The 13 men from Subalpur
10 June 2015
Sonia Faleiro’s book on the Birbhum gang rape is riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions.
The night she was gang raped in a Delhi bus and thrown onto a street to die, the young woman, whom the Indian media would name Nirbhaya, had been trying to get home after watching the movie Life of Pi. The film is about a shipwreck that left a lone survivor, a boy, who relates his adventures in enthralling detail. He shares the boat with a full-grown tiger, and through grit and ingenuity manages to beat incredible odds. This story, shared with personnel from the shipping company, becomes the official one. Only later is another narrative wrung out of him – brief, gruesome, and clearly true.
Nirbhaya’s own story has only the one, horrific version. And it is one we know well. Revived most recently by a controversial BBC documentary, India’s Daughter, the protests that followed the rape changed the conversation around sexual violence in India and led to the most progressive legislation yet on such crimes. And it so galvanised the nation that when news of another sexual atrocity broke in rural India a little more than a year later – “Woman gang-raped on orders of ‘kangaroo court’,” as a BBC headline put it – journalists from around the world rushed to report on it, and commentators to demand swift justice.
Now Sonia Faleiro, whose previous book, the internationally acclaimed Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars revealed her as an exciting writer with particular empathy for abused women, has published the most detailed account yet of what transpired that night in the remote village of Subalpur, West Bengal. In 13 Men, she tells the harrowing story of a young adivasi woman, ‘Baby’, who was brutally punished by her Santhal community for defying its cultural mores. As in Life of Pi, this story has an alternate version, which Faleiro sketches near the end. As she tells it, however, it makes such little sense that it cannot possibly be true.
In what follows I will tell both stories, including some evidence that Faleiro left out, and let the reader decide whether justice has been served or ravished.
What really happened is difficult to discern, but it matters. Baby remains under indefinite police protection. In practice, a kind of house arrest. And thirteen men – most of the able-bodied men of Subalpur – are serving the second of 21 years in prison. Their families are pauperised from having had to pay their legal costs, and are close to starvation. But no proof seems to exist that a rape even took place. In the meantime, their Santhal tribe, and by extension adivasi culture, have been tried and convicted in the national media on the charge of barbarism. 13 Men upholds that indictment.
As it happens, I have also investigated the case at length, and studied the available documents in their original script (English and Bengali). I concluded, however, that the official story, which is also Faleiro’s, is about as believable as the tiger story in Life of Pi. It’s such a thrilling story, though – such a perfect fit with mainstream notions of rural primitivism, which we, as the ‘modern’ and the ‘enlightened’, are striving to eradicate – that it effortlessly assumes the mantle of truth. A rape may have indeed taken place (it is hard to know for sure) but the evidence adduced to convict all 13 men, and even more significantly, to condemn systems of justice that are crucial to adivasi identity and autonomy, is exceedingly thin. In what follows I will tell both stories, including some evidence that Faleiro left out, and let the reader decide whether justice has been served or ravished.
The book opens with Santhal girls dragging the “bloodied carcass” of a reptile through a forest. Having “bludgeoned their prey with bamboo sticks,” they were “giddy with the anticipation of savoring the fresh meat.” The savagery will soon become manifest. One of the young women of the village, Baby, had been working in Delhi and had returned to her home village of Subalpur, in Birbhum district of West Bengal, with a taste for city clothes and cosmetics that aroused the ire and envy of other Santhal women. What really upset them, however, was her relationship with Khaleque Sheikh, a Muslim man from another village. Khaleque was married, and twice Baby’s age, but “a good man”, his wife assured Faleiro. He cared about Baby and he feared the wrath of the villagers, especially Balai Maddi, the Santhal majhi or headman, whom Faleiro describes as a shiftless but menacing drunk. Santhals usually deal with social disputes on their own, which left Khaleque vulnerable, says Faleiro: “Subalpur was, like any other isolated corner of India, an independent republic of sorts, and an outsider like Khaleque had no rights there.”
