TNN | Jan 25, 2014,

KOLKATA: The news of the gang rape as a punishment in Birbhum district was the most horrific piece of news about atrocities of tribals against themselves. We’ve heard of inter-tribal conflicts but here was one of a Santhal woman being ‘punished’ by Santhal men, reportedly in the name of morality and justice.What constitutes a crime? What is a punishment? At last count, the Indian Penal Code had 23 chapters and 511 sections dedicated to it. The severest punishment regardless of the ‘crime’ in question on consensus is death penalty.

For the Santhals on the other hand, India’s largest homogenous Scheduled Tribe, the severest punishment is bitlaha or excommunication awarded to offences of a marriage union within one’s own sept, sib and close relatives and with someone outside the community. This punishment is decided upon by the village council, the More Horko (the five people) headed by the Manjhi (the village headman), and his four assistants. Nevertheless, when such a relationship is found out, a warning is given before the pronouncement of the bitlaha.

And then, too, excommunication is not the finality of decisions, there is always an opportunity open for coming back to the community for the guilty, which is done through Jom Jati. If the excommunicated persons show repentance and willingness to regularize their membership, it can be done through a ritual celebration, through which they are readmitted, re-initiated into the community as new members, forgetting the past.

Where then does the heinous punishment by the village council in West Bengal of gang rape in public view of a Santhal girl in an alleged relationship with a married, Muslim man from another village fit?

No one should be punished for choosing their partner in life. It’s an individual decision and should be respected. And gang rape as a punishment brings out the worst of us as human beings: Violating a woman is the most humiliating action not only because her dignity and spirit is destroyed but she is deprived of her own will over her body.

That a woman having an affair with a man (married or not) of another community is considered an offence by the Santhals within the scope of their unwritten customary laws is not deniable. But the punishment awarded in Birbhum is unheard of. Santhals, all over the country, like everyone else, are seething in rage, and embarrassment over this judgment and its execution. What went so wrong?

Since I grew up in Kolkata, I spoke to relatives (mostly aunts) and friends in Santhal villages about their thoughts on this. They said this punishment was the first of its kind and were appalled by it. They said ‘rape’ within the community has grown in the last few years.

The Santhal’s administrative organization has been lauded as “an exemplary institution of a direct democracy. It was a poor man’s rostrum, where delegated power was all at discount and where for one night the final authority was the people themselves,” according to J P Singh in his ‘Changing Patterns of Tribal Government’.

In present days, the higher councils of the Pargana and the Hunt council have become antiquated and defunct, but the village council survives, though much of its powers in legal matters have been taken away as the Panchayati Raj has been imposed on our villages.

Following up on the news, there are terms alien to the traditional Santhal administration used; the village head is referred to as the ‘morol’ and not the Manjhi and the village council meeting is ‘salishi sabha’. I don’t know if this is a newly developed village council particular to this region.

Traditionally, punishment for an inter-caste union was seen as a way to maintain the purity of the community intact. What villagers fear the most now is that outsiders want to marry Santhal women to take over tribal land as the Tenancy Acts in tribal areas disallow non-tribals from owning or buying tribal lands. Despite uncountable cases proving such alliances as a way of acquiring tribal property and where the woman once married is not given the place of a ‘wife’ is no justification to execute this judgment.

As a Santhal woman, I am disturbed by what has happened as the village and the women there are reportedly defending the men and their actions. The perpetrators need to be punished. The incident is still being investigated and as we wait to get more clarity on the truth, I stand in solidarity with my Santhal sister. As she battles for her life in hospital, our traditional ways that upheld the dignity of life flicker in the darkness.

(Ruby Hembrom, who studied in La Martiniere for Girls and graduated in law from Kolkata, is an independent publisher of adivasi literature and folklore. She was learning and development trainer with IBM)


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