Rape as Weapon

Colonizing Tribal Society

Madhusree Mukerjee

[Earlier this year, media across the world reported how a 'primitive' tribal council in West Bengal had ordered the gang rape of a woman as punishment. Except that almost no one got the story right. In reality it is a complicated tale of assault not only on that one woman but on Adivasis across the country. Violence, sexual assault, consumer culture, alcohol, pornography, land-grabbing—Adivasi society is being destroyed by these classic tools of colonial development, and it is all being done in the name of its fellow Indians.]

Yet another horrific gang rape has grabbed headlines in India," began an editorial in The New York Times on February 1, 2014. "This time, a village council in the Indian state of West Bengal ordered the rapes as punishment. The crime: falling in love and planning to marry." The editorial, which demanded a crackdown on such "brazen affronts to the rule of law," followed upon a great many similar stories that exploded in national and international media last January.

Sample some of the headlines: "12 gang-raped tribal women on kangaroo court order in West Bengal's Birbhum district" (Hindustan Times). "Gang Rape Reveals Vigilante India in Rural Villages" (Bloomberg). "Gang Rape Ordered by Indian Village Eiders" (Sky News), "West Bengal gang rape: Young woman attacked on bamboo platform in front of entire village" (The Independent), or even "Indian woman gang raped by entire village" ( These salacious media reports led to calls, including by West Bengal's Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, to outlaw tribal and village councils—whose 'primitive' mores were universally held responsible for the atrocity.

The catch: key elements in these reports are probably false. So many loose statements have been made about this case, including by the police, that media reports have varied widely. There are many dfferent versions of the facts floating around, including such basic things as the date of the alleged rape. There is strong indication that Balai Mardi, the majhi or Santal village chief, was not even in the village that night. Most significantly, the available evidence questions the central charge that someone issued an order to rape Bimala (not her real name) of Subalpur village in Birbhum district, West Bengal.

Tiie proliferation of conflicting testimonies on what happened that night suggests that the full picture may never emerge. Looking at them all, though, this writer believes that Bimala likely was raped that night, but without a council order behind it. Beyond that, the facts that can be discerned provide a disturbing illustration of how the conflict between tradition and modernity is playing out in India's tribal areas—and how misleadingly it is being interpreted. NYT, for instance, featured not only an uncomprehending editorial but also an article on this particular gang rape—although the media usually does not deem newsworthy the sexual assaults on hundreds of Adivasi, or indigenous, women by security forces and allied militias in central India.

The Birbhum event made such a splash precisely because of the alleged involvement of a "kangaroo court"—which spoke to the backwardness of Indian villages and thereby to the urgency of pressing forward with the 21st-century civilizing mission of development. "India's rapid modernization has given young women enhanced opportunities and freedoms," explained the NYT editorial, "which these self-appointed guardians of patriarchal tradition view as a grave threat."

Given the delays in West Bengal's courts, the case could take months or years to be resolved; meanwhile all the 13 accused, including the elderly majhi, remain in prison. "The entire case was twisted by politicians to malign our community," despairs Nityananda Hembrom, dishom-majhi or Supreme Chief of India's Santals and head of the Bharat Jakat Majhi Mandua (BJMM), an association of Santal chiefs. "I don't know how to clear our name."

Close observers testify that it is scarcely the empowerment of women, but the ravaging of Adivasi society by what passes for development in remote corners of India—in particular, the rapes, prostitution, and trafficking that are endemic to mining areas—that lies behind the frightening increase in sexual aggression within these communities. "When a society is under attack it begins to attack itself, takes it out on the women," observes anthropologist Felix Padel. "The impact of modernity, mining, media, politics, and violent conflict has been devastating." Far from egging on such assaults, it is the traditional Adivasi systems of governance that have been striving to hold back the tide of sexual and other violence that is shredding tribal communities in contemporary India.

Bimala is under police protection and no longer in Subalpur. Meanwhile, there are at least three versions of the Birbhum rape narrative. According to the primary one, on January 22, 2014, a police station near Bolpur, Birbhum, registered a First Information Report (FIR) written in Bengali and bearing the thumbprint of Bimala, a Santal woman of Subalpur village.

According to the FIR, 20-year-old Bimala was engaged to be married to one Sheikh Khalek, a non-Santal muslim who worked in construction as a mason and who had come to visit her at 5pm on Monday, January 20. That evening, Santal villagers led by their majhi, Balai Mardi, seized the pair, tied them up and tried them for the offence of planning to marry outside their jati (which can mean tribe, caste, or race). The pair was fined Rs 27,000—a sum they could not afford to pay. Accordingly, Mardi ordered the village men: "Enjoy yourselves with her, do whatever you want." Mardi himself, along with 12 others, raped Bimala that night. The next morning the pair was allowed to leave, with the warning that if they went to the police, Bimala's house would be burned down. So it was not until the following Wednesday that she found the courage to approach the authorities.

