NEW DELHI — In the hours after her 6-year-old daughter was kidnapped, screaming in terror as she was dragged away from home, Rimaila Awungshi appealed for help from the most powerful authority she knew — the council of elders in her rural Indian village.
In her anguish, Awungshi told the village leaders what happened. She was a single mother to a beloved little girl named Yinring, whose name translates as “living in God’s shelter.” Her ex-boyfriend had refused to marry her or care for their child. But as the years passed and he never found a wife, his family demanded custody.
“But I am poor, and I have no brothers, and the village authority doesn’t care,” Awungshi said in a telephone interview from her home in remote northeast India.
Across much of rural India, these powerful and deeply conservative local councils are the law of the land. They serve as judge and jury, dictating everything from custody cases to how women should dress to whether young lovers deserve to live or die.
They often enforce strict social norms about marriage and gender roles.
These unelected and unregulated courts now are coming under fresh scrutiny after police say a council of elders in West Bengal ordered the gang rape of a 20-year-old woman as punishment for falling in love with the man from a different community.
“We are going back to the 16th century,” Pradip Bhattacharya, a politician in West Bengal, said this week as news of the gang rape began to spread in a country already reeling from a string of high-profile cases of sexual violence against women.
Village councils are common in India, with its vast rural communities, serving as the only practical means of delivering justice in areas where local governments are either too far away or too ineffective to mediate disputes. Often, the elders try to halt the march of the modern world, enforcing strict social norms.
In some of the most extreme cases, the councils have sanctioned so-called honor killings, usually against women suspected of out-of-wedlock sex. Known as khap panchayats in northern India, the councils act with impunity because villagers risk being ostracized if they flout the rulings.
The courts can be especially harsh toward women, enforcing the most conservative aspects of a patriarchal system that is deeply entrenched in Indian society.
India’s Supreme Court has lashed out at the khaps, saying they amount to vigilante justice, are “wholly illegal” and should be stamped out. On Friday, the Supreme Court took up the West Bengal case, ordering an investigation on a “suo moto” basis — meaning that the court acted on its own, without a request from either side in the case.
In many ways, the councils show how centuries of patriarchal traditions often clash with the values of a modern world in India. The growing numbers of financially independent young women who live on their own in cities would balk at even the most innocuous dictates by a village council, such as not wearing jeans or using cellphones.
The West Bengal case has revived long-standing criticisms of the khaps, with critics saying they are nothing more than kangaroo courts delivering medieval rulings.
According to police, at least 13 men attacked the woman in West Bengal — she lost count of exactly how many — on Jan. 20 after the elders in Subalpur village discovered her love affair with a Muslim man from a neighboring village.
The woman is a member of the Santhal tribe, and marrying a Muslim man from outside her community would be considered a violation of custom.
The man had visited Subalpur on Monday to propose marriage, but villagers caught him and tied the couple to a tree while the council decided their fate, according to local reports.
Police official C. Sudhakar said the village council ordered the man and woman to each pay a fine of 25,000 rupees ($400). The man’s family was able to pay, but when the woman’s family said they were too poor, the council ordered the gang rape, police said.
The woman escaped the village two days later and contacted police.
Twelve suspects and the head of the council have been arrested.
Four years ago, a nearby village council in West Bengal’s Birbhum district ordered a young woman paraded naked through the village. She was accused of falling in love with a man from a different caste.
The area is 110 miles north of Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal.
Nityananda Hembrom, the chief of West Bengal’s 6 million Santhals, said the village council is being unfairly maligned, and that there are not enough details about the case.
“Maybe the girl was assaulted,” he acknowledged. But he said the tribal community and lifestyle is under siege, and that he believes the council was acting against some sort of “cultural erosion.”
Some observers say a general election, expected by May, has given the village elders even more power because politicians know local leaders dictate how their communities vote. India is the world’s biggest democracy, with a population of 1.2 billion people.
Jagmati Sangwan, general secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, said the village councils are so powerful because politicians court them for votes.
“The message is going round that you can do whatever you want and can go scot-free,” she said. “As a result conservative forces are feeling emboldened.”
Some of the most horrifying cases of local justice involve honor killings, often the culmination of threats and intimidation by a young couple’s families and community.
Narendra Singh’s brother and sister-in-law were slain in 2007 in an honor killing after the couple fled their village and secretly married. Singh filed a murder case accusing the girl’s family of being behind the killing, enraging the village council.
After years of being shunned, Singh’s life only recently has returned to normal.
“The council ruled that any villager found interacting with my family would be fined 25,000 rupees ($400) each,” said Singh. “Only 8 to 10 villagers out of a total of 10,000 kept some sort of contact with us.”
Awungshi, who has not seen her daughter even once, eight years after her ex-boyfriend’s family abducted her, says she thinks of the girl every day and regrets that the village elders did not help her by remaining indifferent to her plea, thereby supporting the child’s custody with her father.
She heard that her ex-boyfriend’s family has given the girl a new name, Yarmi, which means “gift.”
“She is 14 now,” Awungshi said. “I hope and pray she will come back to me on her own one day when she becomes a mother herself.”