A Handful of Stories

Long and short features on the arts. Some science. And a few profiles

It Happened One Night

Thirteen people have been sentenced to 20 years for the gangrape of a tribal woman in West Bengal’s Birbhum district earlier this year. The trial was so swift that the judge didn’t wait for forensic test results. Many Rashomon versions of the case exist, but the long shadow of one political party is common to all of them 

SOHINI CHATTOPADHYAY | 1 December 2014

In that beautiful imprecise light in which dreams come, it is never clear to Pakuh Maddi whether it’s morning or evening, but Balai, her son, is home. He does not speak—they were not in the habit of speaking much, mother and son. He is waiting, perhaps, to eat his rice before going to the fields or resting a little after work, but he looks content. Her grandson is there too, curling up around his father.

Not much happens in the dream, but they are all home, she says. For many years it has been just them, mother and son and grandson. Balai’s wife left so long ago that the boy does not ask about her any more. They were happy, the three of them, in the home they made.

When Pakuh wakes, it is to a different home. Though it is only next door to the house in the dream, still it feels unfamiliar and unsettling. She lives with her daughter now, her son has been arrested for gangrape.

Pakuh is old and tough, her leathery skin ridged like a Lay’s potato chip. She has no idea how old she is—she was born at home like everyone else in the village, no birth certificate has marked her years. But she is still a hard, straight-backed worker, bending down to spread out paddy on the ground, effortlessly picking up toddlers who come crying, sweeping the path in front of her home. It is a strength born of years labouring in the fields under the glowering Birbhum sun in West Bengal.

Birbhum

Pakuh Maddi, the headman’s mother

In the nine months since her son was arrested, she has only been able to meet him once. She travelled to Bolpur jail, where her son was lodged until recently, with her grandson in tow. It took almost three hours by bus, and then a rickshaw.

“Balai was crying. He asked me to get him out of here again and again. He said he just wants to come home. I said, ‘I want to go home too’.”

On January 23, news broke of a barbaric assault: a woman of the Santhal tribe in Subalpur village in Birbhum had been gangraped by 13 men on the orders of the village chief. The story that has been widely reported goes that the woman was rounded up with her Muslim lover. The couple were tied with rope and brought to the meeting area in the village. Here, the community gathered to watch, and the council fined the couple for the “crime of falling in love with a member of another community” (nearly every report has used these words or a variation of these). The judgment calls the council a “kangaroo court”.

When the woman and her family expressed their inability to pay, the headman, Balai Maddi, was reported to have said, “Then enjoy yourself with her.”

Thirteen men—12 Santhals from Subalpur village and Debraj Mondal from the neighbouring village of Rajarampur—were arrested for taking him up on the offer.

The story sparked national and international outrage. The Independent in the UK headlined it: “Young woman Attacked on Bamboo Platform in front of Entire Village”;The New York Times said, “Village Council in India Accused of Ordering Rape”, and Bloomberg reported, “Gang Rape Reveals Vigilante India in Rural Villages”.

On September 19, a little more than a month after the case came to trial in the court of the Additional District Sessions judge in Bolpur, all 13 men were found guilty of gangrape. The following day, they were sentenced to 20 years rigorous imprisonment and fined Rs.5,000 each. Since the men are unable to pay the fine, they will serve an additional year in prison.

But Additional District Judge Siddhartha Ray Chowdhury added an unusual, humane corollary: he directed the district administration to “look after the kith and kin who were dependent on any convict and have no other means of livelihood”. In cases of criminal assault, particularly sexual assault, sympathy and thoughts for justice flow, naturally, to the victim(s). The government of West Bengal paid compensation of Rs.50,000 to the woman and constructed a house for her family, with a latrine and a tubewell nearby. In addition, the Supreme Court took suo motu cognisance of the incident and directed the state government on March 28, 2014, to pay compensation of Rs.5 lakh to the woman.

To keep in mind the families of convicts is not unheard of, but it is unusual and affecting. The conversation about convicts centres on an insistence on swift punishment—“castrate them”, “hang them now”, and perhaps the most insistent of them all, “there are no rapes in Saudi Arabia. We need to be as strict”. Families of convicts receive little or no discussion in India, except when newspapers manage to get access to them and publish their photos next to the convicts, often incriminating them by association. If the families are rich and influential, though, a ‘good’ background is sometimes furnished as proof of a convict’s innocence.

*****

Birbhum 2

Inside Subalpur

Subalpur is an agricultural village, four kilometres off the paved road from the Birbhum district headquarters of Siuri. The dirt track to the village is a smooth ride amid gentle paddy green. The men and women here work as agricultural labour, growing paddy and earning between Rs.100 and Rs.120 for a full day on the fields. Work is seasonal, rolling by the rhythms of the paddy crop. There is not enough work for every day of the month. A few people are sharecroppers.