That very evening, Baby’s friends looked through the window of her hut and saw her having sex with her lover, as they told Faleiro. (“We were just drinking tea,” Baby said.) Several Santhal men and women, led by the majhi himself, broke down the door, dragged the couple out, and lashed them to the trunk of a date palm in the centre of the village. They were to be tried the next morning by the Santhal village council for having an illicit affair. One of Baby’s friends summoned her brother Churko, who lived in a neighboring village; he pleaded in vain with the majhi for the couple’s release. As a child he’d witnessed such councils at work, and had no illusions as to how grotesque their punishments were. “He had seen adults forced to spit on the ground and then lick the spit as punishment for disrespecting their elders,” Faleiro writes.
“The evening quickly turned festive,” she continues. Balai called for rice beer left over from the Sohrae festival, and a wildcat killed earlier that day “was soon bubbling in a well-spiced curry. The men huddled around the crackling flames, tearing apart the meat with their fingers and pouring the fierce brew down their throats as Baby and Khaleque looked on.”
The women returned to the huts, and night fell. At about 11:30 PM, the men dragged Baby into Balai’s hut, whereupon he told them to “enjoy” her. Twelve men and a teenager then raped her – among them the majhi himself – a tale that Faleiro relates in excruciating detail. Lalu Murmu, one of the men, threatened that if Baby resisted, “I will insert my hand into your abdomen and bring it out and eat you raw.” Debraj Mondal, the lone Bengali among the Santhals, orchestrated the entire affair and also took photos. The police would subsequently find on his camera a photo showing a naked woman pressed against an unidentifiable man wearing a lungi, or wraparound.
The next morning, a Tuesday, Khaleque’s brother Farooque arrived. So did Ajoy Mondal, a Bengali who headed the democratically elected village panchayat, which normally deals with economic, not social, issues. Mondal took over the salishi sabha, or arbitration meeting, and mediated a settlement. (Faleiro incorrectly states that the salishi sabha is a Santhal village council, which is in fact called a majhi mandua.) Khaleque refused to marry Baby, as the villagers wanted, so they demanded INR 350,000 (USD 5475) for the couple’s release instead – an impossible sum to raise. In the end, however, they accepted INR 25,000 (USD 391) from Farooque, as well as a promise by Baby’s brothers to come up with an additional 3000 rupees, and freed them.
13 Men has the virtue of fitting better with the available evidence, but contradicts the FIR – the first version that the police told reporters – in significant details.
On Wednesday, Baby and her mother and brother “slipped out of Subalpur” and went to the police station, where Baby placed her thumbprint on a First Information Report (FIR) handwritten in Bengali, which she does not read. By the end of that day, all the accused were behind bars.
This, in essence, is the tale that 13 Men tells, which also happens to be the one that the police finally settled on. It has the virtue of fitting better with the available evidence, but contradicts the FIR – the first version that the police told reporters – in significant details. To begin with, the FIR states that Khaleque had arrived with an offer of marriage (a fiction, even in Faleiro’s re-telling, that prompted a New York Times editorial to lament Baby’s punishment for the crime of “falling in love and planning to marry”). But that’s a minor matter. More importantly, the FIR states that the couple was tried that very night, 20 January, and were fined INR 27,000 (no mention of the INR 350,000). The couple could not pay such a sum, continues the FIR, so the majhi ordered the men to “Have fun with her, do what you want.” This is the charge that led to national and international condemnation of village councils, and demands that they be outlawed.
By coincidence, I’ve been researching a book in this part of the world for several years, and have acquired some awareness of the structural violence that holds Santhal lives in Bengal in a vice. Like Baby, most Santhals don’t read Bengali or English, in which all official business is conducted, and therefore need the help of Bengali interlocutors to deal with officialdom. They live in villages administered by Bengali-dominated panchayats – almost all of which siphon off money meant for welfare projects, and are themselves controlled by a Bengali-dominated political party, currently Trinamool Congress. They buy supplies and are routinely cheated at ration shops run by Bengalis; visit hospitals staffed by Bengalis who disdain them as unclean and often neglect to tend to them; labour at quarries or construction sites owned and managed by Bengalis; and may be arrested on false charges if they fall afoul of Bengali business owners. Santhal women often end up servicing their Bengali bosses or being raped by them. According to social worker Ghasiram Hembrom, in June 2014, a quarry owner near Bhabanandapur village of Birbhum’s Nalhati block caught a passing Santhal woman in broad daylight and raped her for three hours. She was too afraid of repercussions to press charges.
