KOLKATA, India – A 20-year-old Indian woman said she was gang-raped on the orders of a village council because she fell in love with a man from a different ethnic group, police said Thursday.
Twelve suspects and the head of the council have been arrested for the Monday night attack, police said. The woman told police that she lost count of how many men raped her. She was hospitalized Thursday in serious condition.
Television footage showed the woman, her face covered by scarves, being led into a hospital with an IV tube in her arm.
TV news reports said the woman is a member of an ethnic tribal group and the man is a Muslim from a neighboring village. The man visited the woman's village, Subalpur, on Monday to propose marriage, but was caught by other villagers, and the man and woman were tied to a tree while the village council decided their fate, the reports said.
Police official C. Sudhakar said the village council ordered the man and woman to each pay a fine of 25,000 rupees ($400). The man's family was able to pay, but when the woman's family said they were too poor, the council ordered the gang rape, police said.
A rash of high-profile rapes in India over the past year has sparked widespread outrage over chronic sexual violence and government failures to protect women.
The West Bengal case is particularly troubling because it was allegedly ordered by a council made up of village elders. Such councils are not legally binding in India, but they are seen as the will of the local community. The councils decide on social norms in the village, and in some cases they dictate the way women can dress or who they can marry. Those who flout the councils risk being ostracized.
Subalpur is about 110 miles north of Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal.
Four years ago, a village council in Birbhum district ordered a young woman paraded naked through the village. She was accused of falling in love with a man from a different caste.
Annie Raja, general secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women, said that such local councils destroy women's rights.
"They are dead set against giving basic human rights to women," she said. "These are non-constitutional bodies and the West Bengal government should take stringent action against them."
In October, a teenager was gang-raped on two consecutive days in a Kolkata suburb. She was later set on fire when she refused to withdraw a police complaint against the men who had raped her. She died in a hospital last month leading to widespread protests in the city.
Earlier this month, a Danish tourist was gang-raped in New Delhi by a group of men when she stopped to ask them for directions to her hotel.
India's Supreme Court has in the past issued opinions condemning the councils as illegal bodies. Several legal organizations are pushing Parliament to pass a comprehensive law that would make edicts by local councils illegal.