This was the story that, with minor variations, came to be reported around the world. Subalpur's other Santal women, though, offer a very different version of events. To begin with, they claim to have taken the initiative in apprehending Bimala with her employer and lover Khalek, a man they say was already married with two children. "We don't allow men from another jati to enter our homes," states Mallika Tudu defiantly. When the women saw the visitor arrive that evening, she continues, "We told the village mothers that the Mussulman has come, and we fetched the men."

The villagers broke into Bimala's hut, where the lovers were lying on the bed, dragged them out and tied them to a date palm tree in front of the majhi's house. The majhi was away attending a wedding in a different village, so the villagers waited for him to return the next morning to try the pair. "We wanted the man to marry (Although Khalek is in fact married, the women seem to have been counting on the fact that Indian Muslims can legally have more than one wife.) "We guarded them the whole night, all of us together. Nothing happened, there was no rape", says Tudu. The villagers seem to have been consistent in their version except for this one thing—right after the news first broke, they told one investigator that they had failed to guard Bimala for two hours that night. But later they retracted this and now claim that she was guarded the whole night.

To continue with the villagers' version: the next morning, a Tuesday, the majhi arrived. So, however, did members of the elected village council, or panchayat- all Bengalis, that is, non-Adivasis, and all belonging to the Trinamool Party—as well as Khalek's relatives. (In Birbhum, many villages have a Santal hamlet and an adjacent Bengali hamlet; individuals from the latter typically control the village panchayat. More-over, because this elected body disburses developmental funds such as those from the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and others, its officials wield far more authority than the Santal majhis, who are typically impoverished.) The panchayat members took over the proceedings and brokered a deal. With Khalek refusing to marry Bimala, he was fined Rs 25,000, which his brother handed over to be given to the Santals. Bimala did not have the Rs 3,000 that she was ordered to pay, but her elder brother, who live in another village, undertook to hand over the sum. "We did not do the settlement, nor did we ask for money," Tudu insists; it was the Bengalis who offered money in lieu of Khalek not having to marry Bimala. The captives were then freed that afternoon.

As far as Subalpur's women knew, that was the end of the matter until the day after, Wednesday the 22nd, when the police arrived and arrested five men. When the remaining villagers went to the police station to inquire, the police called up eight more men and arrested them. The notorious Trinamool MLA Manirul Islam who is allegedly involved in a triple murder case, was presiding over the proceedings that day, say the women. "We showed him the paper [we had]," they say. This handwritten statement, a copy of which this writer has seen, attests to the settlement of a dispute regarding an illicit sexual encounter between Bimala and Khalek. Signed by two Trinamool panchayat members, as well as Khalek and his brother, it indicates that the "trial" was held on Tuesday morning—in contradiction to the FIR". Manirul replied, 'It has no value. If you try to be smart, none of your heads will remain on your bodies,'" says Tudu.

A BJMM representative who has also been investigating this case offers yet another perspective. In this version, Bimala had eloped a few years earlier with a Santal man from Jharkhand, who instead of marrying her had trafficked her to Delhi. She'd eventually been rescued through the efforts of a relative of her Santal abductor (who was mortified at his kinsman's conduct), and had returned to Subalpur in the previous monsoon (2013). Although Bimala started working in construction as Khalek's employee, the village women came to suspect that she was also involved in sex work—with their own husbands and sons among her customers. So they'd resolved to rid themselves of her presence by forcing her to marry an outsider, namely Khalek. The majhi was indeed absent on the night of January 20, says the BJMM representative, and Subalpur's Santal villagers had indeed guarded the captives for most of that night as they claimed. However, he adds, some of the Santal men who held Bimala captive had started drinking alcohol later that night and had sent the women away for at least two hours. Bimala may well have been raped during that time.

Of the 13 men arrested, one, Debraj Mondal, is a Bengali and the rest are Santal. (An ambiguous figure, Mondal appears to have been both protector and exploiter of Subalpur's Santals. He helped the Adivasis get medical care at government hospitals and spoke up for them when the panchayat failed to pay for MGNREG work; but he is also alleged to have illegally supplied alcohol to the villagers.) The police say they have a camera on which Mondal took two intimate pictures of Bimala: one with Khalek, and the other with a man whose face is obscured but who Mondal identified as one of the arrested Santals, Sunil Kisku. According to the Kolkata-based Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR), whose members interviewed Bimala and others, Kisku also stands accused of having committed an earlier rape in the same village. The preliminary medical report on Bimala indicates several scratches and other injuries on her face and body but does not conclusively state whether rape occurred or not. The police have been claiming rape to the media but are yet to submit the required forensic report with DNA and other evidence that might help identify the rapists. The APDR has also not presented a formal report yet.