Khaleque was not only twice Baby’s age, he was also her employer – a detail that 13 Men neglects to mention. He is a mason, and Baby served as his helper. Given the obvious power imbalance in such a relationship, what the author portrays as a valiant love reaching across social boundaries may have less to do with romance and more to do with misuse of this position. (Baby seems to love Khaleque: indeed, it is far from unusual for a girl or young woman to develop a crush on her sugar daddy. Predators typically commence the seduction of a minor or other vulnerable person with a period of feigned kindness and concern, technically described as “grooming”, in which they win the trust and affection of the victim.) To be sure, Muslims in Birbhum stand lower on the class scale than Hindus; but Santhals serve as an underclass to both. As I hope to show later in this article, Faleiro’s assertion that Khaleque had “no rights” in Subalpur, an “independent republic of sorts,” is about as perceptive as the claim that a white man visiting his mistress in a black community in the American south is powerless in the face of local hostility.
When news of the atrocity broke, I too went to the village to investigate, coming away with the impression that something was very wrong. To begin with, the police rarely accept complaints filed by Santhals, let alone act so promptly on them. Moreover, it was clear from a document I saw, attesting to a settlement of the dispute on the 21st and bearing the signatures of Ajoy Mondal and Khaleque, that the salishi sabha met the morning after the alleged rape. So the rape couldn’t possibly have been ordered at the ‘trial,’ as the FIR alleged and as all the media were reporting. This is the problem that the police, and Faleiro, have papered over with the refurbished story – in which the trial had nothing to do with the rape.
Faleiro nonetheless insists that Balai Maddi in his role as the majhi did order the rape, and moreover that his order bore all the authority of Santhal village councils. To support this assertion, she states first that a Santhal court is similar to the khap panchayats of north-western India, whose diktats against inter-caste love have led even to death. In fact, adivasi councils have little in common with the notorious khap panchayats. Sexual relations with an outsider are indeed disallowed by Santhal customary law, but the maximum punishment that can be meted out for the offence is excommunication.
Faleiro further contends that what some “activists” had told her “about rape not being a punishment under Santhal law was also not true,” and quotes police officer Partha Ghosh as saying that the version of events these individuals were offering – which exonerates the majhi – was a “baseless” conspiracy theory. In fact, as every authority on Santhal law will confirm, it is the activists who are correct: in no circumstances is rape prescribed as a punishment. What is more, one of those alleged to have raped Baby share her last name, which means that Santhals see them as related; and the majhi himself is regarded as father to all the villagers. So what allegedly happened that night was not only rape but incest, a heinous crime by the lights of Santhal law.
Faleiro correctly points out that Santhals have been known to conduct lethal witch hunts. This pernicious practice, not limited to Santhals, typically blames women for diseases or other misfortunes, and seems to be on the rise because of an increase in rural property values. That is, women who possess land or a house are being targeted as witches and driven out or killed so that others can assume control of their property. No such cases have been recently reported in Birbhum, however, and moreover what happened to Baby was not a witch hunt. Nor is the majhi the one who would normally point out someone as a witch, but the ojha or medicine man.
Faleiro argues, finally, that the Indian Express had unraveled “at least six incidents” of sexual assaults ordered by Santhal tribal councils in Birbhum. The article in question, entitled “The Faultlines of Birbhum” describes only three such incidents, however, involving four women, in addition to the affair in Subalpur. In two of these atrocities, both occurring in 2010, a total of three women were paraded nude on suspicion of having relations with non-Santhal men. I have also investigated these atrocities, and interviewed one of the assaulted women, her family and other villagers. I was informed that the parades occurred not at the behest of a traditional Santhal council but of an alleged Santhal gang leader, Robin Soren, who heads his own organisation, the Adivasi Gaonta. In fact, the article even quotes the mother of one of the paraded women as saying that the assault “took place as we had no Majhi Haram at the time and outsiders used to rule” – the significance of which both Faleiro and the article’s author seems to have missed. The word majhi is short for Majhi Haram.
