The girls hurried through the forest, dragging the reptile behind them. The ground was moist from a sharp burst of unseasonable rain, and the bloodied carcass was soon coated with mud. It was a cold evening in January, but the girls were barefoot. They had bludgeoned their prey with bamboo sticks and were giddy with the anticipation of savoring the fresh meat. They argued logistics all the way home.
If they roasted the meat on an outdoor fire, as they wanted to, they would attract the envy of the entire village. They lived in Subalpur, a forested neck of land in a remote corner of Birbhum district, located some 117 miles north of Kolkata in West Bengal, India. Few of the people they knew could afford to eat more than once a day.
“Aren’t you alone tonight, Baby?” one of them said, turning to an older girl. They all knew that Baby lived with her mother, who was away visiting Baby’s brother in another village. “Why don’t we cook this fellow at your house?”
Twenty-year-old Baby was a fairly new addition to this group of friends. A few of them dismissed her as aloof, but others liked her because she was stylish. She wore salwar kameezes to work, same as all the girls, but she piled on glass bangles and oxidized silver chains, so her wiry little frame jangled playfully as she moved. Sweet-smelling flowers spilled out of her kinky, bunned hair.
But now she lagged behind the group, preoccupied. Baby was the only woman in Subalpur who owned a mobile phone—a no-brand device that she was always using to call or text someone. Some months earlier, the curious girls had confronted her about the texts. She was messaging a man, she told them, with a note of challenge in her voice. He was handsome, he was good to her. He even bought her groceries.
The girls knew Khaleque Sheikh, who lived in the nearby village of Chouhatta. He worked with them on the construction site where they were helping to build the area’s first high school. Out of trucks that arrived at the site, the young women hauled spires of bricks and mud in steel pans they balanced on their heads with practiced nimbleness. Then Khaleque and the other masons laid down the bricks in cement.
Baby looked up distractedly to answer the question about her house. “Oh no,” she said, waving the girls away. “Your brother-in-law is visiting tonight.” Baby was about as related to the girls as she was married to Khaleque, but the villagers liked to think of themselves as a family. Baby was also convinced that it was only a matter of time before Khaleque asked her to marry him.
Facts suggested otherwise: for all his mooning over Baby, thirty-eight-year-old Khaleque didn’t seem inclined to divest himself of his wife, Haseena, with whom he had two children, or to take a second wife. Khaleque’s daughter was only four years younger than Baby.
Confronted with a circle of disappointed faces, Baby sighed aloud. “Why don’t I give you some oil to fry the meat in?” she said. The girls grinned mischievously. “What will you do all alone with Khaleque?” someone smirked.
The girls didn’t think much of the mason. It wasn’t just that he was a hairy fellow who slunk around, or even that he was married. The villagers actually had liberated ideas about sex—young men and women in Subalpur could have relationships before marriage, and widows were not condemned to live out their lives as social outcasts. But sex with someone like Khaleque was a different matter. The villagers of Subalpur belonged to an indigenous tribe called the Santhals, and they considered all nontribals, even fellow Bengalis, to be dikus: outsiders. Entering into a relationship with a diku was out of the question. Khaleque was also a Muslim. The perceived foreignness of Muslims lent them a patina of untrustworthiness.
When news spread of the affair, Baby was told by dozens of people to end it, the villagers later reported. She bluntly refused. “Whom I love is my business,” she snapped.
Baby had just left her teens behind, and she was small-statured with a round, deceptively childlike face, but her composure belied her years. When she and the villagers tangled, they grew angrier and angrier as she grew only cold. Her reaction was so unnerving that the villagers would later reference it as proof that she was capable of telling extreme lies under pressure.
The villagers’ outrage grew, and they responded that there was no I in Subalpur. If Baby wanted to live among them, she would have to live likethem. As they closed ranks in their dislike of her behavior, Khaleque’s routine arrivals—jaunty, smiling, and loaded down with gifts of vegetables, lentils, and rice for his young lover—became a source of rising anger.
On January 20, 2014, the day the girls killed the animal, that anger boiled over. By the time the villagers were through, Baby alleged, thirteen men had gang-raped her on the orders of the most powerful person in Subalpur. That charge would trigger a backlash among Santhals frustrated by centuries of being marginalized, provoke despair in an India reeling from a series of gang rapes, and make headlines around the world.
Two years earlier, when Subalpur was just another anonymous village, a twenty-three-year-old woman and her male friend were returning home after watching Life of Pi at a mall in Delhi. After they boarded what seemed to be a passenger bus, the six men inside gang-raped and tortured the woman with an iron rod so brutally that her intestines were destroyed. The attackers also beat up the woman’s friend severely before throwing both of them from the vehicle. Thirteen days later, on December 29, 2012, the woman died of multiple organ failure.
A culture of male entitlement, underpolicing, and far too few courts has created an atmosphere of impunity in India that encourages crimes against women. A woman reports a rape every thirty minutes. But for decades, such crimes had gone virtually unnoticed by the media.
The Delhi gang rape changed that. The graphic details that emerged about the attack were impossible to ignore. Unlike in many cases of the past, the victim was an urban, upwardly mobile medical student. It was easy for middle- and upper-class women to see themselves in her. Her death touched the heart of the nation and triggered a national conversation about women’s safety and human rights. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in every part of the country, facing down police officers, tear gas, and water cannons to express their outrage. It was the most vocal protest against sexual assault in India’s history.
Yet more gang rapes followed. Just three months after the Delhi incident, a Swiss tourist camping with her husband in the central state of Madhya Pradesh was raped by six men. Later that summer, a twenty-two-year-old photojournalist was assaulted in the abandoned Shakti Mills textile factory in Mumbai.
There were soon so many rape cases in the news that journalists slapped labels on them to help the public keep track: the “Delhi gang rape” was followed by the “Swiss gang rape” and the “Shakti Mills gang rape.”
Of the six accused in the Delhi gang rape, four were sentenced to death by hanging in a highly publicized trial. (A fifth man died in custody, and the sixth suspect, who was younger than eighteen at the time of the rape, was controversially given a mere three years in a juvenile detention center.) The trial lasted only eight months, an unusually short time for a justice system in which cases can drag on for so many years that key witnesses sometimes die from natural causes while waiting for resolution.
That case led to a series of legal reforms aimed at changing how the justice system treated crimes against women. Voyeurism and stalking were made punishable under the law. The government introduced the death penalty for a repeat offense of rape and for rape that put the victim in a coma. It also established “fast-track” courtrooms dedicated to rape trial hearings.
This paradigm shift is believed to have given women the courage to step forward and register complaints of sexual assault. The number of reported rapes in Delhi nearly doubled from 706 in 2012 to 1,441 in 2013, accounting for nearly 30 percent of rape cases in India’s fifty-three largest cities.
But these numbers are still widely considered a fraction of the rapes that actually occur—and even with a spike in reported cases, only a handful of crimes attract the high-profile attention that guarantee the perpetrators will be tracked down and punished swiftly.Baby’s case lacked the sort of sympathetic victim that made the Delhi gang rape sensational. Her story had another attribute that drew in the media, though: it played into Indian stereotypes about ignorant tribals and their brutal systems of justice. It also served a global narrative. When the news broke worldwide, a reader poring over the press reports might have easily concluded that when it came to women’s safety, India was a lawless wilderness.
Just a few days prior to Baby’s rape, the British Foreign Office released a travel advisory warning against solo female travel in India. The notice was prompted by attacks on three women, all of them foreign tourists, in separate incidents earlier that month. The U.S. Department of State’s travel advisory, which is still in effect, was even more blunt. It warned that in India, “sexual harassment can occur anytime or anywhere.”
