birbhum Rape Case

To first set the backdrop of the incident, let me tell you more about the Santhal tribe. The Santhals, despite having a patriarchal social set-up, have been giving far more importance to gender equality than the other communities of India. Crimes against women like "Sati" system, dowry and even female feticide are unheard of in Santhal community, whether it was during the pre-independence times, post independence or in the present context. The judicial system of Santhals dates back to pre-independence times where the crimes like land-disputes, social crimes, thefts etc. were heard and decided upon by the मोड़े मांझी (literary meaning: five headmen). In this system the village headmen from five villages sat together to hear and decide on a case. This being a system practiced by Santhals, none from other communities were allowed to sit and attend the same. This system was later on legalised by the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act 1949 (Origin of SPT Act: http://www.allindiaaseca.org/spta.html). This system ensured justice for the poorest among the santhals who otherwise would not have been able to afford the normal court fees and bribes which were often asked by Police for settling even minor cases. However with the gradual growth of other communities like muslims and bengalis in and around these areas of Santhal Pargana, in 1996 another complimentary local governance system was added by the name PESA Act 1996 (More about this at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panchayats_(Extension_to_Scheduled_Areas)_Act_1996  and http://tribal.nic.in/WriteReadData/CMS/Documents/201211290242170976562pesa6636533023.pdf) However this 'Gram Sabha' (which is also called Salishi Sabha in Bengal) under the PESA Act had no judicial power like the  मोड़े मांझी and were just concerned with the economic welfare of the area through better management of forest and mineral resources from the tribal lands. Another notable difference was that non-tribals were allowed to contest for elections for Gram sabha but were still not allowed to participate in the मोड़े मांझी proceedings.

More information about the Santhal tribe at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santhal_people 

Coming back to the case, below are a few news articles from the media. (Few of them appeared biased in favour of the rape victim due to the obvious sympathy, however none of them could present a complete picture, may be because of the reason that people of that village don't know much hindi. None of the people who were blaming the Santhals ever gave it a thought how could such a heinous crime against a woman be committed by a tribe who have been self sufficient in judicial matters since decades and on what grounds were the villagers still stating that the rape didn't take place at all)

Link 1: http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2014-01-24/kolkata/46562251_1_village-headman-kangaroo-court-injured-woman
Link 2: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kolkata/Tribal-woman-gang-raped-in-West-Bengal-on-a-platform-for-all-to-see/articleshow/29268518.cms
Link 3: http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/woman-gangraped-on-community-panchayat-orders-in-west-bengal/article5608467.ece
Link4: http://www.bbc.co.uk/hindi/india/2014/01/140125_birbhum_gangrape_police_admin_dosnt_confirm_rd.shtml?ocid=socialflow_facebook_hindi
Link 5: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/24/world/asia/woman-is-gang-raped-on-order-of-village-council-in-india.html?_r=0
Link 6: http://www.livemint.com/Home-Page/LkyVf8lzENvpswzYssGIyH/Video-of-village-gangrape-order-seen-backing-the-victims-c.html

The Chief Medical Officer of Siuri Sadar Hospital Dr. Asit Biswas earlier confirmed "clinical evidence" of penetration by several men as reported by Times of India- http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2014-01-24/kolkata/46562251_1_village-headman-kangaroo-court-injured-woman

In the mean time the Santhali community members also called for a meeting to decide on how to tackle the misleading media as shown by this link:
Link7: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1140203/jsp/bengal/story_17892933.jsp#.UvCoavskSOl

Few more broken links to help the readers understand the case:

If  we combine the stories in the Link 7 above and the first of below documents which shows the sign of a panchayat member Ajoy Mondal on the judgement taken by the Gram Sabha (not मोड़े मांझी !!), the girl and the boy were caught in a compromising situation in the girl's house on the night of 20th January and kept tied to a tree over-night with all villagers guarding them through out the night. On 21st morning, people from both the communities were called and everyone objected on their illicit relationship. Thereafter the boy was sent back with his brother and community members. This decision was taken on the morning of 21st January as mentioned in the document.

