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Envy becomes savagery

Subalpur, Jan. 23: Envy and resentment at relative prosperity blended with age-old prejudices and unspeakable brutality when a girl was raped by 13 men on the orders of a kangaroo court in Birbhum on Tuesday, according to accounts by several villagers.

The girl, now 20, had left home for Delhi to toil as a construction labourer, the fruits of which appear to have fed the indignation that culminated in the savagery at Subalpur village in Labhpur, around 25km from Santiniketan.

The suspects accused of an atrocity that belies some of the popular labels associated with rural life are aged between 18 and 48 — the oldest being the village head who ordered the gang rape.

The girl, who was allegedly gang-raped by 13 men on the directive of a salishi sabha for having an affair with a mason from another village, had been the target of the morol (village head) and his coterie for some time, villagers said today.

The principal reason for the resentment appeared to be the condition of her house — unremarkable by urban yardsticks but a standout in this Birbhum village because a part of it was built using bricks and mortar, unlike other mud-walled and mostly thatch-roofed huts.

The girl also has two material possessions: a small television set with a foldable screen and a music system — objects of envy in this village of day labourers and farmhands.

The girl is in hospital now and the 13 suspects, including the village head, have been sent to jail, not to police lock-up — something that has thrown the police superintendent’s continuation into uncertainty.

In Subalpur, bitterness towards the girl had started building up years ago, according to the villagers.

“The girl is a primary school dropout and went to work as a construction labourer in Delhi when she was only 12. She was the only girl from here who went to Delhi to work, which was not liked by many villagers. After returning from Delhi two years ago, she built with her money a brick-and-mortar house right next to her parents’ home. Recently, she had purchased a small television set and a music system which also attracted attention,” said a villager who did not want to be named for fear of retribution.

A few houses in the village do have television sets but not similar to the small one the girl had bought.

A construction labourer is unlikely to be the subject of jealousy in many places. But in Subalpur, it did matter. A local labourer earns Rs 180 a day but the same work fetches between Rs 400 and Rs 450 in Delhi.

After returning from Delhi, the girl was working as a helper to the mason with whom she is said to have developed a relationship. Her job involved carrying mortar-filled tubs on her head and spreading mortar for bricks to be placed.

The villagers painted a picture of a girl who kept to herself — which was construed as a sign of arrogance. “The girl’s attitude made the morol and others think that she did not care much for them. She went to work early in the morning. Or she stayed inside the house with the music system and small television set. For the villagers, it was a matter of anguish. They were trying to catch her,” said a villager.

The angry retort of another villager suggested that some found the resentment normal. “Why shouldn’t some villagers feel angry? She was a very young girl, went to Delhi to work and sent money regularly to her parents by money order,” the villager said.

One of the few villagers willing to be named cast aspersions on the girl. “Her way of life was not liked by the morol and other elders,” Paplu Soren, a 20-year-old farmer, said.

A morol, who has the last word, is selected from the oldest family living in a particular tribal village. An annual puja of Maran Guru, a deity of tribals, held in the Bengali month of Magh (which follows Pous and starts in mid-January in the Gregorian calendar), forms the backdrop for selecting the village head. Either a new morol is chosen or the old one asked to continue.

The salishi sabha, or village court, does not have a fixed number of members. All villagers can take part in proceedings and give their opinion but the final ruling is delivered by the morol.

Today, there was no one at the girl’s house, which was bolted from outside.

Hena Maddi, a 50-year-old woman whose two sons were arrested on the charge of raping the girl, said: “She went to Delhi for a job and had relationships…. Our villagers punished her for her way of life.”

On Monday night, the villagers claimed, they caught the girl along with the mason, in his late thirties, at her house, tied their hands and legs and kept them in the house.

“Later, we informed the elders and the morol, Balai Maddi, ordered us to tie them to a palm tree in the morol’s courtyard,” said a youth.

The morol held the sabha proceedings in his courtyard as the girl and the mason remained tied to the tree. The morol ruled that the girl would be “gang-raped” and the mason would have to pay a fine of Rs 25,000.

“The girl was taken to a hut on the morol’s premises and gang-raped till Tuesday dawn. She was later brought out and tied to the palm tree again. The girl was allowed to go in the morning. But the mason was kept tied to the tree. He was released when his elder brother came and paid Rs 25,000 to the morol,” said a villager.

At the mason’s village, his wife said: “We had to hurriedly sell our 15-year-old daughter’s jewellery to raise Rs 25,000.”

The girl was brought back again on Tuesday afternoon to the morol’s house for a second round of salishi, where she was asked to pay Rs 3,000. “She was allowed to go home. On Wednesday evening, she lodged a complaint with the police,” a villager said.

Some villagers claimed that a Trinamul panchayat member was present at the second round of salishi. The panchayat member was not found at his home in a nearby village and his phone was switched off.

Labhpur MLA and local Trinamul leader Manirul Islam said: “I don’t know whether he was present at the salishi as I was in Calcutta. He may have been present but the morol’s word is the last word at a salishi sabha.”