"Why should it matter to anyone whom I am having an affair with?" an urban Bengali asked two of his colleagues.
The three were engaged in an animated conversation over the alleged rape of a Santhal girl in a village in Birbhum district, West Bengal, on the orders of the village headman because of her supposed affair with a non-tribal.
The second interjected: "Sir, this is not Kolkata, where such questions are asked." And the third speaker hit the nail on the head. "This is not even Shantiniketan, where live-ins are as common as they are in Delhi."
The truth in the observation of the third speaker was visible as one travelled to Subalpur, the village where the reported rape incident took place, 40 km from Shantiniketan. Men were hard to find initially because they were possibly out in the fields. A cluster of women of women sat with a numb expression on their faces. They were difficult to approach as there were already apprehensions that they were fiercely angry with the media. And the first interpretation of their morose quietness could be their anger at the perpetrators of the terrible offence and their heart-felt sympathy for the girl.
But it was not. Rather, just the other way round – intense anger at the girl, who, they said, was lying, and the police and administration. In their perception and world-view – handed down through generations but since when no sociologist clearly knows because the Santhals had been a migratory tribe – their upholders of justice could not give such an order.
The girl is seen to be a threat to Santhal society.
"Ours is a peaceful village. Nothing of the sort has taken place before," said a woman. "And our court – the salishi sabha – has a moral code to implement. There is nothing harsh in our justice system."
Why do they think the girl is lying? They had various bits of evidence to offer, like one of the accused was on bed on the night of the supposed rape. "How do you define the accused? Just because somebody happened to be present when the arbitration proceedings (salishi sabha) were going on, he is not necessarily guilty."
That means the salishi sabha did take place? And over the alleged affair of the girl?
Why shouldn't it take place, asked a woman. If anybody does something wrong – and wrong in this case is the affair – it has to take place and there is a method to it. The offender has to offer hariya (rice beer) to each member of the jury. On top of this he has to pay a fine, whose amount can range from Rs 10 to Rs 10,000.
What was the girl 'guilty' of? The affair, of course, and more than the affair, her refusal to own it up. She had disappeared from the village about six years ago and came back in June-July last year.
(There is a sub-text here. The girl was away from the village for six years and had committed the offence of exploring the "glamour world of Delhi".)
What should be ideally done to her? Obviously she will not be acceptable to the community if the marriage happens. All that will be done to her will be to ask her to keep off the limits of the village.
A woman liberal in her disposition ventured to say who would marry whom was after all a 'personal matter'.
At this point it became easier to bring in the question of atrocity. Were the girl and boy tied to a tree? Yes, but not for the whole night of January 20-21 (the night before the rape) but only for a short while, merely in a symbolic sense, which is in consonance with their justice system. And the rape? Through the orchestrated 'no' ran a faint voice, "A few bad elements may have done it, but it could not have been ordered by the headman?"
Pudi Mardi, the brother of headman Balai Mardi, watched silently while the women spoke.
And some influence from outside the tribal world was visible in the girl's house, where she had been caught with the boy. The walls were strewn with pictures of film actors and actresses.
Opel Mardi, state coordinator of the Bharat Jajat Majhi Marwa Juan Gaonta, which means an all-India body of young tribal leaders, supposedly the apex organisation of the tribals in the state, said: "Village women are denying that there was rape because they are disgusted with the girl. It cannot be denied that there was a rape incident. But one thing is certain is that it was not ordered by the headman."
Mardi then explained the salishi system, which ordains meting out justice through a system of consultation with a maximum of five persons.
If investigation revealed that there had been rape, he should be appropriately punished in accordance with the law of the land, Mardi said.
A police officer preferring anonymity said: "Our investigation is almost complete. We have taken the statements of key eyewitnesses. And the material has been sent for scientific analysis at the CFSL. More than this I won't tell you anything, and so don't insist."
Is it possible for a girl to be raped by 12 persons, as she has alleged, and still have enough strength to walk up to the nearest police station to lodge a complaint, which she did?
It is an urban view that she can't, the officer said. It is possible for a tribal woman to withstand such attacks, according to him.
The district administration is doing a good job to rehabilitate her, he said.
And here the officer cannot be faulted for going wrong. A cement-and-concrete house is being constructed for her on a war-footing in Talipara village, where the girl's relatives once lived and which is located 6 km from Subalpur. Now the heartburn of the people takes on a material angle.
"Every house should have good facilities under various government programmes. Else our girls will start venturing out and then cook up some stories to get benefits," a tribal said.
What lies at the heart of his lament is the fear that such cases may bring about a disruption in their social fabric.
Amitto Murmu, a veteran tribal who had been village headman, said: "If the girl decides to live here, she will be watched for five years. The question of acceptance will come after that."
Should the tribal justice system perpetuate? Of course, it should. And so should the state system.
By all accounts, tribal society in Birbhum, where many senior villagers have not heard of Manmohan Singh, has landed itself in a peculiar situation. It has been reported in this paper that according to police sources, rape did take place, though it is not clear on the orders of whom. Yet that is not so much perceived as a threat to their tribal cohesion as has been the alleged "misconduct" of the girl. And this is where the bias lies.
READ: Bengal: Birbhum tribal leaders deny any gangrape had taken place