At the time, the world’s largest democracy was winning applause as a potential economic powerhouse. It was also welcomed as a much needed counterweight to China’s ambitions in Asia. But the rapes changed how India was seen in the world, sparking discussions about insufficient social development.
The Delhi gang rape may have been the first of many high-profile attacks on women to upend the primary narrative of a once shining India. But it was only because of the medical student violated in the bus on that foggy December night that a tribal laborer in remote Subalpur received a hearing at all.
Baby had been a source of gossip since the summer of 2010, when she went to Delhi at the age of sixteen. She was the first person from Subalpur, man or woman, to venture outside West Bengal. Some of the other villagers had never even seen a train.
Millions of rural Indians flock regularly to cities in search of employment, but the impetus had yet to grip the people of Subalpur. Whatever it was that compelled them to stay at home, eking out a subsistence living, didn’t compel Baby. She wanted to see what was out there.
On hearing of a job opportunity, Baby, along with two other women from neighboring villages, traveled in the company of a male acquaintance by train to Delhi, where she found full-time (if poorly paid) work keeping house for a married couple. She said they doted on her and treated her like family. “I’ll never meet such nice people again,” she said. She left only because her mother fell ill.
Baby returned to Subalpur in July 2013. The villagers there were mostly illiterate and had a hard time keeping track of dates, but they remembered when Baby came home because it was around the same time the monsoons thundered in.
Her fellow villagers didn’t know what to make of Baby when she got back. To them, her experience had been so foreign that it was practically otherworldly. For them to ask, “What is Delhi like?” was the equivalent of someone familiar with Delhi wondering, “What is hell like?”
To make matters worse, Baby now spoke with an accent. To the villagers, her Hindi-inflected Santhali—the dialect spoken by their tribe—made her sound like an outsider, and they reacted accordingly. Older women snubbed her. Young men taunted her. “They said dirty things,” she later complained. Only the children seemed to find her foreignness appealing. She was very friendly, some of them told a Santhal activist who visited Subalpur.
Still, it wasn’t long before eddies of rumor and misinformation swirled around Baby. The stories made a near stranger of the young woman who had lived in tiny Subalpur for most of her life.
It was whispered that Baby’s male acquaintance had tricked her into leaving Subalpur under false pretenses. The man said he would marry her and swore to treat her “like a queen,” said a villager named Sanatan Tudu. Instead the outsider had trafficked Baby. She was forced into construction labor, or perhaps even prostitution.
Whatever the truth, agreed the villagers, it could not be denied that Baby was strange. To go all the way to Delhi—and with a diku, no less—she had to be.
As the summer of 2013 drew to a close, the villagers came to a consensus about the recently returned Baby. They agreed that she behaved like she had money and could get away with anything. Why did she need to have a mobile phone? they grumbled. None of the other women had one. All this before Baby even started seeing Khaleque.
The situation took a turn for the worse after Baby began sporting a surprising piece of clothing. A year later, Parvati Kisku, a pleasant-faced young housewife who lived a few doors down from Baby, still hadn’t gotten over it. “She wore shorts!” Parvati said, open-mouthed.
Baby paired her shorts with midriff-baring blouses and sat by the village pond first thing in the morning, when everyone was around, scrubbing her dirty utensils in the betel leaf–green water like it was the most natural thing in the world. Kisku believed that Baby’s taste in clothes proved she was a thoughtless fool. “Whatever she wanted,” said Parvati, “Baby did.”
To the villagers’ annoyance, Baby ignored the gossip and went about rebuilding her life to her own set of standards. With the money she had earned in Delhi, she bought back the small parcel of farming land her family had been forced to mortgage in her absence. She was now one of only a handful of landowners in the village.
The people of Subalpur were so desperately poor, they were eligible for government-subsidized cooking fuel, grain, and pulses. So after Baby reacquired her family’s two-thirds of an acre, she naturally came to be viewed as indecently wealthy.
She also got the job at the construction site, where she earned the relatively large sum of 150 rupees, or around $2.50, a day. Construction jobs were rare around isolated Subalpur, and it’s possible that Baby’s good fortune elicited envy. The money afforded her everyday items, such as face powder and perfumed hair oil that were considered great luxuries in Subalpur. She was also able to download the latest songs, which she paid a local storekeeper to transfer onto her phone. Baby played the music on the phone’s speaker while washing down the cheerful blue courtyard outside her hut, and her neighbors complained that the tinny sounds threatened their peace of mind.
It was at the construction site, in the summer she returned from Delhi, that Baby met Khaleque.
Khaleque, like Baby, was illiterate, but he had seen some of the world. When jobs dried up close to home, he thumbed a ride across the border of West Bengal into the boom state of Jharkhand, where labor for quarries and building roads was in high demand. He stayed onsite in a roughly built shack for months at a time, and his wife, Haseena, soon grew used to his absences. She didn’t have a phone, so when he was away he called her on a neighbor’s mobile.
The couple’s daughter was engaged to be married, and they were saving up for her dowry; they had already purchased a gold chain for the hefty sum of 25,000 rupees ($406), but the family of the prospective groom wanted even more—as much as 150,000 rupees, or almost $2,500, in cash. Khaleque, said Haseena, gave her most of his wages so they could accumulate this sum quickly. “He is a good man,” she said with pride.
The Santhals were members of one of India’s 705 “scheduled” or indigenous tribes, who collectively made up 8.6 percent of the country’s population. The tribes each had their own language and culture, but they also had the shared experience of being exploited at the hands of both British imperialists and the Indian government.
In 1989, the government attempted to stem the tide of abuse by passing the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes Act, also known as the Prevention of Atrocities Act. The offenses listed under the law—like forcibly removing a tribal’s clothes and parading him naked—offered a window into the centuries of indignities that tribal men and women had endured. This historical disadvantage continues today, adversely impacting every aspect of tribal life.
The Santhals of Subalpur were not unique among tribal communities in having to go without running water, toilets, electricity, and easy access to education and health services. Outsiders thought the villagers odd for hunting animals with sticks and stones for meat, or for continuing to embrace old ways such as animism. Or even for speaking Santhali, a language understood by practically no one outside their tribe. But the villagers felt that these practices were the only way to survive in a rapidly changing world that seemed so detrimental to their interests.
Perhaps it was their history of repression that kept the Santhals tribal in every sense of the word: they believed in sacrificing personal freedom for what they saw as collective welfare. They genuinely felt that an individual was only as strong as the group, and that a group was only as respectable as each individual.
This instinct for self-preservation prompted self-policing. The tribe had a parallel court of law known as a shalisi sabha, or village council, led by themanjhi, or headman of the village. It was his job—the manjhi was always a man—to settle disputes. Most of the time, these involved everyday complaints: wounded feelings over extramarital affairs, squabbles over straying cows. The village men found the council convenient and trusted its members to protect their interests, unlike the police, whom they historically feared. The police, after all, were outsiders.
Others saw the situation differently.
There were similar village councils in north India called khappanchayats that also operated in rural communities and consisted of members of a single caste. Unlike the tribal courts, which maintained a relatively low profile, the khaps were widely known and routinely condemned in the English media. They were infamous for their often brutal punishments, which sometimes ended in death. Those included so-called honor killings, or the murder of couples who married against what the khaps claimed were rules laid down by ancient Hindu texts.
While the tribe- and caste-based councils had no official status, groups of villages in India also had councils whose members were elected democratically. The gram panchayats were introduced by the government to foster grassroots democracy; there were 250,000 of them across the country. But these panchayats were concerned primarily with the implementation of social programs, so people continued to approach their traditional councils for advice on personal matters.