Every household has a card to 100 days of work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) scheme but payments are erratic. A household of (typically) five has to work long and lucky to bring home Rs.4,000 a month.

The village has electricity lines running overhead but connections have not been provided. Several households, nevertheless, have helped themselves to a line, enough to support a bulb or two.

Some households own cows, buffaloes and goats, but most of these are gone now, sold to pay the lawyer’s fees in the case. There is an anganwadi school right next to the village and three teachers show up regularly, says a constable in a police camp located next to the school. Children from Subalpur do come, he says, the school provides lunch. Children show up until the time they are able to work a full day on the fields and get paid a full day’s wages. Land-owning farmers are particular about the work they can o

The only student in Subalpur who was preparing for his Class 10 board Madhyamik examination is in jail; he is one of the 13 convicted in the gangrape case.

The judge is right to worry. Half the hard-bodied, earning men in the village are gone, a lot of its cattle and stocks of dried paddy sold. Subalpur looks like a village on distress sale.

*****

The boy who was readying for his Class 10 exams is Balai Maddi’s nephew Gudo Maddi. Pakuh now lives with her daughter Gonas (who is Gudo’s mother and Balai’s sister). She is a thin woman with large, kind eyes, and a weariness that shrouds her presence.

Pakuh is too old to live alone. Besides, she has nothing to live on. Balai owned two cows which were sold for the lawyer’s fees. There is only the widow’s pension that amounts to Rs 3,000 for six months.

There are six people in Gonas’s household now—her two other sons and husband, her mother Pakuh, and Balai’s little boy. Gonas’s family does not own any cattle; her husband sold all their stocks of paddy. It’s a good day if one member finds paid work in the fields. “There was also the expense of travelling to meet the lawyers, and our son and brother in jail. At least, that is over now,” says Gonas.

The household often goes to sleep early these days. “We eat when there is money. We go to sleep early when there isn’t. It’s a simple score,” says Gonas.

Birbhum 4

Gonas Maddi: Both her brother and son have been arrested for the gangrape

On the day Gudo was arrested, he had come home from school in the afternoon and was helping with errands, Gonas remembers. It was two days since the woman had been caught with her lover Khalek, and mother and son talked about her, and “also this and that”.

In the judgment, Khalek is described as the woman’s fiancé and the father of two children.

“It was winter then, and the weak evening light was slipping away when the police came in a car and called out lightly for him. ‘Come along’, they said casually. Besides, his uncle was also there, so we didn’t think much of it,” says Gonas. She didn’t know then that it would be the last time he would be home in an afternoon like that one, chatting.

“I wish Gudo had never spoken with that girl,” she says. “Once, they had a fight. We thought that was long forgotten, she even used to joke with him of late. But I suppose she never forgave us,” says Gonas. “How was I to know what she had in her heart?”

“Why are you telling her these things?” a man asks angrily. “She will write the same things about us, they don’t listen to us, they only take photos and listen to what the police says.” The man refuses to identify himself, the fragile understanding of a few minutes is broken, and the conversation lapses.

I seek out Mallika Tudo, who has been quoted in a couple of the news reports on the incident. She is scornful. “Oh, tomra! (Oh, you people!)” she says by way of greeting. Mallika is a shapely young woman who fills out a torn sari and blouse with straight-backed pride, and sneers with enviable potency. But she is willing to speak.

“A group of people decided to walk to the (local Labhpur) police station after the police came and took five people with them. When we got there, Monirul Islam (the local Trinamool MLA) was directing proceedings. The police arrested eight more men from our party. My brother-in-law, Jyatha Tudo was one of them.”

Mallika’s husband is the eldest of five and his parents lived nearby with the other four siblings—Jyatha, another brother, and two sisters. “Jyatha used to go out to work and handed over whatever he earned to the parents. The other siblings are too young; only my father-in-law is responsible for feeding five people now. Jyatha is so young too, I don’t think he has been with a girl before. He’s still shy, I am close to him in age, he’s never even made a pass at me. Why would he suddenly pounce on her?” asks Mallika.

Birbhum 3

Mallika Tudo says Trinamul MLA Monirul Islam was at the police station and directing the police to arrest the men from Subalpur who had gone to the station.

Mallika believes the woman was annoyed because villagers had told her not to meet her lover. And she was especially furious and humiliated because she was caught in bed with him, and forced to come out before the gathered village. “We don’t like Muslims, they use us for sex but they never marry us. We don’t want our girls to be treated like prostitutes but she wouldn’t listen. She didn’t care about what we said any more. She had fallen out of touch with our ways since she came back from the big city (Delhi),” she says.

Her father-in-law Sanatan Tudo has stopped on spotting me, an outsider, and scowls over the conversation. He is a short man with a fierce moustache that never curves into a smile these days. He motions to me to put away the camera, and speaks: “It is because of Muslim involvement that this matter flared up like this. And you people! Khalek’s brother had brought party (Trinamool Congress) people to the council the day after we caught Khalek with the girl. This was the first time that members of any political party intervened in our community councils, and we were afraid, uneasy.