The second and the third are the copies of the FIR lodged by the girl in which she has named the accused as the Village Headman Balai Mardi who raped her along with 12 other men. An interesting point to be noted here is she has mentioned in the FIR that the boy had come to his house to discuss their marriage and the Gram Sabha sat for the decision during night-time itself around 11 p.m. whereas the first document shows that the decision was taken by Gram Sabha which sat on 21st morning after they were caught in a compromising situation on 20th night. Unfortunately the statement of Ajoy Mondal, who is the first witness on the first document, has not been made public, perhaps because he is on the run or because of administrative procedures followed by police. Most importantly, had the gang-rape really taken place at 20th night Ajoy Mondal would not have signed the document on 21st morning due to the gravity of that matter. Further as propagated by the media about the मोड़े मांझी system being the culprit, that accusation can also be clearly ruled out since no non-tribals are ever allowed to sit through the proceedings of  मोड़े मांझी system. Further if the police has really found the mobile phones being used to shoot the videos as mentioned in Link 6, they should also be producing the sim cards and the call details which should point that the villagers were really involved. Also note that how in Link 6 some unnamed police officers are confirming about the video clipping rape but have mentioned the amount to be Rs.50,000 whereas the FIR by the girl shows it was Rs.27,000. That leaves us with few key witnesses missing- those whose mobile phones were being used to shoot the rape and Ajoy Mondal who perhaps helped in getting the matter settled even after he knew the rape had taken place (i.e. if at all the rape did take place).

Birbhum Rape Case Proof- Decision by Gram Sabha to get them married (no mention of rape)
Decision taken by Gram Sabha when the couple were caught in a compromising situation. 1st Witness- Ajoy Mondal, 2nd Witness- The boy Khaliq Sheikh's brother

Birbhum FIR- Girl's contradicting accusation
FIR Page 1
Birbhum FIR- Girl's contradicting accusation
FIR Page 2

Below is what looks like the chain of events from the proofs and the messages from the santhal villagers of that village and my own understanding:

The santhal girl was obviously on a wrong side for having affair with an already married muslim man. The villagers had caught them in a compromising situation from the girl's home towards the evening on 20th January. For spoiling the environment in the village the villagers tied them around a tree on the night of 20th-21st January. Since a muslim man was involved, they perhaps were afraid of taking the route of judgement using मोड़े मांझी system as it could spark communal clashes in the area. Therefore the local panchayat member Ajoy Mondal took the lead and it was Gram Sabha, not the मोड़े मांझी who gave the order to rape the girl. It is still doubtable whether the rape really took place since the women folks were adamant on the fact that they were there all night guarding the tied couple. Moreover the FIR was lodged on 22nd january, the whole of 21st January the neither girl nor the girl's family did anything towards this matter though the incident took place on 20th night. One day could have been enough to tamper with the proofs and there could also have been possibilities of false rape allegation. Just Dr. Biswas' findings about "clinical evidence" of penetration by several men doesn't confirm rape, whether it was consensual with other conspirators or really a forced penetration by 13 villagers could only be proven by a DNA test, which is perhaps being avoided by the Police and the administration. Mamta Banerjee's government is also in a fix after Supreme Court asked for a report - accepting the happening of rape will leave a question mark on the law and order in the state and denying that the rape took place will perhaps bring the girl (and her accomplices??) in question.

Another important fact related to this case have been the rising trend of "acquiring" Santhal tribal women by other communities majorly the muslims in the rural areas. This is more on the rise due to the fact that in that way they become eligible to buy land in the Fifth schedule areas which otherwise would have been impossible. For those who are unaware, only a tribal person can transfer land to a tribal person in the Fifth Schedule Areas.

In the urban cities of Ranchi, Jamshedpur, Bokaro, Dhanbad, Kolkata and Bardhaman however, the trend is a bit different due to exposure to the "so-called" modern line of thoughts. It has been seen many a times that tribal girls and boys when they arrive to bigger cities like this are dazed by the freedom they get. The liberal attitude of the parents or may be the lower level of education of parents accounts for lower imparting of moral values. This fact can very easily be verified by the number of abortions from unmarried couples in cities like Ranchi and the number of times tribal girls/boys were involved in those. In Ranchi, in fact I have myself seen many couples living-in without having the slightest of idea about their career. I am not saying living-in is a crime or choosing one's own partner freely should not be allowed, but my opinion is the brigades fighting for freedom to choose one's life partner should also work towards lowering the gender inequality the tribes of Jharkhand are heading towards. A couple should always decide about their career goals first before deciding on their life partners. In these cities, sadly, some of the young people do not know much about competitive exams but they surely know about the prices of "those medicines". Coming back to the point, though these tribes haven't seen evils like dowry system or female feticide amongst themselves, the ratio of education amongst tribal females is much less compared to tribal males. As you go towards higher/professional education, this ratio dips further. Amongst the Santhals it is almost 10 Santhal boys who are Dr/Engr/Lawyer/Research Fellows to only 3 Santhal girls in these education streams. To make the issues worse these girls face lesser caste discrimination compared to the boys who have to toil hard to fight all the caste discrimination in the society to make their careers. Presently educated tribal females are contributing much less in family income than they should. Many of them are even forced to remain as the second illegitimate wife of non-tribals because of their wrong career decisions (Here in this case also the girl was ready to become the boy's second wife). Personally I also support inter-caste and inter-community marriages, but for boys it is very difficult to get a girl from other non-tribal communities whereas tribal girls especially at student level easily get into trap of those cunning non-tribal boys dreaming of a good life without having to face the hardships and struggle. Cases of suicides have also been very frequent among the tribal youth because of this emotional immaturity and negligence towards their career.