In 2011, in the face of mounting public pressure, the Supreme Court of India reprimanded the traditional councils for being “kangaroo courts” and called them “wholly illegal.” But the longstanding arrangement between the police and rural communities meant that this order was ignored. The councils benefited an overworked police force that didn’t have the resources to respond effectively to complaints. A police station that had vehicles to transport officers often didn’t have money for gas.
After Indian newspapers reported that a village council had ordered Baby’s rape, indignation sparked by the khaps enveloped Subalpur. When it was revealed that the villagers were tribals, the demand for justice only grew. The public call for an investigation into village councils now extended to tribal ways.
The road into Subalpur is a surprisingly good one: broad, smooth, and evenly paved. The villagers didn’t use it much for walking or cycling—they did that on the side of the road—but as a drying platform for the bits of food and heating fuel that they foraged for during the day. Just before sunset on January 20, 2014, at around 5 p.m. on the day Baby and Khaleque had arranged to meet, the villagers had covered the road with stacks of cow dung patties, bales of hay, and the crackling brown ribs of palm leaves.
The village was home to around four hundred people crowded onto a few flat acres of beeswax-colored mud. Their huts were grouped close together, perhaps as much from necessity as from their conviction that proximity equaled security. Mud walls and thatched roofs jostled for space like a flock of rushing goats.
As the sun set, the village children lingered in the darkness playing games. In Subalpur, sticks and stones stood in for cricket bats and balls, and palm leaves for boat oars. The adults migrated inside; the men greased and polished tools while the women tended to wood fires, drawing a smoky gray veil across the village. The smell of boiling rice and sizzling wild greens wafted out onto the road.
Everyone went about their business in near darkness. Some families piped electricity into their courtyards illegally, slinging a metal hook over a power cable and connecting the wire to a bulb in their homes, but many others relied on smoke-belching kerosene lamps. When they walked to and from the rice fields where they defecated, they carried flashlights to avoid stepping on venomous snakes.
As Khaleque pushed his bicycle along, he had reason to be pleased with the anonymity the darkness afforded. He had visited Baby almost every day for the past six months, and although no one had said so to his face, it was obvious he was unwelcome. He hoped the problem would die down, but from what Baby had told him of the villagers’ attitude toward outsiders, he knew it was unlikely. When he spoke to Baby of his growing unease, she told him to focus on her instead. He loved her, didn’t he? And she loved him.
Since Baby never asked Khaleque about his wife, perhaps he assumed that she didn’t care that he was married—that she had no expectations of him. What could he offer her, after all? He had known Haseena since they were children.
Haseena Sheikh was in her early thirties and very beautiful. She was tall by village standards and light-skinned, with amber eyes and cheekbones that rose like dunes from the smooth oval of her face. Haseena had given Khaleque not merely a daughter, but also a son. Then there was the fact that Khaleque’s older brother Farooque, the Sheikh patriarch, was a devoted family man. The siblings lived next door to each other, and neighbors gossiped that if forty-seven-year-old Farooque caught wind of Khaleque’s affair, he would descend on his younger brother like an axe on a woodpile.
Khaleque knew the villagers of Subalpur thought Baby brazen, and he’d told her how impressed he was with how she handled herself. Even when she heard that Balai Maddi, the most powerful man in Subalpur, disapproved of their affair, she merely rolled her eyes. She’d known Balai since she was a child, she told Khaleque dismissively.
She liked to think her reaction made him love her more. Yet Khaleque, Baby later said, was not so sure that Balai could be shrugged off.
Balai lived near the entrance of the village in a hut with an unmissable shiny tin roof. His voter identification card listed him as forty-four years old—but, like many Santhals, he didn’t have a birth certificate or any proof of age, so it’s possible that he’d guessed at a number when asked. The government doctor who examined Balai one week after Baby was allegedly gang-raped put him down as fifty-eight.
Photographs show Balai Maddi to look younger than that, perhaps in his early forties. He was lean and medium height, with a smooth-shaven face, a broad, flat nose, and a shock of unkempt hair that flopped across his forehead, lending him an air of bemusement. In fact, in every group photograph of the thirteen men taken after their arrest, the confusion on Balai’s face leaps out, overshadowing the anxiety and the fear on the faces of the other twelve.
Balai, neighbors said, never seemed busy and was sometimes drunk. When he drank, he grew voluble, holding forth with obvious dramatic flair before an audience of beedi-smoking hangers-on about matters of local interest. Balai and his entourage, who usually congregated around him on their haunches, were not people Khaleque was eager to engage with, Baby said. There were too many of them, and this was their village. Subalpur was, like any other isolated corner of India, an independent republic of sorts, and an outsider like Khaleque had no rights there.
Khaleque called out to Baby as he parked his bicycle. Her brick hut overlooked the village water tap and had a window secured with four iron bars. Baby approached, beaming. “He loved me,” she later said of Khaleque. “He had only ever made me happy.”
Baby was dressed comfortably in a loose-fitting blouse thrown over the sort of petticoat normally worn under a sari. Khaleque nodded toward two sacks of paddy, or unmilled rice, that stood several feet high against the wall of Baby’s courtyard. “You’re alone,” he said, slipping off his shoes. “What if someone steals your paddy? Let me bring it in for you.”
Khaleque knew that Baby’s mother, Rashmoni, was visiting Baby’s older brother Churko, who lived in Sannyasi Danga, a village about five kilometers away. Her two other brothers lived close by in Laturbonai. Baby’s father, Baski, died of tuberculosis when she was a child, and her two sisters were married and living elsewhere. The couple had the house to themselves for the entire night.
The interior of Baby’s hut was a bare, cold little space with a thin pallet of dried palm leaves and cloth that she and her mother shared at night. Despite Baby’s relative fortune, there was almost nothing of value in their jumble of goods—some utensils, a handful of trinkets from village fairs, and a few pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses. Baby bustled about, boiling water for tea and wiping down cups. She spoke of this and that, she later said, but Khaleque was breathless from the weight of the paddy sacks.
An hour or so after Khaleque wheeled his bicycle into Subalpur, five of the girls Baby had gone hunting with earlier peeked through a chink in the window. They said they saw Baby and Khaleque having sex. Thrilled and disgusted, they rushed away to inform the other villagers. (Baby would deny the girls’ allegation. “We were just drinking tea,” she said.)
Shortly afterward, a man named Jallah Maddi (no relation to Balai—a number of village families have the same surname) walked up to Baby’s hut. “Anyone home?” he bellowed.
Baby stepped out into the courtyard, where she saw Jallah and six or seven other people with sticks in their hands. “Whoever is in the room, call him and ask him to come outside,” Jallah demanded.
The men wore monkey caps, or woolen balaclavas, pulled low over their faces as protection against the icy wind. Only their eyes were visible. There were women as well, peering out from under heavy shawls. The villagers later denied that they carried sticks.
“I’m alone,” Baby fibbed. She went back inside and told Khaleque to stay put. “They have come to beat you,” she whispered.
“Whose bicycle is this?” someone taunted Baby, according to judicial testimony that Khaleque gave eight days later. “We looked through the window. We know you and Khaleque are together.”
Baby wouldn’t respond, so the villagers threw their weight against the flimsy wooden door, springing the latch. “Why did you break my door?” Baby cried. She saw that Balai Maddi and her neighbor Mallika Tudu were among the pack of pumped-up intruders.
Baby and Khaleque were clothed, Mallika later said, and clinging to each other in terror. They had to be pulled apart. “We asked you to come out nicely,” Mallika scolded, “but you refused.”
The women grabbed Baby while the men seized Khaleque. As Balai locked Baby’s door and pocketed the key, he directed the villagers to take the pair to an inoperative utility pole a few feet away from Baby’s property. Baby knew protest was futile. They were calling a village council, she realized. She and Khaleque were to be tried and judged for having a relationship.