“We wanted Khalek to marry the girl and we asked this, but he disagreed. Come to think of it, she too disagreed.” The judgment says that Khalek had gone to the woman’s house to ask her mother for the woman’s hand in marriage, but her mother wasn’t home.

Sanatan continues, “Three or four party people then fixed a sum of money for Khalek’s release, and signed a piece of paper as agreement. None of us in Subalpur signed or thumbed the sheet. We were given Rs.500 to buy mod (liquor).The next day, the police came and took away five men. Then you people came, even from London and America, and shamed us.

“Do you know what it is like to lose a child?” asks Sanatan, his voice uneven now. “Not to death, but like this when you know he is there but you can’t be with him, you can’t touch him or laugh with him.”

This is the first time Sanatan has had anything to do with a court or a lawyer, and they make him queasy, he says. He wants his son Jyatha out of jail as soon as possible, “out of the reach of you Bengalis,” he adds. Sanatan sold the three cows he owned, purchased gradually over the years with the family’s careful savings. The paddy he had harvested is sold too. Until the fall harvest is reaped, there is nothing more to sell.

Malati Tudo, a gentle, dreamy-looking young woman who has been listening, speaks up. “We didn’t have any cattle or birds to sell, only paddy.” Malati is no direct relation to Sanatan’s family. Her father Balu Tudo was among the eight men arrested at the Labhpur police station.

She says, “My mother sold the paddy we had and took ill, a strange enervating condition that keeps her in bed all day. My father was part of the group that went to the station after five people were picked up from the village. That afternoon, when we were eating our lunch, the girl had come out shouting, threatening to take revenge on us all. We thought she was drunk. A little later, we saw her leaving on her bicycle. My father was wondering whether the police coming to the village had anything to do with the girl, and told us that he would go and check. He was arrested at the Labhpur station.”

The family has fallen short of two regular incomes after Balu Tudo’s arrest: Malati’s mother can no longer summon the energy to go out to the fields. Her two brothers are too young. Her elder sister, who worked occasionally earlier, is the sole earner now for the remaining household of five.

October is the lean season, there’s little to do but wait for the harvest. Some days there is no work for Malati’s sister, too. Then the siblings stay home with the mother and sleep in so they don’t feel hungry.

*****

From such accounts in Subalpur emerges a version of events that is substantively different from the widely-reported narrative of what transpired between January 20 and 22. There are very slender variations in the accounts I heard in Subalpur, but overall they coalesce toward a similar picture. And that goes like this.

Birbhum 6

The woman’s house in Subalpur village lies boarded up, overrun with the overgrowth around

On January 20, a Monday, the woman’s lover Khalek was seen entering her house. The villagers were annoyed at her defiance towards them and some of them decided to go to her house. They found the couple in bed, brought them to the meeting place in front of the morol’s home, and tied them to the palm tree there. People from the village gathered, but the morol was not in Subalpur that evening. They decided to hold a village council the next morning, and guarded the couple at night. It is likely that the women and children went home to sleep; it was a cold January night.

The next morning, on January 21, people from four neighbouring villages arrived—including Khalek’s village, Ghazipara. His brothers also brought local Trinamool leaders and supporters. The morol Balai Maddi also returned. The Santhals were overwhelmed by the huge crowd that gathered, and nervous because of the presence of the party. When the council began, the Santhals asked that Khalek marry the woman. Khalek refused, as did she.

An agreement was then drawn up, Subalpur residents say, where Khalek was asked to pay the villagers of Subalpur Rs.25,000, and the woman Rs.3,000. Some Santhals mention receiving Rs.500, with which they decided to buy mod (liquor). The gathering then dispersed.

But in actuality, the piece of paper signed (of which I have a copy) makes no mention of any monetary agreement. It merely notes that the resolution reached was acceptable to both parties. Two local Trinamool leaders—Ajay Mondal and Sekhar Bairagya—and Khalek signed this sheet of paper. Mondal is also a member of the local gram panchayat. Nobody from Subalpur has signed or thumbed the sheet (or, according to the village, even read the writing on the paper).

On the afternoon of Wednesday, January 22, a number of people in the village say they saw the woman around lunchtime; she was shouting drunkenly that she would have her revenge. At about 5 p.m., police showed up at the village and picked up four men and another, Debraj Mondal, from the neighbouring village of Rajarampur. When a group of Santhals went to the police station to find out what had happened, eight men were arrested.

According to Mallika Tudo, the Trinamool MLA for Labhpur, Monirul Islam was present at the station. In his testimony before the court, the woman’s brother also referred to Islam’s presence at the Labhpur police station on January 22, and this is noted in the final judgment. Both sides to this case have therefore spoken of his presence.

