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AN ILL WIND IS BLOWING ACROSS LABHPUR

A report compiled by the district and sessions judge on the alleged gangrape of a tribal woman in Subalpur, a village in Birbhum’s Labhpur area, was submitted to the Supreme Court recently. After scrutinizing the report, the apex court questioned, among other things, the shoddy police investigation. Earlier, the local police and a panchayat member who attended the controversial shalishi sabha had explained that the delay in State intervention was caused by institutional diffidence. The hesitation, apparently, stemmed from the State’s unwillingness to disturb Santhal customs. An examination of the selective nature of State intervention — identifying the areas in tribal society where the State has or has chosen not to interfere — holds the key to our understanding of what is unfolding in Subalpur. The gaps in the State’s — and, consequently, in our own — comprehension of what constitutes adivasi customs form the other critical area of enquiry. This aspect has eluded most media analyses of the incident. My visit to Labhpur was an attempt to view the chain of events in the light of these two failings.

The State has shown no such diffidence while meddling, forcefully and repeatedly, in the Santhal economy. This would be apparent to any visitor to Subalpur. Santhal ownership of land in the adjoining areas of Sriniketan, Ilambazar and Babli is minimal. In Subalpur, few among the 30-odd Santhal families own land. Most of the men work as sharecroppers and day labourers. Else, they have migrated to other states. The woman penalized in the shalishi was a migrant worker: she had worked in Delhi and Mumbai before returning to Subalpur.

The other area of State intervention is in the adivasi community’s indigenous juridical structure. This, too, has a bearing on this case. Traditionally, the More Horko (five democratically elected residents who form the village council) lies at the heart of the legal and administrative apparatus in the Santhal community. The More Horko comprises the Majhi Haram — the headman wrongly described as morol by the media that remain indifferent to semantic concerns while reporting on tribal people. The Majhi Haram is aided in his duties by his deputy, the Jong Majhi, the Naiki (religious head), the Pranik (custodian of Santhal rituals) and the Gudit (chowkidar). The More Horko can intercede on behalf of applicants to settle disputes in the village. Social occasions and religious events also fall under the More Horko’s purview.

The State remains impervious to the fact that there is an urgent need to learn from as well as reform the unwritten Santhal laws which, occasionally, can contravene those of the State. While imposing its will and its laws on Santhal society, the State has taken care to ensure that indigenous institutions remain titular by nature. The Majhi Haram is now a mere intermediary between the State and the Santhal people. Other adivasi institutions such as the Hunt Council have become nearly defunct. But even in this diminished role, the Majhi Haram enjoys limited autonomy. Important decisions are taken in conjunction with the panchayat, a heavily politicized institution, which doles out welfare benefits in return for political complicity from adivasi society. In 2004, the former Left Front government had made an unsuccessful bid to legitimize shalishi adalats through the West Bengal Block Level Prelitigation Conciliation Board Bill. Without taking recourse to a similar legal instrument, the Trinamul Congress dispensation has continued to maintain political control over the Santhal community through elected panchayat representatives. Significantly, the shalishi that penalized the victim was attended jointly by the Majhi Haram and a TMC panchayat member.

State mediation in peripheral societies such as Subalpur’s adivasi community is designed to create distorted ideas to explain the cause of their backwardness. The media — their lofty pledge of unbiased reporting notwithstanding — often collude with the State by disseminating such distortions in the public domain. In their reporting of the incident in Subalpur, the media have been far too eager to prove that Santhals, the largest homogeneous Scheduled Tribe found in India, punish adultery by imposing barbaric penalties, such as gangrape, on women. But certain important facts have been (wilfully?) glossed over in media investigations. For instance, the media have chosen to ignore the fact that a shalishi adalat — a quasi-legal institution— is itself alien to Santhal society. That a shalishi took place in Subalpur to adjudge a dispute reveals that socio-legal practices once unknown to Santhals have now infiltrated their customs as a result of the community’s interactions with the State on an unequal footing.

