In the first four months of 2013, 27 cases of sexual assault and molestation - half of which involved minors - were registered by the police in the tribal-dominated Alirajpur district. But none of the accused was convicted by the court. Reason: In all the cases, either the witness and/or the victim turned hostile.
Last year, a total of 3,349 criminal cases were put before the court, out of which only 180 were convicted and 1,835 are pending. The total conviction rate of the district is only 5.3%. This abysmal conviction rate has come as a wake-up call for the Alirajpur police. They are exasperated. "What is the need of the police?" asked a senior police official.
Observers feel that the sway held by 'tribal courts' could be one of the main reasons for the low conviction. "Being a predominantly tribal district, the Bhil panchayat settles the cases of rape, murders and other serious offences. After the matter is settled by tribal elders, the victims or the witnesses are unwilling to testify in court," said an advocate, wishing not to be named.
Fed up with this, Alirajpur police have now started video-recording the statements of victims from the very onset of investigations. "Nearly all of the rape victims turn hostile because of Bhil panchayat which passes decision outside the court. We are fed up and now we have started recording video statements," said SP Alirajpur Akhilesh Jha.
"Adherence to the traditional legal systems of tribals are very strong," confirmed Rahul Banerjee, a tribal rights activist. "The police have a limited role to play."
Banerjee also revealed that these tribal panchayats are slowly becoming "corrupt" owing to greater disposable incomes by Bhils who migrate to Gujarat for work.
The Bhil panchayat penalises the accused according to the nature of the crime. The penalty for rape, if proved, could be between Rs 3 lakh and Rs 5 lakh. Plus goats. "The trial is possible in only those cases which are not settled by the tribal panchayat," said the advocate.