From the accounts of Subalpur residents and other evidence, there is very little to indicate that a tribal council order was issued to order to rape the woman. Moreover, this was not a traditional Santhal council, as was widely reported, because several outsiders from neighbouring villages were present, and the meeting was led by local Trinamool leaders. One of them, Ajay Mondal, is a member of the local Chowhatta Modohari I gram panchayat, which was confirmed by panchayat pradhan Mohd Phiroz over the telephone. If anything then, this was a council led by a democratically-elected representative.

However, it is likely that the woman was sexually assaulted. A preliminary report from the medical officer in Suri Sadar Hospital notes abrasions and several nail scratches on her body. It does not conclude rape, and refers vaginal swabs for forensic review. In court, the examining doctor said that he did not find “any mark of violence on her genital”. There is photographic evidence, retrieved from Debraj Mondal’s camera, which suggests the assault took place on the night of January 20 at about 8.30 p.m. This may have been when many Subalpur residents retired to their homes for sleep.

But the widely-reported story that the gangrape was ordered by the council or the headman appears to be based solely on the account of the victim. This is the version recorded by the police. Some news reports casually lumped Santhal councils with the khaps of north India, which are different entities. That only one story, reported by Madhusree Mukherjee and published by Yahoo! Originals, seriously questions the fact that a tribal council order was issued to rape the woman, tells us how selective our hearing is.

“In the majhi-morol system of Santhals, the residents of a village are called the sons and daughters of the majhi or morol,” says Nityananda Hembrom, the dishom majhi or Supreme Chief of Santhals in India. “Today, if someone asks me who I am, I will say I am the son of my village’s majhi. How can such a father-figure order the rape of a daughter of the village? This has never happened in Santhal society and I believe this episode is completely framed. There is a conspiracy to destroy our traditional system of justice. I am not sure but perhaps they want to take over our land, our resources and this is a huge blow to weaken our society, its framework.”

*****

When the verdict was pronounced, she asked us to read it aloud from the newspaper,” says Basanti Das, the warden in charge of the home where the woman has been staying since January 31. “She seemed happy to hear it.”

The Asha Short Stay Home is a tired, grim building at the corner of one of Suri’s narrow residential lanes. Its name, like the names of most buildings in India, is a false promise: residents (all women) are stuck months, even years, inside its unsightly blue walls. The woman and her mother have been here more than eight months, with a policeman outside the gate. Another policeman is parked inside the home. “There were so many media people at first. And what if some of the villagers landed up here?” Das says.

The district magistrate’s office tells me that the woman is not allowed to step out of the home, even with a police escort, and refuses to give permission to speak to her. She was only allowed to leave the premises for the proceedings; a police car picked her up from outside the gates and dropped her back. Das and two colleagues fret that she’s put on weight shut in like this, so they have asked her to run up and down the stairs. She spends her days watching TV and chatting with her mother and the other residents at the home. She loves to dance, copying the steps from the songs on television, says one of Das’s colleagues. She helps occasionally with chopping vegetables and cooking but doesn’t really enjoy it. “She has cooked for us though,” says Das. “She is a good girl that way.”

The woman is reasonably cheerful but bored, speaking often of going to her new home, constructed by the state government. It is five kilometres from Subalpur and has a latrine, and a tubewell nearby.

The state government organised for sewing and other such forms of rehabilitation training for her, but those are now long over. The woman had asked to learn how to read and write when she first came to the home, and slates, chalk, pen and paper were arranged. But she soon lost interest. It was the warden who insisted that she learn how to spell her name at least. Only her thumbprint was added to the testimony she offered before the judicial magistrate of Birbhum under Section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) on January 30.

The 13-page account of the night of January 20 is vivid. This is the testimony on which the case against the 13 men was built. It agrees with the version of the Subalpur residents on several details, but differs crucially on the events of the night of January 20-21, the presence of morol Balai Maddi right from the start of events on January 20, and the piece of paper signed as a mark of agreement. It also contains certain details that her fellow residents in Subalpur did not mention—that the villagers had come to round up the couple sticks in hand, that drink had been ordered after the couple was tied.

The gist of her statement is this: The woman’s boyfriend of three months, Khalek, had come to meet her at her home in Subalpur late afternoon, with the purpose of asking her mother for her hand in marriage. Her mother was away. While the woman made tea, Khalek helped put away her paddy stocks drying outside. A bunch of Subalpur residents burst in at this time, sticks in hand. The woman was worried they might kill Khalek. Morol Balai Maddi tied the couple with their hands behind their backs. The couple were dragged to the village meeting place, the open space outside Balai’s home, and tied to a palm tree there. (Pictures from Debraj Mondal’s camera show the couple was tied up on the night of January 20.) Some villagers spoke of organising liquor. This was done and people got quite inebriated.

