Indian court to investigate after council orders woman raped

A council of elders ordered that a woman be raped after allegedly taking issue with her relationship with a man

Indian police escort men accused of a gang rape to a court in the Indian state of West Bengal on Thursday.

A 20-year-old woman was hospitalized after allegedly being gang-raped by up to 13 men on the orders of village elders in India's West Bengal state. The elders had objected to the woman's relationship with a man, and her family could not afford to pay a fine upon discovery of the affair, police officials said Thursday.

The woman was hospitalized Thursday in serious condition; some reports listed her in critical condition. Television footage showed the woman, her face covered by scarves, being led into a hospital with an IV tube in her arm. 

"The morol (village headman) ordered that I be 'enjoyed' by the men of the village," the New Delhi–based NDTV quoted the woman as saying. "Following his orders, at least 10 to 12 people, including (some) members of a single family, continuously raped me. I lost count of how many times I was raped."

On Friday, India's Supreme Court ordered an investigation into the incident, according to the Press Trust of India news agency.

Some local news reports said the elders took issue with the woman's relationship with the man because he was from a different community. Other reports said the village council attacked her because she fell in love with a man from a different religion. 

The woman told police that the man visited her village on Monday to propose marriage, but was caught by other villagers. She said the two of them were tied to a tree while the village council decided their fate.

Thirteen men have been arrested in the Monday night attack, police said. On Friday the West Bengal state government transferred the top police official of the district for failing to follow proper procedures while arresting the suspects.

The alleged gang rape occurred earlier this week at Subalpur village in Birbhum district, some 124 miles from Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal. The village chief and his associates reportedly asked the couple to pay a fine of 25,000 rupees ($400) each for the alleged indiscretion.

Reports said that the man was able to pay the fine. But when the woman's family said they were too poor to pay, the council ordered the gang rape. Police said the woman's male companion was tied up in the village square while the assault on the woman happened in a mud house, Reuters reported. 

‘Stringent action’ needed

Orders from village councils are not legally binding in India, but they are seen as the will of the local community. The councils decide on social norms in villages, and in some cases they dictate the way women can dress or who they can marry. Those who flout the councils risk being ostracized.

Annie Raja, general secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women, said that the local councils destroy women's rights.

"They are dead set against giving basic human rights to women," she said. "These are nonconstitutional bodies, and the West Bengal government should take stringent action against them."

Four years ago, a village council in Birbhum district ordered a young woman paraded naked through the village. She was accused of falling in love with a man from a different caste.

In October, a teenager was gang-raped on two consecutive days in a Kolkata suburb. She was later set on fire when she refused to withdraw a police complaint against the men who had raped her. She died in a hospital last month, spurring widespread protests in the city.

Earlier this month, a Danish tourist was gang-raped in New Delhi by a group of men when she stopped to ask them for directions to her hotel.

India's Supreme Court has in the past issued opinions condemning the councils as illegal bodies. Several legal organizations are pushing parliament to pass a comprehensive law that would make edicts by local councils illegal. 

Al Jazeera and wire services 

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