The fourth case cited by Indian Express is one in which a Santhal woman was “stripped and her hair chopped” in 2000 for having an affair with a Bengali man. A Bengali NGO worker was among those arrested. This incident, which in fact occurred in 2002, is also discussed in Faleiro’s book – and was a fictitious case lodged against social worker Kunal Deb and his Santhal associates, who were organising villagers against stone quarry owners. The article does not tell us anything about the other assaults it purportedly discovered.
Ironically, Soren is extensively quoted in this very article as a trusted source. He was excommunicated in September 2012 by a council of more than a hundred Santhal majhis for the nude parades, as well as for extortion and other offences. Unlike Baby’s “trial”, this one did not draw the attention of the national pres – from which Faleiro appears to have garnered much of her information on Santhal society.
None of this is to dispute that Santhal society is patriarchal. In fact it is more so than many other adivasi cultures. But it is less so than mainstream India. Santhal women have always enjoyed certain rights denied to the vast majority of Indian women. They can and do have premarital sex without fear of censure, and are free to divorce and remarry as many times as they wish. No stigma is attached to a widow, who can remarry if she wishes. The relatively higher status of Santhal women within the household, compared to mainstream women, shows in the gender ratio of 985 Santhal females for every 1000 Santhal males (as recorded in the 2011 census for Jharkhand), compared to the average of 943 in the Indian population as a whole.
What activists actually point out are not only the striking contradictions between the FIR and the salishi sabha document, but also the many conflicts among these and other available documentation.
Gender ratios among adivasis are nevertheless going down as they enter the mainstream and adopt such pernicious practices as dowry. Contrary to popular perception, it is India’s urban centers and wealthier states that have the lowest gender ratios – a powerful indicator that globalisation may be worsening, rather than improving, the status of Indian women within the household.
More to the point, such broad-brush characterisations of Santhal society say little about what actually transpired on the night of 20 January 2014 in Subalpur. In a later section of the book, Faleiro offers an alternative version of events which, she says, she gathered from three individuals – Nityananda Hembrom, the dishom-majhi or Supreme Chief of all Santhals, publisher Ruby Hembrom and Kunal Deb. Implying that they were biased, she says Hembrom and Deb “poured energy into amassing information to support the theory that the rape was made up.” In fact, although the dishom-majhi indeed believes that the rape is fictitious, Kunal and Ruby are agnostic as to whether it happened or not, and question only the charge that the majhi ordered it.
Faleiro further states that the activists regard the accusations as “a ploy concocted by those in power to capture tribal land,” but goes on to assert that because of her questioning “Nityananda conceded that Subalpur was not known to sit on valuable land.” That is, she implies that these three experts’ version of events is unsupported by the facts. As we shall see, the issue of tribal land, although relevant in most of Birbhum and indeed all of India, is in this particular case a red herring.
Over the years, I have come to know both Ruby and Kunal well, and have also discussed the case with them. They subscribe, in fact, to the version of events that I will shortly narrate, which has to do with local politics rather than with land, and which they tell me they had explained to Faleiro as clearly as they could. She has misstated their stance to such an extent that another reviewer, Fatima Bhutto, chided the two in no uncertain terms: “Those who would accuse Baby of lying—an educated woman publisher and a Santhal ‘uplift’ activist—should have been her natural allies, and only a writer as skilled as Faleiro can steer her prose so elegantly around such a complex story.”
What Kunal and Ruby actually point out are not only the striking contradictions between the FIR and the salishi sabha document, but also the many conflicts among these and other available documentation, such as medical reports and Baby’s sworn testimony (narrated in Bengali to a magistrate). Although some of these contradictions are only to be expected, given the trauma and confusion of a rape victim, others are more disturbing. Faleiro’s account also conflicts with these documents in parts, adding to the confusion.
For instance, Faleiro quotes Baby as saying that her rapists made no attempt to conceal their identities. Indeed, in her testimony, Baby provides a painfully detailed account of the night: listing the rapists in turn, exactly how they raped her, what they were wearing and whether or not they were wearing underwear. But in the same testimony, she also says: “There was no light in the room. I recognised people by their voices.” Then, she stated in this testimony that Sunil Kisku was wearing ‘half pants’ under a gamcha, or thin towel. But the police told Faleiro that the lungi-wearing man in the photo on Mondal’s camera was Sunil Kisku. Baby provides an explicit account of being raped by Balai Maddi, although the medical report states that he may not be capable of sexual intercourse (the doctors estimated his age as 58; however his voter id card says 44 and Faleiro prefers a younger age). And Baby in her testimony says that Balu Tudu threatened to rip out her insides – not Lalu Murmu as Faleiro states.
To continue: what is one to make of the fact that Partha Ghosh, the police officer in charge of the case, confessed to a probing reporter, Sohini Chattopadhyay, that he did not believe that all 13 men had raped Baby? He guessed instead that between 3 and 5 men, led by Debraj Mondal, had. Which begs the question: if Debraj Mondal indeed organised the assault, who actually controls the village men, he or the majhi? Chattopadhyay, who won the 2014 International Red Cross and Press Institute of India prize for humanitarian reporting, was denied permission to meet Baby. (She published her findings on the Subalpur rape, which also raises questions about the official story, under the title “It happened one night”) In contrast, Faleiro was granted, in her own words, an “exclusive interview.”
In what follows I shall relate another version of events, one that roughly follows the second story in 13 Men but makes more sense in the context of Santhal mores and West Bengal politics. As in the Life of Pi, this last version is, I believe, more credible than the first – but no less disturbing in its implications.
Mallika Tudu, one of the women who instigated the seizure of Baby and Khaleque that evening, said that she and other women thought Baby to be a bad influence on the youngsters of Subalpur village. They feared that her lifestyle, in particular the gifts she got from Khaleque, would tempt her teenage friends to also start bringing home outsiders. Another version, told to me by Ghasiram Hembrom, who also investigated the affair, is that the women suspected Baby of having paid sexual relations with men in Subalpur itself, which would mean their own husbands and sons; that would certainly explain their fury.
Tudu told me that that evening, when the women learned that Khaleque was there, they summoned the village men. Debraj Mondal, the lone Bengali who associated with the Santhals, took a photo of the couple through the window of their hut. (Mondal seems to have served both as interlocutor for, and exploiter of, the Santhals – he spoke up for them when the panchayat failed to pay for work commissioned under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, and allegedly also supplied illicit alcohol.) This photo, the women believe, must be the one that the police have. The men and women then seized the couple and tied them to the base of the date palm tree, to be tried the next morning by the majhi.
Balai Maddi was away that evening, attending a wedding at the village of Sreekrishnapur, five miles away and across a river: on this point the villagers are unanimous. They hoped that when the majhi returned the next morning he would try the couple and decree that they marry. Everyone knew that Khaleque was married, but they also knew that Muslims can have more than one wife – and this was the only way, presumably, that the women could think of to rid themselves of Baby’s presence.
That night, as it got colder, the women returned to their huts and the men stayed up drinking. Given the circumstances, it is certainly possible, given what appears to be a steep rise in rapes in both mainstream and adivasi society, that one or more men raped Baby. Subsequent investigations by the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights, a Kolkata-based organisation, found that Sunil Kisku had also been accused of an earlier rape in the same village.
The next morning the majhi arrived, but so did Ajoy Mondal, the head of the Trinamool-dominated panchayat. Since this body disburses development funds, which can run into tens of lakhs of rupees, its members are far more powerful than the typically impoverished Santhal majhis. So Mondal naturally assumed control over the proceedings.
What the villagers did not yet know, but now allege, is that Khaleque is distantly related to the fearsome Manirul Islam, a Trinamool member of West Bengal’s legislative assembly. Else, they would scarcely have dared to cross him. In Labhpur, the Birbhum block he represents – and in which Subalpur falls – the MLA is widely believed to have murdered three (Muslim) brothers in 2010 in a dispute over sand mining. That family has reported receiving death threats for pursuing justice, which has proved elusive. Islam had publicly boasted of these murders at an election rally, while also threatening to behead a Congress rival. “The opposition should remember that I, the MLA from Labhpur, have trampled three men to death,” he said in a speech subsequently broadcast on IBNLive. “I can quash any opposition with a blink of an eye.” But the police have dropped his name from the murder charge sheet, prompting allegations of Trinamool interference in their investigations. (Faleiro says the charges were dropped “for lack of evidence.”)
Every major media outlet in the world faithfully inscribed the official account, reading into the atrocity the flailing of a doomed primitivism.
Subalpur’s villagers say that they subsequently learned that when he heard of Khaleque’s predicament, Manirul Islam instructed Ajoy Mondal and others of Subalpur’s Trinamool-controlled panchayat to extricate him from the threatened marriage by paying off the villagers. He would “take care” of them afterwards. So the panchayat head offered money for Khaleque’s release. Farooque handed over INR 25,000 (USD 390); Ajoy Mondal allegedly kept INR 3000 (USD 47) for his services and handed the rest over to one of the villagers. The couple was released. That, the villagers believed, was the end of the matter until the police arrived the next day to arrest five men.
When Subalpur’s remaining residents trekked to the police station to inquire what had happened, says Mallika Tudu, they found Manirul Islam there directing the proceedings. Not comprehending the nature of the charges, she and others produced the salishi sabha document to show that the dispute had already been settled. According to Tudu, Manirul replied: “It has no value. If you try to be clever, none of your heads will remain on your bodies.” (The original document has since gone missing, but photocopies exist.) The police then called up and arrested all the remaining men named in the FIR. Handwritten by Anirban Mondal, a Trinamool associate of Ajoy Mondal, it implicated most of the earning members of the village, as well as a high-school student. The FIR, say Subalpur villagers, is Manirul Islam’s vengeance on them for having dared to hold his kinsman captive.
Baby was understandably furious when she placed her thumbprint on the FIR – whether or not she was raped that night, she’d been cruelly and publicly humiliated – but she may not have understood all that she was signing up for. She’s threatened suicide unless allowed by the police to return home to Subalpur.
So where was Balai Maddi that night? “If he’d been here none of this would have happened,” one of the women lamented. Several people from Sreekrishnapur are willing to testify that the majhi was in fact in their village that night, having stayed over with relatives after attending a wedding. What account any of the accused, and now convicted, men offer of that night is completely absent from the court record.
The “tall, slim-waisted” and “polyglot workaholic” police officer Partha Ghosh, who led the eight-member investigation team and who speaks “fluent English,” told Faleiro that he had GPS data from Balai’s phone that placed him in Subalpur that night. No such evidence was produced in court, however. In fact – and this point is of particular significance – the list of items that the police seized in the course of their investigations does not include the majhi’s phone. According to Subalpur’s remaining residents, Balai did not own a phone; being somewhat elderly and befuddled he didn’t even know how to use one. Ghosh, one of whose many cited virtues includes being “calm under pressure,” seems to have been stretching the truth. (Faleiro uses first names for the Santhals, including the dishom-majhi, but switches to the more respectful last name when referring to those she regards as authority figures; I stay with her usage in order to convey the flavor of the book.)
Why would Ghosh find such a subterfuge necessary? The answer is obvious: if the majhi was indeed not there that night, the entire case falls apart. As it happens, the question of alibis did not come up in the district court where the case was tried. The prosecution called 31 witnesses to the stand – Baby and Khaleque, their friends and family members, and several policemen and medical staff. The doctor who had examined Baby appeared for the prosecution but said that though she had scratches and bruises on her face and body, there was no injury or inflammation in and around her genitals; he could not confirm rape. No forensic evidence was adduced to indicate that rape had taken place, let alone to identify who had committed it. The number of witnesses the defence called to the stand: zero.
On the basis of this defence, the 13 men have each been sentenced to 20 years in prison, plus an extra year because none could afford the fine of INR 5000 (USD 78) set by the judge. Their families had sold their cattle to pay the defence lawyer, who may have been either incompetent or corrupted; they have no money left with which to pay for an appeal.
It would seem that once the story was told, it took on such unstoppable momentum that it had to become the truth. Every major media outlet in the world faithfully inscribed the official account, reading into the atrocity the flailing of a doomed primitivism. “India’s rapid modernisation has given young women enhanced opportunities and freedoms, which these self-appointed guardians of patriarchal tradition view as a grave threat,” explained the New York Times in an editorial. The august newspaper went on to demand that “the full weight of India’s law… be brought down on the perpetrators.” And so it was. The Supreme Court ordered a speedy investigation and trial, and – apparently prejudging the outcome – ordered that Baby be given compensation of five lakh rupees in addition to the INR 50,000 (USD 782) and the house she had already received from the West Bengal government. A worthy gesture, it would also give her and her relatives an incentive to stick to the script.
As writer Nandini Dhar points out in a perceptive critique of India’s Daughter, there are reasons why certain stories, such as Nirbhaya’s and Baby’s, prove so irresistible to the mainstream and global media – which as a matter of course fail to report equally hideous crimes committed by India’s security forces in places such as Chattisgarh, where adivasi ways of life are being systematically erased. No BBC film maker or award-winning book author has related, for instance, the story of Soni Sori, an adivasi teacher and political activist who was arrested under false charges and sexually tortured by a police officer. (Far from ending up in prison, the officer was honored in the 2012 Republic Day celebrations with the Police Medal for Gallantry.) Nirbhaya and Baby are, to borrow Dhar’s apt phrase, “ideal neoliberal citizens” – brave young women, emancipated from their restrictive traditions by the possibilities of the “new India” who are brutally punished for enjoying their fledgling liberties by the vindictive forces of “old India, of patriarchal value and entrenched rape culture.” Their stories are more equal than Soni’s.
Had the media not pounced on the village-elders-order-gang-rape narrative with such passion, and reported it with such unquestioning faith in the authorities, the defendants might have had a chance of a fairer trial. But with the whole world watching, the story that everyone believed had to become the truth and nothing but the truth. Conviction and closure were duly achieved. So it was that the man listed simply as Khalek in the police records metamorphosed into the more glamorous Khaleque of 13 Men, his brother Faruk into Farooque, and a nondescript village majhi and his entire tribe became the epitome of rural savagery.
“I work hard to be fair,” Faleiro said in a recent interview. “I don’t pick sides when I report, and I hope 13 Men reflects that.” But she appears to have made no attempt to interview the accused, instead describing them almost entirely through the eyes of their accusers. The majhi gets an entire chapter (mostly thanks to Baby’s brother, Churko), coming across as a foul-tempered alcoholic who went through three wives in quick succession, forced his aged mother to graze the cattle, picked fights when drunk, and once threatened to ban Baby’s other brother, Shital, from Subalpur. Social worker Raboy Murmu, who served as Faleiro’s guide, says that she spent one and a half days touring Birbhum with him, visiting Subalpur and meeting several police officers and officials, Manirul Islam, Baby and Churko. She turned down, however, Raboy’s suggestion that they also visit Sreekrishnapur to inquire whether the majhi had, in fact, spent the ill-fated night there, saying that she had all that she needed.
By misrepresenting those who would speak for adivasis and their customs, she is denying them any defence at all.
Indeed, the entire slant of Faleiro’s writing, such as the bloody scene with which the book opens; her passing assertion that Santhals hunt with “sticks and stones;” the night-time stage-setting of Santhal men sitting around a fire in front of the date palm where Baby and Khaleque were tied, “tearing apart the meat with their fingers and pouring the fierce brew down their throats” – evocative of 19th-century images of cannibals dancing around a boiling cauldron as their captives wait to be cooked; her statement that the “brew” in question was left over from a Santhal festival, although according to Baby’s testimony it was commercial alcohol supplied on loan by a dealer; or her insistence that the majhi’s alleged order to rape bears the full weight of Santhal law – serve to bolster her core indictment of Santhals as savages.
What happened in Subalpur, Faleiro tells us, was not just another sexual assault in a country that seems to be exploding with such; it was an atrocity for which an entire culture must accept blame. “Violence against women is a nationwide problem, so it hardly seems fair to single out the Santhals,” she said in the same interview, “but it is inaccurate for some to argue that Santhals have never participated in mob violence against women.” No one is making that claim, however. By misrepresenting those who would speak for adivasis and their customs, she is denying them any defence at all.
I for one believe that what we have witnessed here is a lynching. And that journalists, editors, and writers from around the world, whose racism is so deeply ingrained that they cannot tell when they’re becoming part of the structure of oppression, enabled this evisceration of justice.~Madhusree Mukerjee, a former physicist, has served as an editor at Scientific American magazine and is the author of two books, Churchill’s Secret War (2010) and The Land of Naked People (2003).