In the hours after her six-year-old daughter was kidnapped, screaming in terror as she was dragged away from home, Rimaila Awungshi appealed for help from the most powerful authority she knew — the council of elders in her rural Indian village.
In her anguish, Awungshi told the village leaders what happened. She was a single mother to a beloved little girl named Yinring, whose name translates as “living in God’s shelter.” Her ex-boyfriend had refused to marry her or care for their child, but as the years passed and he never found a wife, his family demanded custody.
“But I am poor, and I have no brothers and the village authority doesn’t care,” Awungshi said in a telephone interview from her home in remote northeast India.
Across much of rural India, these powerful and deeply conservative local councils are the law of the land. They serve as judge and jury, dictating everything from custody cases to how women should dress to whether young lovers deserve to live or die. They often enforce strict social norms about marriage and gender roles.
These unelected and unregulated courts now are coming under fresh scrutiny after police say a council of elders in West Bengal ordered the gang rape of a 20-year-old woman as punishment for falling in love with the wrong man.
“We are going back to the 16th century,” West Bengal politician Pradip Bhattacharya said last week as news of the gang rape began to spread in a country already reeling from a string of high-profile cases of sexual violence against women.
Village councils are common in South Asian countries with vast rural communities, serving as the only practical means of delivering justice in areas where local governments are either too far away or too ineffective to mediate disputes. Often, the elders try to halt the march of the modern world, enforcing strict social norms about marriage and gender roles.
In some of the most extreme cases, the councils have sanctioned so-called “honor killings,” usually against women suspected of out-of-wedlock sex. Known as khap panchayats, the councils act with impunity because villagers risk being ostracized if they flout the rulings.
The courts can be especially harsh toward women, enforcing the most conservative aspects a patriarchal system that is deeply entrenched in Indian society.
The Indian Supreme Court has lashed out at the khaps, saying that they amount to vigilante justice, are “wholly illegal” and should be stamped out.
On Friday, the Indian Supreme Court took up the West Bengal case, ordering an investigation on a suo moto basis — meaning that the court acted on its own, without a request from either side in the case.
In many ways, the councils show how centuries of patriarchal traditions often clash with the values of a modern world in India. The growing numbers of financially independent young women who live on their own in cities would balk at even the most innocuous dictates by a village council, such as not wearing jeans or using cellphones.
According to Indian police, at least 13 men attacked the woman in West Bengal — she lost count of exactly how many — on Monday last week after the elders in Subalpur village discovered her love affair with a Muslim man from a neighboring village.
The woman is a member of the Santhal tribe, and marrying a Muslim man from outside her community would be considered a violation of custom.