Also according to the BJMM, Khalek is related to Manirul Islam. The MLA made national news last year when he publicly threatened to behead a Congress rival, and in Birbhum he is commonly believed to have committed three murders. (It's relevant here to note that Islam had earlier admitted to these murders but has since retracted his confession; his name has been dropped from the chargesheet, prompting allegations that the West Bengal government is protecting him.) When he heard of his relative's predicament, Islam allegedly instructed the Trinamool panchayat men to extricate Khalek from the threatened marriage by paying off the Santals, after which he would "take care" of them. That might explain the sensational FIR implicating the majhi as well.

"For the majhi system [of governance] to pronounce rape as a punishment is absolutely unheard of," comments Ruby Hembrom, who runs an indigenous publishing house, Adivaani, in Kolkata. Nor is such a verdict sanctioned by customary Santal law. Several witnesses from Sreekrishnapur, about 5km away from Subalpur, are willing to testify, moreover, that on the night of the 20th the majhi was staying over in their village. The medical report on the arrested men also seems to exonerate him. for it indicates that he may not be capable of sexual intercourse—contrary to the explicit description provided in Bimala's sworn testimony.

Although this story is exceptionally public, it does not appear to be the most brutal such assault to have occurred recently among Birbhum's Santals. According to the BJMM, in February last year several Santal youths of Rajnagar village near Siuri abducted, raped and hanged from a tree a 13-year-old Santal girl from their own village. The gang so terrorized her family members for the next few days that they could not leave the village to register an FIR until members of the BJMM arrived and escorted them to the police station. "But nothing came of it," says social worker Ghasiram Hembrom of the BJMM: the police, allegedly because of pressure from the village's Trinamool panchayat, submitted a report of suicide and closed the case. The girl's family has since left the village altogether for fear of the thugs, Hembrom adds.

True, in the past Santals may have committed rapes, never before have so many young men turned with such concerted ferocity upon their women. The tragedy is all the more acute, comments Felix Padel, when one recalls that traditional Adivasi culture "is extremely sophisticated in its handling of romance and love." Santals were once celebrated for their love songs, their exceptional skill in playing the flute, and their erotic moonlight dances—reminiscent of krishnalila, or Krishna's love play. Ethnologist Edward T Dalton wrote lyrically in 1872 that every Santal village featured an open space, to which "the young men frequently resort after their evening meal, and the sound of their flutes and drums soon attract the maidens, who smooth and adjust their long hair, and adding to it a flower or two, blithely join them." After the dance, a man and woman who fancy each other might vanish into the forest.

Xavier Dias, editor of Khan Khaneej aur Adhikaar, a newsletter on mining and human rights published out of Jharkhand, says that among Adivasis "you wouldn't see cases of sex without romance. Sexuality in tribal culture is not restricted to genital contact. In Ho they say, 'I went to the market and I spoke to a girl, that was very exciting.' It's so different from the culture I grew up in Bombay or Bangalore, where if you refer to a girl you speak of her anatomy or her sex appeal."

To this day, Adivasis boast greater equality between men and women than mainstream Indians, as evinced by a 2011 census finding that scheduled tribes have the best gender ratio in India: 990 women for every 1000 men. (Because of female foeticide and neglect of girls, especially in more 'developed' states such as Punjab and Haryana, India as a whole has only 943 women to 1000 men.)Indeed, out of 58 tribes surveyed, 27 had more women than men. Among the tribes, however, the gender ratio for children aged six years or younger is lower than for adults. This worrisome development, which indicates an increased preference for boys, may result from the fact that the mainstream practice of dowry, which turns girls into an economic liability, appears to be slowly replacing the tradition of bride price among Santals and several other tribes. And although the more "advanced" or settled tribes, such as the Santals, have patriarchal political structures and some abusive practices such as witch hunts, nomadic tribes such as the Bonda of Odisha or the Jarawa of the Andaman Islands treat men and women as more or less equal. Rapes by men from these allegedly "primitive" communities are virtually unknown.

