SWANG GULGULIA DHOURA, India — For many years, under a tall, spreading neem tree in the middle of this settlement, the village headman has adjudicated disputes between his neighbors, doling out tongue-lashings and occasional penalties.
This, the local police believe, is what happened here a week ago. It began with an ordinary case of bad behavior: A young man crept into a hut after dark and groped Suguna Devi, a married woman and the daughter of the village’s headman, before her shouts woke the village and he fled.
The next day, villagers waited to see what punishment the headman would impose on the assailant — until midafternoon, when they said they saw Devi’s husband drag the young man’s 13-year-old sister from her father’s hut and into the woods, where he raped her. The worst thing, the girl’s father said, was that no one did anything to stop it.
“My wife wept, but nobody listened,’’ said the father, Munna Pasi, 62. “My daughter said, ‘Save me, save me,’ but nobody listened. All these people became blind when he was dragging my daughter away.’’
It is the latest in a series of shocking assaults that have drawn attention to remote villages in India, where police precincts are far-flung and traditional forms of justice still dominate. After a surge of news coverage of the episode, police inspectors converged on the destitute settlement of Swang Gulgulia Dhoura on Saturday.
The authorities have arrested Ghosal Pasi, 45, the village’s headman, on suspicion of ordering the rape, and his son-in-law, Nakabandi Pasi, on suspicion of rape. The girl’s brother, Harendra Pasi, is in custody, on suspicion of assaulting Devi.
Under the neem tree, the headman’s daughter lay inert on a rope cot, tears streaking her cheeks, promising that, if only her father were released, he would not mete out any more punishments. In the future, she said tonelessly, “if something will happen, people will go to the police station.’’
But others warned that it would be foolish to expect an end to village justice.
“There is a practice here, to sort out matters themselves,’’ said Vinod Vishwakarma, head of an elected village council whose territory includes the hamlet. “I spoke to some women, they said if something like this will happen in our village again we will oppose it. But when the girl tried to seek help from people, they turned away their faces. That’s the fact.’’
There have been other recent examples of sexual assaults being imposed as punishment. In January, when a woman in West Bengal was found with a married man, an elected village head sent her to a hut where she was raped repeatedly, perhaps by as many as 15 men, the police said. And in Pakistan’s Punjab province the same month, a caste council ordered the rape of a 45-year-old woman as a penalty after her brother was accused of rape.
The residents of Swang Gulgulia Dhoura, members of an untouchable caste who traditionally earned money by begging, are strikingly isolated from mainstream society. When he began pushing for the village’s children to attend school, Anant Das, an aid worker, was shocked that the residents “were not aware of national holidays,’’ and that many could not identify Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister. Only in the last few years, he said, have a few televisions appeared in the village.
“Nobody knows these people,’’ he said. “They have no education. They are not being treated as human beings.’’
The victim, a watchful, reed-thin girl with a long ponytail, clasped and unclasped her fingers Saturday as the adults discussed what had happened to her. On Sunday night, said Munna Pasi, her father, the girl’s brother Harendra Pasi had consumed “a kind of rice beer’’ and crept, partly disrobed, into Suguna Devi’s house, where he “tried to molest her.’’
First thing in the morning, Munna Pasi said, he approached the headman, seeking some settlement. “I said, ‘My son did wrong, and we are willing to take the punishment,’’’ he said. “I realized we needed to pay some fine. I said, if you want to impose a punishment, then beat him.’’ But when the headman gave no answer, Munna Pasi said, he went to work scavenging coal.
While he was gone, the police say, the headman delivered his verdict.
“Ghosal told his son-in-law, ‘You do the same thing to his daughter that this man did to your wife,’ so he grabbed her and dragged her to the jungle,’’ said Lakshman Prasad Singh, inspector general of the Jharkhand state police. The girl’s mother, Sonamani Devi, 42, said that her daughter was folding clothes inside their hut when the headman’s daughter burst in and “caught hold of my daughter by grabbing her hand and hair’’ and then passed her to her husband, Nakabandi Pasi.
Sunita Devi, a neighbor, said she and other women heard the girl screaming but did nothing because, she explained, “We did not know he was going to rape her.’’ She limped back to her family’s hut 45 minutes later, and then set out on the hourlong walk to the nearest police station.
In interviews, the headman’s relatives denied that he ordered the assault or looked on as the girl was dragged away. Gupta Kumar, 18, his son, said there was a plan to convene a council to decide on a punishment, but Harendra Pasi did not show up, and that after that the headman slept for much of the day because he had taken a medication.
“My father did not order anything,’’ he said. “Out of anger my brother-in-law did this thing.’’
Pressure seemed to be building in the village Saturday. The district administration had stationed two armed guards outside the victim’s hut, and politicians had been stopping by with small cash gifts and food for the family. Munna Pasi, his face grave and deeply lined, said the headman’s relatives had come to him repeatedly, asking him to withdraw the charges, but he had refused.
“When this was done to my family and my daughter, nobody came forward to help us,’’ he said. “Why should I be lenient to anybody?’’