They demanded big money: Rs.1.5 lakh from the woman and Rs.2.5 lakh from Khalek. Balai Maddi said that if the woman’s family couldn’t pay, have fun with the woman. He said this aloud. The woman says she overheard someone saying it was about 11.30 p.m. then. The image from Debraj Mondal’s camera which shows a pair of buttocks against a lungi was taken at about 8.30 p.m. on January 20.

A man called Madan Maddi told the woman she could sleep with Balai’s mother. He untied the rope around her hands and pulled her forcibly towards Balai’s cooking shed. She says she screamed but no one paid attention. Madan pushed her down to the floor in the shed, and Debraj Mondal held her head down with his feet. Several people were sitting on the floor of the shed by then. There was barely any light, the night was cold.

She mentions being afraid. In the beginning she had resisted but Sunil Kisku, one of the men convicted, clawed her on her cheek, stomach and breasts. Then she submitted.

She was then repeatedly raped on the ground. Debraj often clamped her mouth shut. At one point, she was close to losing consciousness. She remembers Debraj asking for hot water and Lalu Kisku bringing it. He splashed warm water on her face and head. He helped lift her on the khatiya (charpoy) in the shed. She was then raped again twice.

When the rape ended, Debraj told her to remember them when she spoke the next day. He told her the couple would not be fined. If she had resisted, he said, they would have killed her and Khalek both. They would call old men from outside to rape her.

It was about 4 a.m. then. The first light had broken. She asked to be taken to Khalek but Debraj Mondal said he might suspect they had done something to her. A little later, Sunil Kisku took her to Khalek and tied her to the palm tree again. Someone brought Khalek his mobile phone, which he used to call his brother Faroque Sheikh. The brother arrived soon with four other villagers from Ghazipara. Khalek was fined Rs.25,000. She didn’t see if he paid the money. His brother took Khalek away. She was fined Rs.2,000, which her brothers couldn’t pay then, but they were allowed to take her back home. When she reached, she collapsed on the bed.

On Wednesday, January 22, she went to the Labhpur police station with her brothers to register an FIR. This is where her statement ends. On January 24, the Supreme Court took suo motu cognisance of the incident.

The woman’s complaint was transcribed by a man called Anirban Mondal, and was later converted into an FIR by sub-inspector Kazi Mohammad Hossain. The presence of Anirban Mondal has been questioned by the Supreme Court bench comprising P. Sathasivam, S. A. Bobde and N. V. Ramana. To this, the investigating officer in the case, deputy superintendent of police (Dy. SP) Partha Ghosh, replied that the woman had chosen Anirban Mondal as her scribe to record her testimony. But he offered no further explanation for this man’s acquaintance with the woman, or how he came to be involved in the case.

The judgment says that Anirban Mondal is a graduate whom the girl asked to write her complaint as she is illiterate.

The SC has also asked why a female officer was not present when the woman gave her testimony to the police under Section 161 of the CrPC (examination of witnesses by the police), and why the police accepted her statement in précis form: a concise version of what the woman elaborated before the judicial magistrate under CrPC section 164 (recording of confessions and statements). This has made it difficult, they have pointed out, to compare it to the testimony given before the judicial magistrate.

Ghosh, however, maintains her testimony is the same: “The 1.5 page statement she made before the police is the same as the 13-page account before the magistrate. In essence. She has gone into detail there”.

But can a 1.5 page statement really be the same as a 13-page one?

“Personally,” he adds, “I don’t think she was raped by 13 men. Probably three to five men, led by Debraj Mondal. He is the mastermind.”

But the law, he explains, is clear on all 13 men’s culpability. He opens the latest edition of the Indian Penal Code lying on his desk, promptly finds the page he is looking for, and pushes the book toward me, pointing to Section 376(D) which lists gangrape.

It says: “Where a woman is raped by one or more persons, constituting a group or acting in furtherance of a common intention, each of those persons shall be deemed to have committed the offence of rape and shall be punished with rigorous imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than 20 years, but which may extend to life which shall mean imprisonment for the remainder of the person’s natural life and with fine.”

Ghosh’s interpretation is that “acting in furtherance of a common intention” implicates those who were present at the rape scene and goaded others on even if they did not commit rape themselves.

The woman’s statement contains some minor discrepancies, but it’s only natural that a person under assault will have some inconsistencies in an account. The major question that arises from the woman’s account is that there is no mention of the council that met on January 21 which included Trinamool members Ajay Mondal and Sekhar Bairagya. What of the piece of paper which also carries Khalek’s signature? The woman’s account makes no mention of this.

But the real questions in this case are about the Trinamool and the curiously selective police investigation. Why is there only a cosmetic explanation for Anirban Mondal’s presence? The exact shape of the woman’s testimony could well have been fashioned by political pressure and a pliable police. In the case of the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl in Murshidabad district in West Bengal in June 2013, the victim’s brother had complained that police made him sign a blank sheet of paper. The politician-police nexus is one of the oldest (and still most potent) stories there is.