Baby wanted to protect Khaleque, but she didn’t know how to do so without angering the villagers further. As two or three men restrained Khaleque in a powerful grip, Baby believed he prayed that compliance would win him leniency.
Balai lashed the pair to the utility pole with a length of rope, tying their arms tightly behind their backs. The entire village closed in on them. Even the village dogs came bounding toward the group.
Also present were the teenage girls who had tattled on Baby. Earlier that day, one of them had mentioned Baby’s evening plans to the other villagers, who demanded that she let them know when Khaleque arrived. The girls weren’t sure why Baby was in trouble. It was hardly news that she and Khaleque were an item. The girls now hung on the outer edges of the group, jittery with excitement and expectation.
“I love him,” Baby cried out. “I will leave if I have to.”
By “leave,” Baby meant that she was willing to be expelled from the Santhal tribe. In rural India, more so than in other parts of the country, it wasn’t Indianness that supplied identity as much as community. As a tribal without a community, Baby would be isolated twice over. Wherever she went, however hard she tried to fit in, she would never be fully accepted—she would appear to be the very sort of outsider her fellow Santhals so feared and distrusted. It was a huge sacrifice, even for worldly and modern Baby, who was not one to fear change.
“They threatened to break Khaleque’s head with sticks,” she later explained, her face flooded with despair.
The villagers ignored Baby’s attempts to cut a deal. They huddled, talking among themselves, filling the air with puffs of steam. Later that night, the temperature would drop to around 55 degrees Fahrenheit, but the villagers refused to move their captives indoors. “No one wanted to take responsibility for them,” Mallika later said. “What if we brought them into our homes and they later ran away?”
Baby and Khaleque had one ally among the villagers: Makhan Maddi, a friend of Baby’s brothers Churko and Shital. Slipping away from the others, the twenty-five-year-old manual laborer dialed Churko on his mobile phone and urged him to hurry to Subalpur. “They have taken your sister and Khaleque,” Makhan whispered. He also phoned Shital, who in turn called the third brother, Som.
Meanwhile, the other villagers untied Baby and Khaleque and dragged them toward Balai’s property, where they held their councils. The land was bare but for a sentry-like palm tree, majestically tall and straight. On the night the villagers confronted Baby and Khaleque, the base of the tree was spotted with blood. Some of the men had killed and skinned a wildcat there earlier that evening. Baby and Khaleque were made to stand on the blood-stained spot and tethered to the tree with rope.
Churko arrived shortly afterward, at 6:30 p.m., with his wife and a male friend.
At twenty-four, Churko was the tallest of Baby’s brothers and muscular from working in the fields. When he saw his sister and Khaleque tied up, he lunged forward. “This is your fault,” he screamed at Khaleque, with a mouthful of curses. He attempted to grab hold of his sister’s lover, but the villagers, Khaleque later testified, rushed to pull the two men apart.
Churko, like the rest of Baby’s family, rather liked Khaleque. He had no objections to Baby’s relationship with the married Muslim man. “She is a grown woman,” he later said, implying that her life was her business. But he was aware that the affair disgusted the villagers, and he agreed with them that they were within their rights to express their anger with an appropriate punishment.
Churko had sat through village councils since he was a child, and he had witnessed all sorts of punishments being meted out. He had seen adults forced to spit on the ground and then lick the spit as punishment for disrespecting their elders. He had seen others fined small payments of money, rice beer, or just plain rice. For serious crimes, the council could confiscate property; but this time, Churko anticipated, it would be a light fiscal penalty at most.
If he was frustrated with Khaleque, it was for allowing the matter to reach such a dramatic public denouement. Yet Churko couldn’t say what Khaleque might have done differently. He had always known that the already married man would not marry his sister.
When Baby’s other brothers arrived, they, along with Churko, begged the villagers for forgiveness. “Let our sister go,” the men said. “We’ll talk about it.”
But Balai Maddi and the others would have none of it. “Not tonight,” Balai dismissed them. “Tomorrow.”
Whatever the circumstances, a Santhal council was traditionally held only during the day.
Balai Maddi was terribly poor, but, like Baby, he had so much more than the other villagers that to them, he appeared well-off. Balai owned two huts on a bare oval of land. He lived in the one with the tin roof with his elderly mother and twelve-year-old son, Jamadar. The hut was poky and dark, and the few things in it were old and worn out. Even the photographs on the wall, which showed two of Balai’s nephews, were water-damaged. In one image, they stood next to each other wearing sunglasses and stonewashed denim jackets with their legs spread slightly apart, in imitation of Bollywood action stars.
The other hut was no more than four thatched walls and a roof built over a fire pit where the Maddis cooked their meals. The kitchen also had a rope bed, and Balai’s mother, Pakuh Maddi, later said that she slept there at night to give her son and grandson more room in the first hut. Baby, however, would claim that on the night she was gang-raped on the mud floor of the kitchen, Pakuh was sleeping elsewhere.
Balai’s father died when Balai was a child, and his money came from Pakuh’s side of the family. Her parents had left her some land and cattle. Balai didn’t care for manual labor, the villagers said, so he hired some of his male relatives to work the land and paid them in paddy. The leftover paddy might earn him as much as 15,000 rupees a year ($236), which was more money than most people in Subalpur had ever seen.
Since Balai refused to work the land, Pakuh asked that he graze their cattle. But he rarely did, the villagers said, forcing his mother—a hunched-down speck of a woman with wrinkles and creases—to walk almost four miles every day, barefoot and bareheaded even in the rain, with just a stick in her hand to protect herself from snakes and other wild creatures.
With little to do all day, Balai took to wandering around in search of entertainment. He loved gossip and rice beer. “If you offered him a drink,” said his nephew Sukal Soren, “he wouldn’t leave your house for days.” When Balai got drunk, said Churko, he picked fights. Baby’s brother Shital was a favorite target. Balai once grabbed him by the collar and threatened to have him prohibited from entering Subalpur because he lived among non-Santhals, Churko said.
Balai’s alcoholism thwarted his attempts at domesticity. He had three wives in fairly quick succession, and the women, said some villagers, ran away. Pakuh, perhaps out of loyalty, blamed her former daughters-in-law. Balai’s third wife, Pakuh said, left after giving birth to Jamadar and discovering that he was disabled.
His failures with women and penchant for drink aside, the villagers liked Balai. He was a convivial man, and his money conferred on him an enviable status. It was that status that won him the opportunity to lead the village.
Some years earlier, the son of the village headman declined to take over the role from his father, as was customary. The headman isn’t paid a salary, and the youngster was unwilling to accept a responsibility with no visible reward. He dismissed what might have been considered a great honor a generation ago as an old-fashioned inconvenience. So the villagers picked Balai to be the next headman.
His term was controversial. Balai didn’t lift a finger, recalled his nephew, adding that some of the villagers urged his uncle to resign.
Later, a few of the villagers told reporters that Balai had, in fact, resigned. Their actual headman, they said, was named Bhujuram Hembram. Others maintained that Balai stayed on as headman, and that Bhujuram was elected only after Balai was arrested. Perhaps the villagers hoped that if they swore Balai wasn’t the headman, the police would find it hard to prove that he had been in a position to order Baby’s rape.
Either way, it was clear from everything the villagers said that Balai Maddi was their de facto leader. He told the villagers what to do, and most of the time, they did it.
On the night of the council, Churko had left his toddler son with relatives, and he wanted to return home. Shital and Som had not planned to stay in Subalpur either. So, without another word, the very people who might have stood up for Baby that evening turned from her. Churko later said that he had no reason to worry about his little sister. She was among their own kind, just a few feet away from her own home.
