Even as Maharashtra is in the process of enacting a first of its kind law – the Maharashtra Prohibition of Social Boycott Act, 2015 – to tackle the issue of caste panchayats and the extra-judicial punishments meted out by them, a horrific video clip of a young, 10-14-year-old girl child being thrashed by a man, with 50 odd silent onlookers has recently surfaced. The child, being punished by the caste panchayat for not resisting the alleged rape by her father, is tied by a rope not too different from a dog leash. 12 lashes to the father and 10 to the child.
TRIGGER WARNING: Video contains violence.
Caste panchayats of the nomadic tribe of Gopal Samaj in Satara are ad-hoc in nature. Heads of any particular community usually sit together whenever a matter is reported to them, or an item of concern is brought to their notice. They announce their decisions, execute them and the panchayat is then dismissed, only to be recommissioned when a new matter is brought to its notice in future.
Following the death of his wife a few months ago, the accused, father Shivram Chavhan has allegedly repeatedly raped his daughter. “He used to tie her with a rope before assaulting her. He threatened her into silence and warned her against speaking up about the rape,” confesses a woman of the basti, not wishing to be named.
So how did this caste panchayat of the Gopal tribe happen to deliberate upon the rape? The absurd answer is that it was the father (and not the daughter) who brought the matter to the notice of the Panch!
When the pregnancy of the girl brought the situation to light, the panchayat is said to have imposed a boycott on the father-daughter duo. Fines of Rs. 5000 and Rs. 3000 for any community member found talking or engaging in any way with the father and daughter respectively. Members of the Gopal basti in Panchwad village (where the vicious Taliban-esque incident took place) inform us that the father wanted the social boycott annulled, and hence raised the matter with the panchayat, seeking a ‘prayaschit‘ (absolution) and a remission. It was while inquiring into this matter that the Panch decided on the ‘punishments’ to end the social boycott of the duo.
An RTI activist who coincidentally happened to be at the basti at the time has filmed the cane-lashing and it is his proactive effort that has led to one of the two FIRs being filed. On the basis of his video footage submitted, with 2 FIRs lodged and 6 arrests made, the police seem to have embarked upon the process of investigation with surprising speed.
As is common with caste panchayats, few in this fear-gripped community are willing to speak freely. “The Gopal community is socio-economically and culturally backward by about 100-150 years at least! There is an English medium school right opposite the basti, but the children usually do not go to school and they live in abject poverty,” says Dr. Hamid Dabholkar of the Andhshraddha Nirmulan Samiti, one of the first to reach the basti.
The small basti itself has barely some 15 odd temporary kuchcha ‘houses’ erected, and the tribe is backward socio-economically, and disempowered politically – probably explains how the police could afford to be speedy with the arrests, with no political powers for even the Panch in this tribe. Women could be seen cooking on open firepots and the children, who usually beg during the day or accompany their parents, playing.
Central to the Panch’s decision of punishing the child, is the alleged ‘illegitimate relationship’ between the child and her father. Apart from the grave mistake of seeing this rape as a consensual relationship, can a 14 year old’s assent, under any circumstance, be taken to constitute ‘consent’ to sexual intercourse? How does one explain the outlook or perceptions that lead people to consider that a child (or a ‘girl’ as they repeatedly choose to call her) so young can make decisions about her sexual choices for herself?
Meticulous investigations, detailed charge sheet-filing and timebound, fair, impartial trials send clear and unmistakable signals that atrocities on women cannot be so absurdly and flippantly dealt with. In addition to this, it is imperative to take appropriate measures to weaken the powers that caste panchayats enjoy. The void created by law-and-order in rural India, which is the space caste panchayats occupy would have to be addressed through clear, short term and long term steps by the administration. If an incident of this nature can happen in Satara, with its history of social reformers like Savitribai Phule to the more recent anti-superstition rationalist Narendra Dabholkar, barely 20 km from the district headquarters, one shudders to imagine the situation in the rest of Maharashtra.
It is imperative that the new law under which the case is registered – the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act 2012 – be implemented effectively to ensure the child is protected. This law casts the police in the role of child protectors during the investigative process, provides for special courts that conduct the trial in-camera and mandate disposal within one year of reporting of the crime.
Interestingly, during a TV debate on this incident on a Marathi channel, none of the panelists seemed to be concerned that the raped, pregnant child might require attention. Even when the anchor asks each panelist for specific action steps that can be taken, nobody on the show thought it relevant to speak of medical treatment, counseling, compensation of Rs 2 lakhs (as mandated by the Supreme Court), or of any kind of psycho-social help that the child, badly bruised at this point and raped by her own father, must surely need.
It was not surprising to us that during our visit, too, very little could be found about the actual whereabouts of the child itself, the course of treatment being administered to her, if any, or her present condition. The POCSO in fact, mandates that in a case like this, the police personnel receiving a report are given the responsibility of making urgent arrangements for the care and protection of the child, such as obtaining emergency medical treatment for the child and placing the child in a shelter home.
In a country where in 92.5% of the reported rape cases, the offenders were known to the rape victims (according to NCRB), it cannot be surprising to anyone that the child could not be ‘safe’ within her own home and community, or from her own custodian, guardian and ‘protector’ – her father. The absurdity of the incident is only surpassed by it’s tragedy of the very real peril that the child is in even now. Punishing a rape victim, so openly showcases everything that is wrong in our perceptions of the female gender in general and female children in particular.
The Gopals’ tribe – poor, powerless and devoid of political connections – has been frightened by what they thought was a routine caste-panchayat meeting. In some ways, it has been easy to take action against the Panch/heads of such a disempowered, impoverished tribe. Easy to forget the child of an invisible community and what she went through, as the days pass.
We should measure our worth as a cultural identity and as a country by the worst amongst us and remember to take responsibility for all the atrocities and societal failures, just as we routinely appropriate and celebrate our successes.
Featured image for representation only. Source: Reuters.