Rahul Banerjee, a social worker with Bhil tribes in Alirajpur district of Madhya Pradesh, attributes an apparent increase in gender-related violence in this community to the ingress of consumer culture. Adivasi men who want to buy televisions or expensive mobile phones are migrating to Gujarat and other wealthy states, he says, and often return with large quantities of cash savings. As a result, property values in Alirajpur have shot up, fuelling an unexpected increase in witch-hunts—typically, a woman who owns assets that her relatives' covet is targeted and killed for being a 'witch'. A few of these newly wealthy men have also raped women and gotten away with the crime by paying the panchayat a fine. "Earlier, there used to be community control over behaviour" via the traditional tribal councils, says Banerjee. Now, with the elected and usually venal panchayat leaders taking all the key decisions, "you can buy your way out."

Another pernicious influence, that Banerjee and virtually every other close observer of rural India points to, is the spread of pornography, some of it violent, by mobile phones. Dias says that porn arrived in Jharkhand in the early 1990s with the VCR. Village youths would buy a TV, rent a generator, and show movies, including "blue" films, for a small fee such as a fistful of rice. Now every small town and most villages in tribal India boast that service mobile phones and, for a fee, download pornographic video clips onto phones' memory chips. These are then passed around. Many men are also making and circulating their own pornographic clips without the knowledge or consent of the women involved. Saadi Murmu, a Santal school teacher in Garia in Birbhum, says she has seen boys as young as ten watching such films.

Picturing the sex act as a pounding of body parts—bereft of romance or even a story line—pornographic films depict women as objects to be used by men. What is more, Dias finds that many Adivasi youth believe the loveless encounters they view in these films to be the norm in the diku (non-Adivasi) society to which they inspire. "Here, your whole concept of the real world is the diku world," Dias explains. An Adivasi youth watching porn comes to believe that "this is what dikus do. This is how dikus have sex, so this probably is the right way to have sex." Adivasi men may in fact be particularly vulnerable, says anthropologist Sita Venkateswar of Massey University in New Zealand, to imbibing "the films of masculinity that are rendered visible and validated through these films—because their existing sense of self and forms of being are under attack." Test studies have shown that the brutal genre called "rape porn", in particular, tends to validate rape in the minds of men who may already be inclined to commit the crime.

The primary source of sexual aggression in Adivasi society is, however, the overt violence being visited upon it by mainstream society. Adivasi culture in West Bengal's Birbhum started to disintegrate with the advent of stone quarries in the 1970s, says social worker Kunal Deb, who runs an NGO based near Siuri. As the industry encroached, ravaging fields, crops and streams with boulders and dust, agriculture became increasingly unviable. Santals either sold their land and fled the area or started working as labourers in the quarries and crushers (which break boulders into stone chips). There, the women were routinely raped by footloose migrants attracted by the thousands to the area by the lucrative mining industry, working as quarry owners, managers, overseers as well as truck drivers and their lackeys.

In the early 1990s, recalls Santal school teacher Baburji Kisku of Garia village, an abandoned quarry near Siuri had most of its accumulated water pumped out. As the water level receded, it revealed  some 10 to 15 sacks near the bottom—each holding the remnants of a human being. No one knew who these victims were but everyone presumed them to be Santals: women who’d been raped and killed by their overseers, men who'd protested the violation of a wife or sister and had also been slain, or labourers from afar who'd perished in mining accidents and simply been dumped. Because the mine owners—all men from mainstream diku society—openly carried guns and boasted of friends among the police and politicians, no one had dared to demand an investigation into these murders. "Many men told me their own sisters had been raped in front of their eyes, and if they protested they were warned off with a pistol," says Kisku.

Such outrages are not restricted to West Bengal or even India. In tribal areas across the world, mining and other forms of industrialization appear to be inextricably entwined with sexual violence United Nations Special Rapporteur James Anaya stated in January: "Indigenous women have reported that the influx of worker; into indigenous communities as a result of extractive projects [has] led to increased incidents of sexual harassment and viokice, including rape and assault." Such violations were contributing to the spread of HIV, he added.

Dias states that when he first arrived in Singbhum (in what is now Jharkhand) in 1974, "the only rapes I heard of were by forest guards. That's how the rape culture started here. And never, never until say about 1985, did I hear of an Adivasi raping someone."As mechanization vastly increased the scale of mining and hitherto untouched areas were opened up, matters deteriorated. "From 2005 onward, some 2,000 trucks started plying daily in the Saranda forest " continues Dias. "Each truck coming in with a driver, a cleaner, and others." As a result, he says, thousands of Munda, Santal, and Ho women in these tribal areas were raped or forced into prostitution. Such abuse has a storied history, he adds, accounting for the existence of an "Azaad Basti", or Freedom Slum, in each of the state's major steel cities of Jamshedpur and Noamundi. Officials visit their Adivasi mistresses there for virtually, free sex—which explains the name.
[source : Grist Media, 28 July, 2014]

Vol. 47, No. 10, Sep 14 - 20, 2014