A girl from the Northern Indian state of Haryana was one of four girls whose supporters say they were raped at the order of a panchayat, village council. Photo / Washington Post
The teenage girl, dressed in pink, sits in the dirt before six community elders.
In a scene captured on a cellphone video, one of the men wags his finger angrily at her. He rages: This girl must be punished.
A villager ties her waist with rope, holding the other end, and lifts a tree branch into the air. She bows her head. The first lash comes, then another, then another. Ten in all. She lets out a wail.
Eventually the crowd starts murmuring, “Enough, enough,” although nobody moves to stop the beating. Finally, the man throws down his stick. It’s over.
She is 13 years old. Or maybe 15. Her family doesn’t know for sure. She has never set foot in a school and has spent most of her life doing chores at home, occasionally begging for food and performing in her father’s acrobatic show, for which she is given 20 rupees, about 30 cents.
is a country of 1.2 billion people, with a growing economy, a young population and an energetic prime minister eager to sell the country on the world stage. A generation of women are taking stronger roles in the workforce, in colleges and online who aren’t afraid to push against outdated misogyny – be it acid attacks, rape and sexual harassment, or the portrayal of women in movies and advertisements.Her crime? Being too scared to tell anyone her father raped her.
Yet patriarchal prejudices ingrained for centuries have been tough to shake loose despite a growing clamour for change – and continue to affect life from the village water pump to the judicial system and beyond.
Male-dominated village councils have existed in India for centuries to resolve disputes between neighbours and serve as enforcers of social mores in the country’s stratified caste system. Although elected village bodies were established by the Indian Government in 1992, unelected clan councils continue to operate with impunity throughout rural India, issuing their own edicts in the name of preserving harmony.
Five years after the Supreme Court said such councils should be illegal, the central Government and some states are only beginning to pass or contemplate laws that would limit their behaviour.
These councils often prevent or break up marriages and love affairs between couples from different castes, and they have instigated honour killings. Women typically receive the harshest punishments.
They also intervene in cases of sexual assault – mediating resolutions between two families, attempting to smooth over devastating wounds with a few hundred rupees and even in some cases forcing a victim to marry her rapist. Amid international outrage about the 2012 fatal gang rape of a Delhi student, laws were passed to make it easier for rape victims to file charges. But the road to the police station is still a long one.
“In rape cases, their role is underground and not officially or publicly acknowledged,” said Jagmati Sangwan of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, a longtime critic. “They will ask the family of the victim to go for a compromise, go for mediation, and that suppresses the interests of the victim.”
Sube Singh Samain, a leader for an association of clan councils in the northern state of Haryana, said they serve a vital role in a county with an overburdened justice system and where legal cases can be costly. He said that village elders have banned the sale of meat, restricted mobile phone use by youth and even prohibited loud music at weddings. (“The music is so bad the cows and bulls fall over and run away,” he said.) They also step in to smooth things between families, sometimes urging people to withdraw police complaints.
“We say, ‘Let’s not go to the courts; let’s resolve it,’ ” he said. “We encourage them to go back to the police if a [complaint] has already been filed and say, ‘I was not in a right state of mind; I want to take back my statement.’ “
Some of the most brutal decrees have garnered international headlines.
In 2014, for example, a clan council in the state of West Bengal ordered the gang rape of a woman as punishment for having a relationship with a man outside her tribal community – with a leader allegedly urging the council to “go enjoy the girl and have fun,” according to a police complaint.
In Maharashtra, representatives from an advocacy group called the Committee for Eradication of Blind Faith work with about 100 people a year who have been victimised by caste councils – called panchayats – most of them female.
Women are forced to retrieve a coin from a vat of boiling oil to prove their purity. One woman was forced to walk, scantily clad, through the forest while the panchayat members threw balls of dough straight off a fire at her back.
“You can’t have a parallel judiciary that’s completely unaccountable and gives arbitrary punishments – many of them barbaric,” said Hamid Dabholkar, the head of the advocacy group. “That is what happened in this case where the girl was beaten when she herself was a victim.”
Before she died, Anusuya Chavan’s existence had been as precarious as the tightrope she walked in her husband’s acrobatic shows. For the most part, she was able to shelter her two younger daughters from their father’s rages, but eventually her own drinking and battle with tuberculosis caught up with her. She died last year.
At the time, her teenaged daughter begged to go live with one of her older siblings, but the father, Shivram Yeshwant Chavan, told her no. He needed someone to cook, keep house and earn money for him.
Up until then, the girl’s life had not been easy, but there were small comforts. She had no friends, but she liked turning handstands in the dirt with her sister, Laila, 7. Or buying a snack of spicy puffed rice or kulfi, a frozen dessert, with pocket change her father slipped her.
Then one night in January, her father came home from his job playing a steel drum in a wedding band, drunk on local hooch. She was sound asleep on the ground in their home, her sister curled up tight next to her. He got down on the ground, too, and put his hand over her mouth.
