The gangrape may have brought the tribal councils of this West Bengal district to notoriety, but it wasn’t the first sexual abuse on their orders. What is more at play here though is growing outside interference in a region considered a vote bank, writes Madhuparna Das.
On January 29 evening, 900 people of a village in Birbhum district’s Labhpur block gathered near the hut of their headman. The hut, located in a secluded part of the village, was deserted. The meeting was taking place after dusk. The villagers had met to elect a new ‘Majhi Haram’ or headman.
The new headman, 60-year-old Bhujuram Hembram, replaced the old Majhi Haram, Balai Mardi, who was arrested on January 22 following the gangrape of a 20-year-old tribal girl by allegedly 13 people, reportedly on his orders.
In his first decree as a headman, passed that evening, Hembram banned village girls intermingling with non-tribal youths, especially “Bidharmi (or Muslim)”.
The January 29 meeting officially did not take place. Following the January 20 gangrape, that made it to national headlines as another in India’s list of shocking sexual assaults, particularly because of the brazenness of it, superintendents of police were told to prevent tribal courts being held in their areas.
The villagers at that meeting said they had no choice. They had defied Section 144, prohibiting assembly, because a Majhi Haram is their first point of contact in the quick justice system in place in the villages of Bengal’s tribal belt, particularly Birbhum.
“Our community cannot function without a Majhi Haram. We are Santhals and we have our own style of living, we do not want any outside interference. We do not go to the panchayat or to the police station, we go to our village headman, and he resolves our issues,” says Ajit Soren, a 58-year-old member of the village council.
Insisting that “our god is different”, Soren is unapologetic about what allegedly provoked the assault on the tribal girl: that she had “relations” with a Muslim youth of a neighbouring village. “We have strict rules that we do not marry our daughters to Bidharmis. Our daughters should be taught with whom they should mix.” What no one denies though is that the gangrape, bringing the region and its tribal councils much notoriety, was an aberration.
The girl and her friend were tied to trees as a ‘tribal court’ passed a decree against them. The girl was allegedly gangraped as her family could not pay the penalty of Rs 20,000 imposed by the headman.
Experts on Santhals say this kind of an incident in a tribal community is unprecedented. What is clear is that the court that passed the order against the girl was not strictly a ‘tribal court’. Police investigations have revealed that local leaders continued…