The evening quickly turned festive. The villagers had recently celebrated the Santhal harvest festival of Sohrae, and they still had several earthen pots of rice beer left over. Balai called for them to be brought out. Kindling and wood were gathered for a fire, and the wildcat 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.
There were women around, but they were distracted with tending to their children. One after the other, Baby said, they complained of the cold and wandered home. The women, however, later denied they had ever left. By all accounts, though, the group diminished until only fifteen to twenty villagers remained. They were there, the villagers later said, to prevent Baby and Khaleque from escaping and avoiding justice ahead of the council meeting planned for the next day.
At some point, the men who stayed turned their attention back to the captives. The pair were still tied to the tree, but the men laid down straw for them to sit on and propped up a bullock cart so it covered their heads and protected them from the dew. They even drew a tarpaulin over the cart. The cold had sharpened to a knifepoint, and the villagers said that the men didn’t want Baby and Khaleque to fall ill. It was the one thoughtful thing that they’d done all evening, and the villagers would later hold it up as proof of their collective innocence.
Then the group grew smaller still. The alcohol was consumed, and the fire flickered. Complaining of the cold, sixty-year-old Ajit Soren heaved himself up and hurried home. Soren recalled that a dozen or so of the younger men remained seated around the tree on bamboo mats, watching over Baby and Khaleque. He couldn’t remember if women were present. The youngest of the group was nineteen-year-old Babom Maddi. The oldest, according to medical reports, was Balai Maddi.
There was nothing unusual about this group, some of the villagers later said, but this wasn’t entirely true. Sanatan Tudu acknowledged that the thirteen men who were later arrested “ran the village.” He said “they set people straight.”
All manual laborers, they worked hard and took any job they could find—in the fields or at the nearby brick kiln—to make money and feed their families. They found solace in each other’s company and enjoyed gathering after dinner to drink rice beer, play cards, and argue over local politics. The villagers had voted en masse for the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), which was in power in West Bengal until 2011, and they continued to rebuff overtures from local organizers working for the party now in power: the All India Trinamool Congress Party, or AITC.
Some of the men had wives and children. The ones who were not yet married lived with their parents, but eventually they would need to marry and have children, as all Santhals did. They had very few possessions. Some carried cheap mobile phones, but computers were unfamiliar objects. Several could sign their names in Bengali, but they couldn’t read fluently, their families said. They had never traveled far from the village; news of the outside world trickled in from the radio and people they met on work sites.
Their isolation was purposeful, and therefore inevitable. Every aspect of their lives—as poor villagers, as tribals, as the heads of their households—was glazed with hardship, and their peaked faces and stunted, sun-wrinkled frames showed it. Perhaps it helped to live like family, and to think of each other as blood brothers.
Some of the men in the group were, in fact, related. Chana Maddi, age twenty-five, was there with his brother Madan Maddi, who was twenty-nine.
It was Madan who approached Baby, she later said, telling her that she couldn’t be trusted with Khaleque and would have to spend the night alongside Balai Maddi’s mother in the kitchen.
Suspicious of Madan, Baby refused. “We will stay together,” she replied, referring to Khaleque. Balai, who Baby later said was drunk, grew impatient. She recalled his hissing at Madan, “Stop wasting time!”
Madan and some other men allegedly dragged Baby into the kitchen. According to the complaint she filed with the police, Balai told his coterie of men to “enjoy” Baby: “Whatever is to be done, you do.”
As the men pulled her away, Baby screamed for help, according to Khaleque’s judicial statement. “Save me!” she cried.
Khaleque struggled to untie the rope that leashed him to the tree, but he didn’t get very far. “We will kill you both,” he testified the men said, daring him to respond to Baby’s pleas.
“Help me!” Baby begged. “Untie my hands!”
Being illiterate, Baby couldn’t tell time. Instead she guessed that the events that followed began at 11:30 p.m. The police agreed. Baby’s gang rape, they concluded after their investigation, lasted from 11:30 p.m. on January 20 until 4 a.m. on January 21.
Madan did untie Baby’s hands but, according to her judicial testimony, he then dragged her into Balai’s kitchen and pushed her to the floor. Then Debraj Mondal allegedly stepped forward.
Twenty-five-year-old Debraj lived in a nearby village called Rajarampur Colony. He wasn’t a tribal, which technically made him an outsider, like Khaleque. But unlike the Muslim Khaleque, Debraj was a fellow Hindu, and he had shown himself to be an ally of the Santhals, interceding on their behalf when they had to approach local politicians for favors.
Debraj took photographs throughout the evening with his digital camera. Perhaps he intended to blackmail Khaleque by threatening to reveal the affair to his wife. But Baby’s judicial testimony suggests that Debraj’s primary role that evening was as the director of her gang rape.
Like the twelve other accused, Debraj would not take the stand in his defense, and the following graphic account of Baby’s alleged gang rape is based on her judicial testimony.
It was Debraj, Baby alleged, who restrained her by forcing his foot against her head as she squirmed on the ground. He called on the men by name to rape Baby and advised them in what position to do so. “If you lie on her, she may die, and you will be caught,” she said he warned them. “Do it sitting.” When Baby attempted to scream, it was Debraj who covered her mouth with his hands, she claimed. “If you shout, we will bite your cheeks and tear them,” Sunil Kisku then threatened.
Thirty-five-year-old Sunil had three children with his wife, Parvati, the neighbor who had called Baby shameless for wearing shorts around the village pond. He was the first to rape her, Baby said, even as she tried to kick free. Balai Maddi was the second.
After at least three others had their turn and Baby had once again attempted to break free, a sixth man threatened her, she said.
“If you do not allow me,” said Lalu Murmu, “I will insert my hand into your abdomen and bring it out and eat you raw.”
Baby convulsed. “Please just leave me,” she said. “Otherwise I will die.” At this, Madan, the man who had brought her into the hut, spoke. “We are doing this to teach you,” Baby said he told her coolly, “so that you are afraid to go to any other man.” Then he raped her. “We have wives and children in our own homes,” Madan continued. “Why would we fuck you on such a cold night? We are performing our duty.”
The tenth man implicated in the gang rape was named Jyatha Tudu. He was the son of Sanatan Tudu, the neighbor who said of this group of men, “They set people straight.” After he was finished, Jyatha observed that Baby was looking ill. “She may die,” she later recalled him saying. Debraj propped her up on the rope bed, and Baby closed her eyes with relief. But then, she testified, Debraj raped her. “Are you men or animals?” she mumbled. He didn’t respond.
After each man had his turn with Baby, he returned to his spot under the palm tree, Khaleque alleged. “They were laughing amongst themselves,” he testified.
Inside the kitchen, Sunil appeared to Baby to be crying. He is sympathizing with me, thought Baby. But no, Sunil was mocking her. He stopped his play-acting and explained that he would have to rape Baby a second time, she said. “You kicked me and made me fall,” he grumbled about the first time. “I could not do it well.”
Debraj brought his face close to Baby’s. “If you had not let us [do this], we would have killed you both,” he said. He looked Baby up and down. By then, thirteen men had raped her, she testified. “Leave this girl,” he said, disdainfully. “She is stale.”
According to Baby, the men made no attempt to conceal their identities. It’s possible that they were sure of getting away with what they were doing. The police would later reveal that Debraj, whose wife was then pregnant with their second child, had been implicated but not charged in the rape of another tribal girl.
“Take me to Khaleque,” Baby pleaded, according to her testimony. He was still outside, tied to the tree. The men refused. Perhaps they didn’t want to agitate Khaleque further, fearing that he would try to awaken the sleeping villagers.
“Tomorrow, if you tell anyone what happened,” Sunil allegedly warned Baby, “we will throw you out of the village.”