Seven men from an informal village council were arrested after they beat a victim for not speaking up when her father raped her. Photo / Washington Post
In early March, a farmer and local labor activist named Sachin Tukaram Bhise was headed to a nearby village to find day labourers for his wheat and sugar cane farm when he heard a village council was to be called by members of the local Gopal community, near Mauje Jawalwadi. Shivram Chavan’s sons did not know the whole story but feared the worst and had ostracised their father; he was ready to confess.
The Gopals are a largely illiterate, impoverished group who were once nomads making their living as cow herders and itinerant street performers. Many have since settled down to menial jobs in the fertile farming region in the shadow of the basalt crags of the Sahyadri mountain range.
As Bhise watched, villagers from around the area gathered in the main square of the village amid tin-roofed sheds. The teenager and her father were brought to kneel before the member council.
Chavan bowed his head and admitted what he had done, Bhise recalled, and said he was ready for whatever punishment the council would give him. Then the elders turned to the teenager and began to berate her.
“They said it was the girl’s fault. That the father was drunk and he was not in his senses,” Bhise said. “I got angered at the whole thing. How could a girl invite such an act? The ‘panch’ said, ‘You’re useless,’ ‘You’re the culprit.’ She was crying.”
Bhise took out his cellphone camera and surreptitiously began to film as the council issued its verdict – a fine of about US$67 and a whipping of 15 “sticks” for the father, five “sticks” for the girl. They would be whipped until each of the thin tree branches broke.
Bhise took his evidence to the police, who later arrested all seven members of the council, charging them with conspiracy, extortion and assault. The father was held on child abuse charges.
“It did not hurt me because they beat me very lightly,” the teenager said quietly about a month later.
She was curled up on a tarpaulin outside the place where she now lives with her brother and his family – a hut of pieces of fabric stretched over bamboo poles, secured by rocks. It sits on a ridge overlooking a sweeping mountain vista.
As she spoke, the girl began to cry, tears slipping easily from her eyes. She touched the feet of a Marathi-speaking visitor, a gesture of respect, and says she has only herself to blame.
“I asked them to beat me because I was at fault,” she said. “The fault was I did not tell anyone about this at home. I told them my father just held my hand. That was my mistake.”
Her sister-in-law, Jaya, who was sitting with her on the tarpaulin, agreed that she had been wrong.
“If she had told them, the brothers would have beaten the father. There would have been no panchayat and the matter would have been resolved at home,” she said. “If the brothers hadn’t beaten him, then the sisters-in-law would have.”
Now, the woman said, the young girl just wants to close the case and put it behind her. Since the attack, she has been interviewed by a female police officer, given a medical examination and a small amount of money from the state’s victims’ fund.
Last month, the state Government of Maharashtra approved a measure that prohibits the gathering of village councils to impose a “social boycott,” one of the most common – and devastating – punishments. It effectively banishes an individual or family, cutting them off from communal water pumps, stores or the local temple.
Some in the Indian Government have called for other states to follow suit, and the government has tightened its laws to prohibit social boycott in some cases.
Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said that he had pushed through the bill because of a rising number of disturbing cases of caste panchayats acting improperly.
“We cannot allow atrocities against any individual or groups,” he said. “We will not allow parallel institutions of justice by non-state actors, and we cannot compromise on the dignity and rights of individuals.”
And in April, the Gopal community decided to disband the panchayat system and take criminal matters directly to the police from now on, community leader Dilip Dinkar Jadhav said.
Informal village councils throughout India continue to resolve disputes between citizens privately without police. Photo / Washington Post
For a while it seemed that the members of the panchayat, or at least the man who administered the beating, did not want to be found. A trip to his village – a few families living on a narrow dirt lane near a small yellow Hindu temple – turned up nothing.
“We don’t know him,” one of the neighbors said.
But after a flurry of telephone calls, Arun Jadhav agreed to meet. He appeared with Dilip Jadhav at a roadside restaurant on the area’s busy National Highway 4, studded with expensive auto dealerships that cater to the area’s prosperous farmers and white-collar workers. Arun Jadhav, 45, an illiterate trumpet player, was reserved, a Nike ball cap pulled low over his eyes. Dilip Jadhav, 45, a wedding-band manager with a gold-tone watch and a neat checked shirt, had an air of a man used to sorting problems.
Arun Jadhav, who is not directly related to Dilip Jadhav, said he had been called to the village that day to attend a memorial service for the teenager’s mother that evolved into the panchayat meeting.
“Somebody asked me to take responsibility for hitting these people and that’s what I did. I had tea and then I left,” he said.
Both men agreed that the teenager deserved the beating because she hid the truth about the assault.
Dilip Jadhav said it has fallen upon him to secure a future for the young girl, which will be difficult.
“If something like that happened to my daughter, then we would get her married off to the rapist,” he said. “We don’t go to the police station. If they take the kids to the police station everybody knows about her and she is a bigger liability. It’s better if she gets married to him.”
He thinks he has found a match for the teenager, though – a young widower of 20, maybe 21, also a musician, whose wife recently died. Within six months she’ll be married.