Following is a newspaper clipping to substantiate the above observations of mine:

Birbhum Rape: Social issues related to tribal females

Santhals, thus, are undergoing a serious phase of transition between modern and traditional schools of thought. Christian missionaries and social activists from other regions among these people are advocating liberal thoughts whereas the areas with lesser penetration of christian missionaries have taken a traditional approach towards things. It is because of this reason that girls/boys of southern santhal areas (like Jamshedpur, Purulia, Orissa) generally do not prefer to go for inter-caste marriages whereas the girls/boys of northern Santhal districts like Dumka, Godda, Pakur, Sahebganj opt for being liberal and are open to inter-caste marriages. The important fact here still remains the different difficulty levels one has to face while marrying a non-tribal person depending on whether one is a girl or a boy, rich or poor, holding land or landless.

Thus this kind of social imbalances are the reasons which lead to such heinous crimes. In the Birbhum case, if the rape had really taken place, the guilty should be punished, which in my opinion is the "Gram Sabha" not the मोड़े मांझी . The real culprits can only be found through DNA test. If the rape has not taken place and if it is a case of false allegation by the girl after consensual sex (or under threat from the conspirators??) with multiple partners on 21st January (You can obviously question the morality of the girl since she was involved with a married man voluntarily), think of the consequences. The whole of media is showing the  मोड़े मांझी system as the "khap panchayat" which is an foolish thing to do since khap panchayats are totally illegal and  मोड़े मांझी system is a legal system under SPT Act 1949. If the ruling goes against the मोड़े मांझी system of the santhals the tribals will lose whatever little assurance of justice they have, all because of an immature tribal girl.

At last all I can say is let's demand for a DNA test and identify the real culprits before jumping on to a conclusion. Nobody can say now whether this was a real degeneration of Santhal tribal culture where males have started raping their girls or a conspiracy where the non-tribals initiated the rape, misled the girl to make false allegations to target the मोड़े मांझी system of the tribals which is not letting them flourish in the tribal lands.

Meanwhile one more version of the story, which came late but is worth mentioning:

I shall keep updating this blog with relevant information to let the world know about the conspiracy. So please watch out for latest editings.

-Prashant Kumar Hembrom

(The author is a student of IIM Calcutta and have been participating actively on important social issues and challenges concerning Santhals. The above is just an effort to bring the unheard voice of those Santhal villagers in front of the people of the whole nation who have been misled by the initial reports of mainstream media. All the opinions expressed here are his own and do not intend to make any allegations on any community, group or Gov/ Non-Gov institution)       


  1. Great work done Prashant. Plz, go ahead on such issues !

  2. Good effort ........Appreciate such scrutiny work !!!

  3. Prashant, I am really happy to read your micro observation. I must say people are confused between PESA, 5th Schedule and Panchayati Raj......

  4. (i)आपके इस 'वीरभूम बलात्कार कांड' से सम्बंधित खोजपूर्ण लेख के लिए बहुत-बहुत धन्यवाद. लेकिन मैं व्यक्तिगत तौर पर आपके इस मंतव्य से बिल्कुल ही असहमत हूँ, जिसमें आपने कहा है " ... whereas the girls/boys of northern Santhal districts like Dumka, Godda, Pakur, Sahibganj opt for being liberal and are open to inter-caste marriage." आप जैसे होनहार युवा को ऐसा मत देने के पीछे आपकी मंशा समझ ना आई. (ii) संताल इतिहास में 'बीरभूम बलात्कार कांड' जैसी घटना का उल्लेख कहीं नहीं है. इस संबंध में ज्यादा जानने के लिए कृपया - Tribal Law and Justice by WG Archer अवश्य पढ़ें. (iii) इस कांड में आपने जो दलीलें दी हैं, कबीले तारीफ हैं.