Global Women's Project | Wed, Mar 26, 2014
Today we will examine the West Bengal gang rape case through a cultural lens and shed light on some of the factors involved. Although there are a series of complex cultural and ethnic underpinnings to the West Bengal gang rape case, this has been seldom mentioned in the media. Photo/Sudiptorana//CC
Welcome back to the Women in India blog! Today we will examine the West Bengal gang rape case through a cultural lens and shed light on some of the factors involved.
Although there are a series of complex cultural and ethnic underpinnings to the West Bengal gang rape case, this has been seldom mentioned in the media.
The essence of the cultural tension is this: the victim of the West Bengal gang rape on January 20 is a member of the Santhal tribe, an ethnic community in West Bengal that feels increasingly threatened by the forces of cultural erosion. The young man she had expressed feelings for, on the other hand, is Muslim, and from a different community. The ethno-cultural tensions in West Bengal and within the Santhal tribe set the stage for the act of terrible violence that played out just two months ago.
The Santhal Tribe
The Santhal tribe is one of India’s largest and oldest tribal communities. According to estimates, there are over 10 million Santhals in the country, mostly living in eastern states. The Santhals live primarily in close-knit, peaceful communities.
In order to maintain cultural identity and tradition, the tribe practices endogamy, the practice of marrying within the clan. Could this explain why the community reacted so violently to a young woman who defied cultural norms? It seems this is only part of the picture.
"Such a heinous incident is unprecedented in our community," Nityananda Hembrom, the chief of West Bengal's six million Santhals, told the BBC. "If a man or woman in our community marries outside, the couple is told that they cannot participate in our rituals and festivals. If they don't agree to that, they can live away from the community peacefully. There is no question of unofficial village councils sitting in judgment and ordering any kind of violence against them."
What then prompted this heinous act of violence?
One possible explanation is the growing tension between Muslims and Santhals, who live together in the Birbhum district. Kunal Deb, a researcher who works with the community pointed out that there have been previous cases of violence against Santhal women for interacting with Muslim men.
“Santhals have often blamed Muslims for promising to marry their women with an eye on their land. Muslims deny it," Deb said.
The friction between the Muslim and Santhal communities seems rather to be a symptom of a larger problem of cultural erosion in the Santhal community.
Due to a number of economic, social, and political factors, many Santhals feel that their culture is threatened. Many members, for example, can no longer work within their own communities and must seek work in construction or other manual labor. Others feel their culture is being eroded due to the inundation of popular culture into the society, including pornography, cell phones, and television. Still more feel that their traditional system of tribal justice, the very same that sentenced the young woman to be gang raped, is threatened by state politicians who see it as dangerous and unconstitutional.
This complex amalgam of factors appears to be the underlying cause for the extreme violence that played out in Subalpur two months ago. The village elders, fearing a loss of community and culture, responded with great violence to a woman who dared oppose certain cultural norms.
Unfortunately for the Santhal community, this incident has placed those cultural norms squarely under the international spotlight. International human rights activists and Indian politicians at a national, state, and community level are calling for the dismantling of the local justice system.
Paradoxically, it seems that this act of violence and injustice has threatened Santhal culture and traditions far more than any other singular factor that preceded the violence.
Next up: We will take a look at the developments in the West Bengal rape case and offer some insight into its political and judicial responses. We would love to hear your thoughts! Contact us at GWP-Assistant@coc.org.