*****

Every single person I spoke to in Subalpur mentioned, sometimes twice, the unease caused by the presence of the Trinamool Congress at the council. They were nervous and afraid, and they quickly agreed to a settlement made in the presence of outsiders, and dictated by outsiders. Local political leaders wield considerable power over everyday life in the area, including the release of payments for work done under the MNREGA scheme.

The district of Birbhum is a Trinamool Congress stronghold. The Birbhum MP is Satabdi Roy of the Trinamool, and the Bolpur MP is Anupam Hazra also from the party. The Labhpur MLA is Monirul Islam of the Trinamool Congress. The Chowhatta Modihara I gram panchayat—under which Subalpur village falls—is also controlled by the party.

Panchayat pradhan Mohd Phiroz, a Trinamool man, says all 15 members of the panchayat are from the party. One of them is Ajay Mondal, whose signature is present on the piece of paper signed as an agreement in Subalpur, dated January 21, 2014.

Local party leaders got involved in the Subalpur village council at the behest of Khalek’s brother, Faroque Sheikh, who brought them along with him on the morning of January 21. Ghosh has a further explanation: “The Trinamool got involved because they were worried that the Santhals might kill the couple. They can do anything when they are angry.”

But this seems an ill-informed remark even in the context of very recent history. The Santhal agitation against stone quarry miners in the district in 2010 was notable for its non-violence, details of which follow later in the story. It is true that an organised protest is not the same as an incendiary incident like that of the night of January 20, but framing the Santhals as a violent, wild people is disingenuous.

The Trinamool Congress’s support for, and reliance on, Muslims is well-known. Muslims constitute 25.2 per cent of West Bengal’s population, according to the 2001 census. In the 2014 general election, the state elected the most Muslim MPs to this Lok Sabha—eight, of which four are from the Trinamool. On the other hand, the Santhals comprise about 2.85 per cent of the state population, a much smaller vote base, and so far not pursued by any political party.

What is less well-known is that Santhals and Muslims have a troubled relationship in Birbhum, where many of the stone quarries are owned by Muslims or have Muslim contractors. Some Santhals work as labour for them. Work in the quarries is brutal, and labourers, including the Santhals, are reported to be exploited horribly.

There is also rampant sexual abuse. Someswar Boral, Birbhum correspondent for The Times of India, says naked bodies were found dumped carelessly in and around the quarrying region till even four years ago. These were migrant workers, and Santhal women who worked as contract labourers in the stone mines. Work continued till late in the night, and many workers would sleep near the work site. Not much on this was reported in the English language press.

Moreover, mining damages the fertility of adjoining Santhal villages, and blasting in the quarries sends stone chips flying into neighbouring villages, injuring people and damaging property. The quarry-owners are also pushing Santhals off their land, forcing them to leave, and often cheating them of it by marrying Santhal women and getting access to land. “I am not sure but perhaps they want to take over our land, our resources, and this is a huge blow to weaken our society, its frameworks,” Nityananda Hembrom had said, questioning the framing of the rape in Subalpur as a Santhal council order.

Tehelka was possibly the only English-language media outlet to report on the Santhal protest of 2010. In April 2010, a supplier called Bashir-ul-Sheikh was murdered in a Santhal village, provoking violent attacks against the Santhal villages of Chanda and Sagarbandh. The Santhals responded by bringing work at the quarries to a stop for nearly seven months, before the mine owners agreed to abide by legal regulations. The protest has had some lasting effects: owners no longer expand mines at will, and incidents of women being abducted have almost ceased, says Kunal Deb, an activist who set up the organisation Uthnau for the Santhals in the area.

The Muslim-Santhal antipathy has also been played up by the RSS Vanvasi Kalyan ashrams that have come up in Bengal over the past 10 or 15 years, Deb feels. “The quarry-owners are not solely Muslim, 60 per cent are,” Deb says. “But the Hindus behaved no different—blasted mines, callous to the stones raining on neighbouring villages; appropriated land, abused workers and women. But the RSS ashrams have been working overtime to reclaim adivasis into the Hindu fold. If the RSS engineers riots in Bengal, I bet one of the areas most affected will be the quarry land of Birbhum.”

Birbhum is one of the many ongoing chapters of tribal communities coming under pressure from mining activities. One of the consequences of the increasing violence tribal societies face is that they become more aggressive in response, much of this aggression being directed at their own women, the anthropologist Felix Padel has said in reference to the Subalpur incident in the Yahoo! story.

*****

The chargesheet in the case was filed on April 19, 2014, 87 days from the day the FIR was lodged. The accused remained in custody till they sentenced.

Hearings in the Bolpur sub-divisional court began in July. The 13 accused were convicted on September 20, and the sentence was read out on September 21.