Some time later, Baby said she stumbled out of the hut, only to find Balai Maddi and the others sitting casually around the palm tree, smoking beedis and chatting amongst themselves. She crumpled in a heap next to Khaleque, he later testified. “The village head,” she told him, referring to Balai, “and the other men have dishonored me.”
She was in great pain, Baby said. Perhaps worried that her moans would attract attention, some of the men, Khaleque testified, poured warm water on her head that was left over from heating the alcohol that had fueled the night. They seemed to think it would make her feel better—and that she would then shut up.
Light cracked open the night sky, and the sharp calls of roosters punctuated the air as Ajit Soren hurried to the clearing bearing cups of tea for the captives. Baby was tied up again. “I asked if they were OK,” Ajit later said. They replied in the affirmative, he recalled.
In fact, Baby would testify that Ajit’s son, Ram, was among her rapists. Soren refused to believe this. Ram was one of the few people in Subalpur who hadn’t dropped out of school. He was still in high school, even though he was already twenty, but his ability to stay the course counted as a huge achievement in Subalpur, and Ajit was justifiably proud of his boy. He said that he had seen Ram the morning after the alleged rape and hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary in his behavior.
Khaleque was told to call a member of his family to represent him in the village council. He phoned his wife, who in turn dialed her brother-in-law, Farooque, and told him that the villagers of Subalpur had seized her husband. It was 7:10 a.m., according to Farooque’s judicial testimony. He quickly rounded up a few friends, and they set off for Subalpur on their motorbikes.
Farooque didn’t know what to expect—he didn’t know about Khaleque’s relationship with Baby. So when he arrived at the village, he was taken aback to find his brother tied to a palm tree, surrounded by a crowd of sixty or seventy men. Although court documents show that Baby was the only woman present when Farooque arrived, villagers such as Mallika Tudu—the neighbor who helped to drag Baby out of the house—claimed to have seen everything.
Farooque’s initial reaction was similar to that of Baby’s brother Churko. He didn’t immediately express anger at the villagers. Instead he cursed and kicked his brother for bringing trouble on himself. Khaleque apologized, but Farooque—who seemed to have had a better handle on Santhal social mores than his brother—ignored him as he threw himself at the villagers’ feet. He begged them to forgive Khaleque for whatever it was he had done, but they hushed him. The council commenced. Baby was crouched under a shawl, weeping.
The villagers determined that the only way Baby and Khaleque could atone for their illicit relationship was by getting married. Two eyewitnesses said this was immediately ruled out. Mallika said that Farooque refused on his brother’s behalf, pointing out that Khaleque already had a wife and children. But Churko, who had by then returned to the village with his two other brothers, remembered things differently. It was
Khaleque who refused to marry Baby, said Churko, who had expected as much.
Whatever the truth, Baby then insisted that she didn’t want to get married anyway, even though she had used the term “brother-in-law” with the village girls just hours earlier, implying that Khaleque would soon become her husband.
The villagers turned to Khaleque. “Now what?” one asked. “You’ve ruined her.”
Had Khaleque been a Santhal, he and Baby might have been made to marry whether or not they wanted to, the villagers later said. In other words, the villagers might have broken the Indian law against forced marriage in order to uphold the laws of their community.
Even the people who did not participate in the alleged gang rape had broken several Indian laws in the past twenty-four hours. They had pushed their way into Baby’s home, they had restrained her, and they had prevented Khaleque from leaving Subalpur. But they weren’t aware of the legal repercussions of what they had done. All they knew was that they were acting in what they believed to be the best interest of their community. If they thought about it, they might have said that while their behavior was not in keeping with the law of the land, it was perfectly acceptable by the law of their land.
Because Khaleque was a Muslim, however, the question of marriage was dropped.
Then, much to the villagers’ consternation, matters started to slip out of their hands.
Ajay Mondol, a member of the local government-affiliated grampanchayat, or official village council, and two of his associates, had gatecrashed the meeting and assumed the role of mediators. In another village, the intervention of a panchayat member in such a conflict may not have merited a second thought. But the rules that shape Santhals’ interactions with dikus are so firm that outsiders are not permitted to be present during a council. The villagers would later say that they were too afraid to ask such powerful people to leave.
Ajay quickly took charge, mediating between the two groups, until the villagers agreed on a fiscal penalty. According to court documents, they demanded that Khaleque pay them the colossal sum of 350,000 rupees ($5,668). Khaleque’s daily wages, said a local Santhal activist named Raboy Murmu, were likely to have been 600 rupees, or about $10 a day. Even if he saved all his earnings to pay off the villagers, it would still take him years to settle the debt.
The haggling continued until it was finally agreed that the Muslim brothers would hand over 25,000 rupees ($404) to the villagers of Subalpur—a sum that, if history were anything to go by, they likely planned to spend on items for everyone to enjoy, such as stereo speakers for celebrating festive occasions. “We’ll pay the money,” Farooque said. “Let’s end the matter here.” He grabbed his brother, who turned to Churko and told him to do whatever was necessary to resolve the matter on Baby’s behalf.
The villagers and Ajay now focused on Baby’s brothers. The judgment of the council was a contract between men, and the council members were not interested in talking to Baby. Churko stepped forward, along with Shital and Som.
When the villagers demanded that the brothers pay the council 27,000 rupees ($323) as a gesture of remorse, Churko flat-out refused. “We are poor,” he reminded them, asking that they be reasonable. It was more money than they could earn in six months. He suggested that since they were three brothers, they pay 1,000 rupees ($16) each. The villagers agreed. Later they would allege that the sum was never paid.
It was around 1 p.m. when the council concluded, and Baby and her brothers were allowed to return home, where their mother, Rashmoni, was waiting to hear what had happened. Baby said she felt weak. Her brothers asked if she was unwell, and her mother offered her food. She didn’t respond immediately. The men who raped her had threatened to burn down her house if she spoke out, she later said.
As the other villagers dispersed, they didn’t talk about Baby, recalled Ajit Soren. They wondered aloud about the outside mediators. The villagers hadn’t informed the gram panchayat that they had caught Khaleque and Baby having sex and intended to try them in the Santhal court for having an affair—and why would they? But if they didn’t, who did? Khaleque would later testify that the men were strangers to him. He believed they were attracted to the village because of the commotion, and that Ajay Mondol, being a panchayat leader, felt a responsibility to intervene.
The villagers would never be satisfied with this explanation, and the memory of the men’s intrusive presence was a niggling reminder that an injustice had been perpetrated—not toward Baby, but toward them.
The next morning, Baby, her mother, and her brother Shital slipped out of Subalpur. They walked two kilometers before finally reaching a bus stop, where they boarded a bus to the nearest police station in the small town of Labpur, ten kilometers away. The previous night, Rashmoni later testified, her daughter had finally broken down and told her that she had been gang-raped in Balai Maddi’s kitchen. “I applied oil to her injuries,” Rashmoni told the court.
Subinspector Kazi Mohammad Hossain was on duty when Baby stumbled into the station at 2 p.m. She could barely walk, he said. Police records show that Baby told Hossain that the headman of her village had fined her for having a love affair with an outsider. When she said she was unable to pay the fine, she continued, the headman grew angry and changed the punishment to rape. Thirteen men had then raped her.
Hossain was familiar with tribal justice, but he’d always shrugged it off as a way of life in rural Bengal. Like many other police officers in the area, he thought of the Santhals as a backward people best left to sort out their problems by themselves. Even so, he was taken aback by the seriousness of Baby’s complaint.
He told Baby to submit the complaint in writing, but as she couldn’t write, she asked a man who was hanging around the police station for help. The man, whose name was Anirban Mondal, obliged, creating another controversy that would linger for months. Legally, a female police officer—not some random layman—should have recorded Baby’s statement.
