The incident in Subalpur village in West Bengal’s Birbhum district, in which a 20-year-old tribal woman was gang-raped by a dozen men as punishment for alleged immoral conduct, is shocking in its unimaginable brutality and points to a larger malaise. The order by a kangaroo court led by a village headman is proof that a section of rural India is outside the pale of the country’s constitutional values and judicial system. Ill-informed men with medieval social attitudes and patriarchal prejudices are allowed to adjudicate on the conduct and morality of women and pass unconscionable forms of punishment, such as social ostracism, payment of arbitrary fines and, as in this case, sexual violence in lieu of monetary penalty. The Supreme Court and the National Commission for Women have taken suo motu cognisance of the incident, which has caused widespread outrage and revulsion. The West Bengal government, which has been sharply criticised in recent times for callousness and insensitivity towards crimes against women, has seen to it that the village headman and the 12 men who raped the hapless woman for a whole night have been arrested. And Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, upset that the police did not seek custody of the accused for questioning and allowed them to be sent to prison directly, has ordered the suspension of the Superintendent of Police. It is disturbing that the entire village, including women, backed the kangaroo court by whose verdict the man could get away with a fine, but the woman was punished for not having the means to do so.
Outposts of feudalism still thrive in vast swathes of rural India, ranging from khap panchayats in the north to caste-based gatherings of village elders in the south. In 2011, the Supreme Court wanted illegal khap panchayats that encourage ‘honour killings’ or other institutionalised atrocities to be stamped out ruthlessly. Over a year has elapsed since the country voiced its anger against sexual violence targeted at women and seemed to take a collective vow to ensure the protection of all women. The penal law on sexual violence and harassment has been strengthened significantly since then. Yet, India’s cities and villages continue to be unsafe for women. The locus of sexual violence is everywhere: in public spaces and private homes, under the cloak of darkness and in the open, and perpetrated by well-acquainted persons as also as by strangers. The Birbhum incident is a chilling reminder that legal processes, security measures and stringent laws are not enough. Social attitudes need to change, reflecting liberal and humane values, if the country is to ensure gender equality and protection for all its women.