From FIR to conviction, this is perhaps the speediest criminal trial in the country, says additional public prosecutor Md Shamsuj Zoha, who represented the prosecution (the woman). Someswar Boral of The Times of India says clerks and officials in Bolpur Court had been predicting the verdict would be out before Puja holidays.

This was possible, Zoha says, due to the exceptional work of Dy. SP Partha Ghosh. He is even lauded in the judgment. Ghosh ensured that the woman, the witnesses, the doctors who examined the woman were all present in court when they were summoned—no doubt an accomplishment of considerable logistical skill.

Ghosh is a tall, slim, handsome young man who looks like he exercises every day. He knows that the trick to accepting a compliment is to deflect it. “Oh, things fell into place here,” he says. “There are other cases, even sexual assault cases, where the complainant does not turn up. Investigation is a matter of gathering pearls. Once the pearls are in place, you put a thread through it.”

But some pearls still appear to be missing, or they haven’t been strung yet.

Ghosh and his team sent 53 items—the judgment mentions 47, but the police say it is 53—for forensic review, but reports for only six or seven items were available at the time of the judgment. These are of images taken on Debraj Mondal’s camera.

The remaining items, including clothes worn by the convicts that night and the woman’s vaginal swabs, have not come back from the forensic laboratory.

Assistant public prosecutor Zoha says the court had allowed one adjournment for the forensic reports to come in, but a second adjournment was refused. This seems surprising given that on February 14, the Supreme Court had asked for “forensic opinion” and “vaginal swab/other medical tests etc. conducted on the victim”. But according to Zoha, the swabs and other results hadn’t come in as of October 9.

Furthermore, this case was decided within eight months of the FIR being filed, leaving slim scope for the argument that forensic reports were delaying proceedings inordinately. The convicts themselves are too poor to have adopted delaying strategies. But the Bolpur court did not wait for the results. The judge himself quotes from the case Dharamdeo Yadav v. State of UP in the judgment: “In this age of science, we have to build legal foundations that are sound in science as well as in law … the traditional methods and tools have become outdated, hence the necessity to strengthen the forensic science for crime detection.”

The conviction has been made primarily on the basis of the woman’s testimony to the judicial magistrate, and the testimony of the other witnesses—the woman’s mother, brother and sister-in-law, Khalek Sheikh and his brother Faroque, Dy. SP Partha Ghosh, and some of the medical officers who examined the woman. The judge mentions that he finds a “ring of truth” to the woman’s testimony.

There are precedents of rape cases in India where credible testimony from the victim is deemed enough to convict the rapist. The judgment cites the 1996 case, State of Punjab v. Gurmit Singh, where the Supreme Court observed, “The testimony of victims in such cases is vital and unless there are compelling reasons, which necessitate looking for corroboration of her statement, the courts should find no difficulty to act on the testimony of a victim of sexual assault alone and to convict an accused where her testimony inspires confidence and is found reliable.”

In 2009, in Rajinder v. the State of Himachal Pradesh, the Supreme Court convicted primarily on the basis of the woman’s testimony, holding that it was unlikely that a self-respecting woman would invite disrepute by alleging rape falsely.

In 2014, in Mukesh v. the State of Chhattisgarh, the Supreme Court made two significant points. One, that the accused can be convicted solely on the basis of the prosecutor’s evidence. Second, that medical evidence is unnecessary in the case of the rape of a married woman to establish rape, as circumstantial evidence is enough for conviction.

Another missing piece in the puzzle is Balai Maddi’s whereabouts on the night of January 20. People in the nearby village of Sreekrishnapur are willing to vouch for Maddi’s presence that night, says Raboy Murmu, a secretary with the Bharat Jakat Majhi Marwa, an association of Santhal chiefs. But no one has asked them yet.

The third point is that a vital piece of evidence is “missing”. Ghosh says the piece of paper that was signed in Subalpur as the settlement regarding the release of Khalek Sheikh and the woman has been lost by the media. Yet, every journalist who has reported this story, including myself, has a copy of this document.

This paper was not admitted as evidence in court. However the testimonies of Khalek and Faroque, recorded in the final judgment, mention their signing this document. Faroque also told the court that Ajay Mondal took Rs.25,000 from him at his home. The judge said that Mondal’s role should be investigated, and he should be charged with extortion if need be.

This paper bears three signatures: those of Ajay Mondal, Sekhar Bairagya and Khalek Sheikh. Mondal and Bairagya are both local Trinamool leaders. Mondal is a member of the local gram panchayat. A Hindustan Times report dated February 1 also identities Bairagya as a Trinamool leader.

But this, Ghosh says, has no bearing on the case. “It is like being a Hindu or Muslim or an atheist. It is a matter of personal choice, which party you belong to,” he says.

