Under severe fire over the gangrape of a young woman – ordered allegedly by a tribal kangaroo court of Birbhum’s Labhpur --- local tribal leaders scurried for cover on Thursday.
Their excuse -- the entire incident was concocted by the woman, since sexual abuse has never been on the list of punishment by such tribal courts, which have been around since time immemorial.
The woman, who is under treatment by a panel of four doctors in Suri Sadar hospital, was raped throughout Monday night by over 10 men, as punishment for having a relationship with a man from another community and failing to pay a fine.
"This is a first," said Nityananda Hembram, head of Bharat Jakat Majhi Marwa Juan Gaunta (BJMMJG), which holds sway in West Bengal, Odisha, Assam, Chattisgarh and other states.
"A system of dispensation of justice has existed even before the advent of the Aryans, but they never did anything to rape, kill or humiliate women."
"This is not our culture. We condemn such instances," added Prabir Murmu, general secretary of the BJMMJG youth front.
The punishments of tribal courts, Hembram said, can include social ostracism, declaring somebody a witch and banishing her, whipping and hefty fines which can include land and livestock.
So how did events take such a turn?
"I heard that the girl and her lover were caught by the villagers. Then the two lodged a false complaint," Hembram said. "If the girl was indeed raped, I condemn it. But the truth should come out."Read: Tribal leaders support court, say girl lied
The tribal system, which runs parallel to government, police and courts, is well-organised. Village upwards, there are heads at every level.The system is the final word among the Santhals, who have their distinct religious and social practices. A tacit word of defense came from Dulal Murmu, Trinamool Congress MLA from Nayagram, who is also a tribal. "The punishments are designed to trigger remorse in the culprit. Social ostracism is common, but it never goes to such heinous extents."