The media’s reporting of the incident has also been woefully lopsided. Subalpur’s adivasi community has been vilified for supporting the decree that was supposedly passed on the victim. However, reports of equally strident adivasi voices denouncing and questioning the verdict have been far fewer in number. Some of the villagers I spoke to — including the families of the accused— argued that a gangrape as a form of penalty is implausible in the Santhal community. In this instance, the woman shares blood ties with many of her alleged assaulters. Such a punishment would invoke the incest taboo, something that is unimaginable in a close-knit community that holds the norms of kinship above all else. In this case, the couple were let off with a stiff fine. (I was shown a copy of the mimangsha patra by way of evidence.) There are occasions when offenders have been punished with excommunication in a custom known as bitlaha. But membership to the community can be renewed through jom jati, a ritual that is akin to social rehabilitation.

What is disturbing is that the alleged atrocity in Labhpur has ended up further eroding the inclusive and democratic credentials of Santhal society. One of the women I met (she has been identified as an agitator by the police) pointed out that a person like her — a non-tribal hailing from Murshidabad — had been accepted by the Santhals over three decades ago. That Santhals honour a woman’s right to independent labour can be gauged from the fact that many Santhal girls in and around Labhpur support their families meagre income by taking up back-breaking work in near-by quarries.

But this is not to suggest that there is no room for reform within Santhal society. Intimate relations between adivasi women and men outside the community are strictly monitored and prohibited. This has led to the creation of a regressive culture of vigilantism in the village. The mimangsha patra also describes how the victim and her married lover from another faith were dragged out of bed by an irate mob, led to the shalishi, and then tied to a tree. The palpable anger against the woman stems not just from her defiance of adivasi norms — she had a larger number of friends outside the community — but also from the fact of her relative affluence. One of her neighbours confided during an interview that among the victim’s possessions were a music system, a television set, cosmetics and a mobile phone.

None of the villagers I spoke to was willing to admit what I thought was a contradiction: a community that respected a woman’s right to work and mobility could, at the same time, display a custodial mindset about inter-community ties and encourage vigilantism in the name of protection. What was discernible was the marked disinclination to explore ways to reform the normative codes that are passed across generations through the oral tradition. Their defence of antiquated customs cannot only be located in the community’s limited access to education. Most children in Subalpur attend the primary school— the functioning mid-day meal programme is undoubtedly an incentive. But young adults did not show much interest in pursuing higher education. The nearest college stands some distance away in Labhpur.

The Santhals’ militant adherence to traditional norms reflects the community’s sense of living in a state of perpetual siege. Unable to protect their claims over natural resources, land, water and forests, as well as the sanctity and autonomy of indigenous institutions — the Majhi Haram, for instance — from marauding agencies including those of the State, Santhals are increasingly viewing their rich, but also rigid, cultural traditions as a fount that could generate a fleeting sense of respect within a brutalized people. Not just the State but also adivasi organizations are averse to reflecting on the need to make the community’s laws compatible with the demands of a fast changing social and economic fabric. While protesting against what it thinks is a conspiracy by outsiders to malign the tribal people, Birbhum’s adivasi samaj remains non-committal about reforming Santhal laws and sensibilities from within.

The insularity has left the community ill-equipped to deal with the demands of modernity. This vulnerability has been exploited by forces inimical to social cohesion. That a communal spin has been given to the controversy is fairly discernable. The community’s censure of the girl’s lover, I was told, would have been far more muted had he belonged to the majoritarian faith. Days after the controversy broke, members of a fringe outfit that flaunts itself as a defender of the Hindu faith had organized a camp in the village and distributed blankets and alms to the Santhals after making them wear saffron headgear. The local MLA has also been accused by the community of shielding the girl’s lover. The barely-concealed communal tensions prevailing in Subalpur assume greater significance in the face of the increasing fragmentation of the ties that bind tribals, Dalits and Muslims in India. The debate on and the battle against the spectre of communalism must check this contamination that is all-too-evident in societies undergoing an uneasy transition.

Back in Calcutta, while going through my field notes and newspaper reports , I came across a photograph that had been published after Subalpur made it to the headlines. In it, two Santhal men and a woman can be seen talking to visiting journalists standing near some policemen. The scribes and the policemen have thrown a ring around the tense respondents. Hemmed in by inquisitive visitors, the Santhals stand answering questions from inside a circle that seemed to grow smaller. Can there be a better illustration of Birbhum’s besieged tribal society?