Mondal was not called by the police to explain his role in the signed agreement. Ghosh says Mondal was not forthcoming, and the police cannot force anybody to give testimony. But this is verifiably wrong: Section 160 of the Cr. PC requires that an investigating officer must call in everybody who is acquainted with the facts of the case. Only minors below the age of 15, senior citizens above the age of 65, and mentally or physically disabled persons are excused from this requirement. The Bolpur court judgment itself asks the police to investigate Mondal’s role in accepting money from Khalek Sheikh’s family and to book him for extortion if necessary.

Reporter Someswar Boral, who has tried to track down Mondal several times this year, says the man was abrasive and refused to speak when he met him at his shop. He also disconnected Boral’s calls. When I went looking for him, his electronics repair store near Subalpur was shuttered and people nearby said he hadn’t been seen for a week or so. No one knew Bairagya’s whereabouts.

It has not been possible to contact the defence lawyer who represented the convicts in court, Sanjay Jaiswal. He has been incommunicado since the verdict; calls to his number result in a message that the phone is switched off. Newspaper reports after the verdict was pronounced carry no comments from Jaiswal. The defence had a lawyer called Dilip Ghosh before the case came to court, but the Santhals, on someone’s advice, replaced him with Jaiswal.

In some ways, the case has been handled admirably: the sensitivity displayed towards the woman, the promptness with which her compensation has been arranged, and the sense of urgency to deliver justice. But the questions that remain are troubling ones.

*****

In July 2013, Frontline magazine noted that West Bengal had the highest incidence of recorded crimes against women for 2011 and 2012, using data from National Crime Records Bureau. The current government’s handling of high-profile cases of sexual assault has been disappointing, more so for the fact that the chief minister was once the most persistent visitor at Kolkata’s Writers’ Buildings, protesting cases of rape to the former Left Front government.

But in 2012, the Mamata Banerjee government grossly mishandled the rape complaint filed by Suzette Jordan (who identified herself and reclaimed her identity from the media entity “the Park Street rape victim”) in what has come to be known as the Park Street rape case. Banerjee called it a sajanoghatona (fabricated incident).

On October 29, 2013, news broke of a girl who was gangraped by five or six young men in Madhyamgram, eight kilometres north of Calcutta, and then abducted and raped again the next day as she returned from lodging a complaint at the police station with her parents. On December 31, the woman died of burn injuries, her last statement to the police being she had been set alight by two of her rapists the week before. (But there was confusion about this, many media reports initially mention she had immolated herself.)

On June 16 last year, a 14-year-old girl was found raped and murdered, her body dumped in a jute field in Sonadanga village—following which the police made the victim’s brother sign a blank sheet of paper. Days before this, on June 7, it was reported that a 20-year-old college student’s mutilated body was found in a factory in Kamduni. In September, eight people were charged with gangrape.

Amid all this bad news, the Subalpur incident offers the reassuring ring of legal procedure being followed: all the accused were arrested promptly, the woman was paid compensation right away, there were no embarrassing official statements about the woman, there was all-round denunciation of “kangaroo courts”, the trial was swift, and the sentencing strict. This is a case which sparked exceptional outrage and the judgment, too, came with exceptional urgency.

But did it also offer an exceptional opportunity to demonstrate that justice prevails in this sullied, bloodied state?

*****
Three weeks after the trial’s conclusion, no government official has visited Subalpur. (One of the additional DMs did not know the verdict had been pronounced, he said he could not comment on a matter that was sub judice.) “But the police,” Mallika Tudo scoffs, “are still here.” She points towards the school. “They have been here the whole year.”

The anganwadi school comprises two modest buildings. Inside one of them, a man in shorts is waking up. He scrambles to put on a T-shirt and comes to the door. “There is not much to do here,” he says, sheepishly. “I have been here two months, and it is a bit boring. When the school is open, there is some activity. It gets noisy at lunch time. It is nice to see the kids, they really enjoy the meal.”

Subol Godhbotol is a constable staying in Subalpur with another colleague posted here. He says he initially heard that six policemen were stationed at the temporary camp, there was big trouble then. He has heard it won’t be long before they can go, but hasn’t heard anything definite yet. There was word from Labhpur police station to be alert on September 19 when the verdict was pronounced; there was apprehension that villagers might react in anger. But it was the same, he says—the sudden abrupt evening with the wispy smoke of cooking ovens, and then quiet and dark and the occasional song on the radio. The villagers keep to themselves, he has heard they drink but he has seen nothing untoward.

“You know, it’s hard to believe what happened here,” says the constable.“I suppose you have to really transport yourself back to that night. When it was cold and dark, with the light of a few stolen bulbs.”

A special thanks is owed to Someswar Boral, Birbhum correspondent of The Times of India for his generous help and guidance while I reported from Birbhum

Birbhum 5

Vergant green paddy fields on the way to Subalpur.

This story was originally published in FountainInk magazine 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *