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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."
Associated Press writer Chonchui Ngashangva contributed to this report.
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