The police used the transcript Mondal drew up to fill in the first information report for the crime, which would form the foundation of an extensive investigation. At 3:45 p.m. on January 22, Baby dipped her thumb in ink and imprinted the statement.
Shortly afterward, two police cars barreled down the road that led into Subalpur, crushing the palm leaves that had, as usual, been laid out to dry. Churko, who had joined his family at the police station, emerged from one of the cars. Hossain and other officers poured out after him.
The villagers, who happened to be sitting around enjoying the last rays of the setting winter sun, jumped up in surprise. They couldn’t recall the last time they’d seen the police in Subalpur. Some of them assumed that Churko had complained about the council because he was upset that he and his brothers had been fined, they later said. They watched as police rounded up men at Churko’s direction, pushing five of them into the waiting cars.
The villagers grew agitated. “We made our decision,” one man called out, referring to the council meeting. Hossain swiveled around to singe him with a glare. “Who told you to?” he shouted.
When the police returned to the Labpur station with the village men, a bespectacled, snowy-bearded AITC politician named Manirul Islam was there waiting for them.
Islam was a Muslim, like Khaleque. But his religion wasn’t the only red flag for the village men. Islam had been in the news four years earlier for his alleged involvement in the killings of three people. He was arrested, but later released for lack of evidence. Then, in 2013, Islam appeared to implicate himself in the murders when he publicly declared that he had “trampled three men to death.” Naturally, he had a fearsome reputation in Birbhum.
Islam’s presence, coming so quickly on the heels of the outside mediators’ unsolicited involvement at the village council, was another red flag for some who followed the story in the news: something was not right about Baby’s complaint.
Among those who would become suspicious was a slight thirty-six-year-old book publisher named Ruby Hembrom. A few days after the news broke, she and some friends hopped on a train from Kolkata to Santiniketan, a small town near Subalpur, where she hired a car to take them to the village. In all, Ruby traveled 117 miles in search of the truth. She was a Santhal, and she said that what she had read in the newspapers didn’t fit in with what she knew of village justice from family members who lived in rural West Bengal.
“Rape is not an official punishment under our [justice] system,” Ruby said. “It is unheard of.”
What she learned over the next few days would lead her to question whether Baby was even assaulted.
Ruby’s father was a Santhal scholar named Timotheas Hembrom. According to him, the Santhals were first mentioned in a text written in 1795 by Sir John Shore, who went on to become the governor general of India. Shore describes an incident among the Santhals—whom he called “Soontaars”—in 1792. Members of “one of the wildest and most unlettered tribes in India,” he wrote, put five women to death on charges of witchcraft.
More than two centuries later, the Santhals’ supposed savagery was again thrust into the spotlight. The village of Subalpur, which in the decade prior to the rape hadn’t merited a single mention in the mainstream media, was suddenly the focus of global attention.
On January 23, 2014, The Times of India, the nation’s top-selling newspaper, announced “Massive Condemnation after Tribal Girl Gang-raped by Kangaroo Court Members.” The BBC immediately picked up the news, while The New York Times ran a color photo of the thirteen suspects alongside a report headlined “Village Council in India Accused of Ordering Rape.” In the image, the suspects had been bound by the police much as the suspects had bound Baby and Khaleque just days earlier. A piece of rope had been twisted and turned to fit their waists, and a grim-faced policeman tugged at the rope as if the men were cattle.
Many readers reacted to the suspects like they were brutes who deserved the harshest punishment under the law.
But to those inside the Santhal culture, such as Ruby, who were familiar with anti-tribal sentiment, the criticism raining down on Subalpur appeared both familiar and unfair. To them, the accusations seemed like a convenient way to discredit tribals and take from the villagers what was rightfully theirs—in other words, a ploy concocted by those in power to capture tribal land.
Press reports based on Baby’s erroneous police statement had already declared that she was raped on the orders of a village council. In fact, as Baby’s judicial testimony would later confirm, the council had ordered no such thing. The second time around, Baby clarified that she was raped the night before the council took place, in Balai Maddi’s kitchen.
The press, Ruby feared, was intent on challenging the Santhals’ right to govern themselves.
In Birbhum, the district that encompasses Subalpur, the reasons for willfully marginalizing Santhal culture had not changed all that much since Shore’s time, Ruby said. Back then, allegations of Santhal savagery allowed British imperialists to justify snatching away Santhal land to grow cash crops. Today, land in parts of India with large tribal populations is constitutionally designated as tribal property to protect the rights of indigenous peoples who have lived there for centuries. The land may not be purchased or owned by nontribals. But companies find ways around these regulations.
The red soil of Birbhum happens to be a rich source of stone chips, which means it attracts quarry owners who make every possible effort to occupy it. They marry tribal women under false pretenses and take control of their land. They purchase property illegally from tribal men and promptly bulldoze it. Sometimes, said Ruby, they simply seize the land by force. When all else fails, they accuse Santhals of trumped-up crimes.
The police and politicians must be colluding with the stone quarry owners to prevent Santhals from filing complaints, alleged Raboy Murmu, the Birbhum-based activist. They have left the tribals with no choice but to accept the terms thrust upon them. Entire families, even children, wind up working as stone crushers on the very land they legally own. Their land is worth hundreds of thousands of rupees, but they see none of that money. Instead they deal with the aftermath of the quarry mining. The quarries damage water sources, affect the productivity of farmland, and kill wildlife. Some are built so close to residential areas that exploding stones routinely plunge through the roofs of villagers’ homes.
The tribals work twelve hours a day blasting, breaking, and cutting stone for chips for a few rupees, or less than a dollar. They wear no protective gear and are at high risk of contracting respiratory diseases such as silicosis. Santhal women, Raboy said, are abducted and raped by the quarry owners. Some of those who object end up in gunny bags in the depths of the mines.
Despite the threat to their lives, the Santhals have escalated protests against these illegal land grabs, holding rallies and even forcibly closing mines. Quarry owners have reportedly retaliated with violence.
In 2010, thugs allegedly paid off by the quarry owners responded to Santhal protests by setting fire to Santhal huts, hurling homemade bombs, and killing tribal leaders. But the quarries are big business for Birbhum, and activists say politicians from the CPI(M) party, which was then in power, reacted not by arresting the perpetrators of the crime but by accusing the tribals of killing their own people. “To implicate the agitators in fabricated cases is an old ploy of the rulers,” wrote Bengali author Mahasweta Devi in the Hindustan newspaper.
This time around, too, the Santhal activists suspected that politicians from the ruling party were behind the allegations against the Subalpur villagers. The only difference was that now the party in power was the AITC—the party of Manirul Islam, the bearded politician who was waiting for the accused when they were brought to the police station.
In Subalpur, Ruby said she heard the same story the villagers had told every other person who’d come to see them: Baby was lying. Had they not laid down straw for her and Khaleque and created a shelter to protect them from the dew? they asked. Ruby took some of the women aside, hoping they would be more open with her without men around. If Baby was raped that night, one of the women told her, it was Khaleque who raped her. “They were having sex, were they not?” the woman said.
“We were there that night!” the others insisted. “Would our husbands commit rape before our eyes?” By the time she left Subalpur, Ruby was convinced that something was not right.
Around the same time that winter, a seventy-nine-year-old man named Nityananda Hembram cut short an interlude in his ancestral village to return to Kolkata. He hailed a cab straight for the wood-paneled office of Saha & Ray, a high-end law firm in the heart of the bustling city. Nityananda was the democratically elected supreme chief of the Santhals, and he had approached the law firm to request pro bono advice in the now notorious Subalpur gang-rape case. Nityananda had never been to Subalpur. Like Ruby, he first read about the incident in the newspapers. He had been in touch with local Santhals over the phone, however, and was desperate for justice to be served. Justice for the thirteen men, that is. He, too, believed that Baby was lying.
