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A Larger Malaise.

India, Feb. 9 -- Pay money or get gangraped.

What sort of logic or a barbaric punishment is this? Yes, this type of an unheardof- punishment recently awarded to a 20-year-old tribal girl for falling in love with a boy from a different caste was carried out on the order of a kangaroo court in Sabalpur village in West Bengal's Birbhum district.

Does not such a brutal punishment for an alleged immoral conduct point to a larger malaise? It was only recently that a 16-year-old girl was not only sexually assaulted but was later burnt alive in Kolkata.

In this case, at the behest of the "village court" or salishi sabha, which hastily assembled under the chairmanship of the tribal chieftain, the boy and the girl were tied to a tree and assaulted.

Both were asked to pay up Rs 25,000 each. The youth, a mason, was released after he agreed to pay Rs 25,000 within a week. But when girl pleaded her inability to pay the sum, the salishi sabha ordered she be gang-raped in full public view.

Reportedly, thirteen men, including the village headman, raped her repeatedly while the rest of the village watched. It is rather distressing that the alleged rapists were her neighbours whom she would address as "kaka" and "dada".

The hapless girl was also threatened not to go to the police.

She was profusely bleeding but was not allowed proceed to the nearby hospital. The girl's family members were also held captive by village head, but they somehow managed to flee.

So, not only our ultra-modern cities but even traditional villages are getting increasingly unsafe for girls and women. Even as media's portrayal of the incident has been met with dissent, it did spark off public outrage.

As an immediate measure, the Superintendent of Police, Birbhum was transferred by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee who also wanted the strictest punishment for the culprits.

About 13 persons, including the local headman, who have since been arrested for rape are behind bars.

Taking suo motu cognisance of the incident, a bench headed by Chief Justice of India ordered the Birbhum district judge to submit a detailed report. On January 31, the apex court, apparently unsatisfied with the findings has sought another detailed report along with the follow-up action. Also quick to condemn the horrific incident was the West Bengal Governor M K Narayanan who has urged all state governments to put down kangaroo courts.

Media reports suggest that for anything and everything that the 'village court' found as 'inappropriate' the punishment meted out to the victims -- largely women and girls - is simply unimaginable. Notably, a couple of years ago, in the same tribal village, a teenage girl was stripped and forced to walk naked through at least four villages for having an affair.

Many men not only mocked her but took videos of her. The said girl got a bravery award from the Prime Minister.

It was only last December, that a Kangaroo court in Mathkathpur village, near IITKharagpur, ordered a 30-yearold woman to be stripped and beaten up for not revealing an extra-marital relationship with her neighbour.

The cause for concern is that violence and discrimination against women still remain deeply entrenched in India's patriarchal society. Have kangaroo courts taken upon themselves the role of moral policing? Legally, can kangaroo courts pass diktats on people's lives? Similar to the Birbhum incident, reports of harsh verdicts handed over by the khap panchayats in many parts of India are not uncommon. Such informal village courts run by local male elders have been in the news for wrong reasons as they seem to many a time inflict cruel and sometimes even lethal punishments - like for marrying without their prior consent.

There have been instances where kangaroo courts have ordered beyond social ostracism by resorting to barbaric punishments like cutting off of limbs etc.

In many places, marriage between a boy and a girl who are from the same village is considered wrong as it would set a bad precedent for the village youth. There are instances where the faces of such unfortunate ones have been blackened and the hapless couple paraded through the streets. It is not uncommon for some community elders to force couples to annul their marriages because they happen to be from the same gotra.

Many young couples who fall in love have no alternative but to seek shelter in the police lines or protection homes to avoid the wrath of kangaroo courts. Not long ago, moved by the sorry plight of runaway couples, the Punjab and Haryana High Court directed district and sessions judges of all districts of Haryana, Punjab and Chandigarh to provide them security.

The Supreme Court, too, in many of its rulings, has maintained that there is nothing 'honourable' in 'honour' killings and they are nothing but barbaric and brutal murders by bigoted, persons with feudal minds. It has held the administration accountable for all these acts of barbarism and sought to ruthlessly stamp out illegal 'khap panchayats' that encourage honour killings or other institutionalised atrocities.

While an effective legislation to deal with kangaroo courts would be desirable, at the higher echelons of power, political will to act against them merits consideration. Looking beyond vote bank politics, there is an imperative need to change our mindset towards women.

Primarily, social attitudes also need to change.

Published by HT Syndication with permission from Indian Currents.

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Publication:Indian Currents
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Feb 9, 2014
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