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Rape order on child brings scrutiny on India's village councils

updated 8:02 AM EDT, Tue July 15, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Police: Village head ordered man to rape 14 year old in revenge attack
  • Girl was raped in retaliation for alleged actions of her brother
  • Village council under scrutiny after shocking incident

New Delhi, India (CNN) -- When a 14-year-old girl was pulled from her home, dragged to a nearby forest and raped, police revealed the assault was ordered by the head of her village in India.

The horrific case, which took place last week, has once again shed light on local councils, called panchayats, which wield significant power in rural villages throughout India and can dole out punishment with impunity.

The incident occurred after the girl's brother was accused of attempting to rape a married woman, according to police. The village council met and directed the aggrieved woman's husband, identified as Nakabandi Passi, to rape the accused assailant's young sister in retaliation, police said.

That girl told reporters the attacker and his wife came to her house. His wife "dragged me out of my house. She handed me over to her husband and told him to take me away to a nearby forest and rape me," she said.

Passi, the village head, Ghosala Passi, and the rape victim's brother have been sent to jail to await trial, police said. The three suspects have pleaded not guilty, said the city of Bokaro police chief, Jitendra Kumar Singh.

Panchayats and Indian society

Like real courts, we make all the decisions. And we never make mistakes.
Sukhbir Singh, former village head

It's not the first time that these elected, mostly male councils have spawned controversy.

In January, a 20-year-old woman said she had been gang-raped as a punishment ordered by her village head in West Bengal. The woman's "offense" was that she fell in love with a man from a different community, according to Amnesty International. Indian media have also reported cases of rape survivors being forced to marry their attackers by panchayats, including victims as young as six years old.

Some panchayats have drawn flak for issuing verdicts encouraging honor killings and violent crimes. Such decrees have been condemned by India's Supreme Court.

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Removed from cities and the court systems, panchayats resolve local disputes simply because they're the only recourse available in remote areas. They function as local-self government at the lowest rung. Based on the community's local values, they work efficiently and keep petty disputes out of the court system. But critics denounce them as kangaroo courts and say they perpetuate patriarchy.

"For panchayats, crimes against women are only problematic in that they damage another man's property and honor," said Amana Fontanella-Khan, who writes on women's issues. "All of their punishments rest on this premise. They are not concerned with women's rights, but the rights of men."

Retribution rape is used "as a way of settling scores," she said, because the family's honor is tied to a woman's "purity." So if a woman is raped, that honor is lost.

Ordering the man's younger sister to be raped is not a case of "eye for an eye," she said.

"It is because, according to age-old honor codes, that is the best way to shame him."

Warnings

A landmark, government-commissioned report published in 2013 highlighted India's systematic problems for women and flagged panchayats as one of the glaring issues.

"The nation suffers from the existence of chauvinistic institutions like khap panchayats, which, unfortunately, are politically so powerful that they overrule, with impunity, the constitutionally-mandated administration of equality in favor of women, by using extra constitutional, oppressive methods of punishment," according to the Verma commission report.

But little has been done to check their power, the report found.

"Have we seen an express denunciation by a collective body like parliament against such bodies?" The report concluded that over the last 60 years, debates over the issue have been "extremely inadequate."

There is little political will to challenge or change panchayats, Fontanella-Khan said.

"They represent powerful vote banks. Time and time again, politicians -- including chief ministers -- have defended them. In light of this, Supreme Court rulings can do little to change realities on the ground," said Fontanella-Khan, author of "Pink Sari Revolution."

India's Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that no individual or institution can issue verdicts that infringe on human rights. But for people in remote villages, finding justice is challenging and their only recourse is their local council.

"If people go to the police or to the court first of all its costs lot of money, then it takes a lot of time... so we sort out all small issues here, in this village council," said one former village head, Sukhbir Singh, in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

"Like real courts, we make all the decisions," he said. "And we never make mistakes."

Opinion: No quick fix for India's rape crisis

CNN's Elizabeth Joseph contributed to this report.

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