The popular Santhal leader had entered politics by accident. He had studied architecture at the Indian Institute of Technology, the country’s equivalent of MIT. Several Santhal organizations worked for tribal rights in West Bengal, but Nityananda, being highly educated and also fluent in English, was that rare individual who moved easily between rural communities and the urban intelligentsia. He was in a position to make his voice heard by the mainstream English media. When he did so, it was to stirring effect. Baby “is a pawn in a political game,” Nityananda told reporters. “Someone powerful convinced her to lie.”
He had a culprit in mind.
In West Bengal, the AITC is led by the headstrong and erratic chief minister, Mamata Banerjee. Women of all classes, but particularly the poor, idolize the sixty-year-old Banerjee, who is the first female chief minister of the state. Her constituents call her didi, or “older sister.”
But under her leadership, West Bengal has witnessed a greater number of high-profile crimes against women than states with millions more people. In 2012, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, the state recorded 30,942 crimes such as rape, dowry death, kidnapping, and abduction. Maharashtra, with a much larger population, recorded 16,353 crimes against women that same year. Banerjee responded to reporters’ questions about the epidemic with belligerence. “Are all women in the state being raped?” she snapped.
The numbers dropped the following year, but the idea that Banerjee was indifferent to the issue of women’s safety had already been planted in some minds. It wasn’t her lack of empathy that irked her opponents, however, as much as it was the thought that her party members—notably Manirul Islam and Ajay Mondol, the gram panchayat leader who showed up uninvited to the Subalpur village council meeting—might have colluded with stone quarry owners to use the accusation of rape to intimidate and terrorize the Santhals. Political leaders from all parties had done so historically, said Nityananda.
In 1996, a man named Kunal Deb, then a student in Kolkata, established a nonprofit in Birbhum called Uthnau, which means “uplift” in Santhali. Uthnau built an educational center and a medical clinic, but its primary focus was on mobilizing stone quarry workers. With the organization’s help, the Santhals were able to raise issues like mine safety and environmental damage in the local media. Before long, the Santhals’ opponents began to view the nonprofit as a threat. Quarry owners warned Kunal to withdraw from the area, he said. They even offered him bribes to leave, but he refused.
Then, in 2002, a Santhal woman named Hupni Kisku complained to the police that Kunal had made her parade nude in front of her entire village as punishment for having an extramarital affair. The activist, who maintained his innocence, was arrested and spent forty-two days in custody. In the initial days, he said, “the police didn’t ask about the woman.” They grilled him about his activism.
The arrest opened his eyes, Kunal said. “I realized a police report is anything that the police want it to be,” he said, “because the relationship between the police and powerful people is such a close one.” The police, the activist believed, did what politicians asked them to. In turn, the politicians took their orders from stone quarry owners, who rewarded them with a cut of their profits.
The Hupni Kisku affair shared similarities with Baby’s case, in that the police report alleged that the crime was a punishment administered at the behest of a village council. Kunal Deb, his supposed victim alleged, headed the council. But as an outsider Kunal was powerless to convene councils, let alone administer punishments. He said that he could produce witnesses to testify he was elsewhere at the time of the alleged incident. Twelve years later, the case has yet to go to trial because the police claim to have lost touch with Hupni and other key witnesses. But the stone quarry owners, it appears, accomplished their goal. When the police eventually released Kunal, he moved back to Kolkata.
In Kolkata, the lawyers at Saha & Ray, who had agreed to represent the thirteen men in their bail plea, had bad news for the activists. The application had been rejected by the district court, and the lawyers expected a similar outcome in the Kolkata High Court.
So Nityananda, Ruby, and Kunal Deb—who believed he had firsthand experience of machinations directed at robbing the Santhals of their land—poured energy into amassing information to support the theory that the rape was made up.
Nityananda pointed to the fact that Balai Maddi, according to the villagers he’d spoken to on the phone, was not in Subalpur on January 20. He was in another village, across the river, celebrating a festive occasion with friends. The villagers of Subalpur claimed that Balai set off on foot early that morning and wasn’t even around when the gang rape allegedly occurred.
There were many questionable details that the Santhal leader felt confirmed his suspicions. The presence of the outside mediators at the village council, for one. And why had Baby’s statement blaming the council for ordering her rape been transcribed by a layman, not a police officer? And what was one to make of the presence of Manirul Islam—a politician!—at the police station when the suspects were charged? It was all very strange, he felt.
It was true, Nityananda acknowledged, that Subalpur was not known to sit on valuable land. The villagers didn’t even work in the quarries. But neighboring lands were abundant with stone, and the Subalpur villagers, he said, might be used to make a point.
Even though the Santhals’ village councils had no legal status, a longstanding informal agreement between tribal communities and the police held that village elders could settle disputes on their own. Occasionally, such councils managed to halt efforts to seize their land. In 2003, the London-based company Vedanta Alumina Limited applied for clearance to mine bauxite for its aluminum refinery in eastern India’s Niyamgiri Hills. The ensuing legal wrangling lasted ten years, but in April 2013, the country’s Supreme Court turned over the decision to the community that would have been most affected by the mines. The Dongria Kondh were indigenous, forest-dwelling people, similar to the Santhals; and, like them, they invested decision-making powers in councils. That August, all twelve Dongria Kondh councils in the area under threat unanimously rejected the proposal, and Vedanta had to scrap plans to produce an estimated 72 million tons of bauxite.
Soon after the Birbhum gang rape, newspapers reported that Mamata Banerjee had circulated an internal memo asking that the police disband all village councils in West Bengal. Nityananda saw the move, which was never confirmed, as a transparent attempt to undermine Santhal autonomy. If politicians could prove that the Santhals were incapable of making good decisions, he said, they could mobilize public support to crack down on such councils—thereby easing the process of acquiring the villagers’ mineral-rich land and forests. He feared that ultimately anyone would have the right to purchase tribal land, and once they did, they would dispossess tribal communities and force them into an even more alienating impoverishment. The anti-Santhal outrage sparked by media reports, he argued, was proof that the politicians’ plan was working.
Back in Birbhum, the long-term impact of the Delhi gang rape, which had affected India so deeply, was clearly being felt. A newly vigilant national media had put pressure on the West Bengal government to pursue a speedy investigation into Baby’s complaint, and Mamata Banerjee, it was said, had demanded that the Birbhum police show results.
If the gang rape had taken place prior to December 2012, the Labpur police might have brushed aside Baby’s complaint. Instead, her case was referred to the high-level deputy superintendent of the Birbhum police, Partha Ghosh, who was allocated resources for an eight-member investigative team.
The tall, slim-waisted, mustached Ghosh was a polyglot workaholic. He spoke fluent English and was calm under pressure. These were useful attributes, because it seemed that everyone—from politicians to the public—was sitting in judgment of him.
Partha Ghosh’s team included the portly forty-one-year-old police officer who headed up the Labpur police station where Baby had filed her complaint. Debasis Ghosh (no relation) was on vacation that afternoon, but when he returned, he embraced Baby’s case with great fervor; he seemed to believe that the reputation of his small rural outpost was on the line. Everything Debasis told the press suggested a desire to make clear that the police were working hard to secure a conviction. “We seized evidence!” he said. “We secured arrest!”
“Their guilt,” said Debasis Ghosh, “is beyond a shadow of doubt!”
The truth was more complicated. The two Ghoshes worked together all summer, but they still had no hard evidence to prove rape.
Balai Maddi and others were arrested on January 22, two days after the alleged gang rape, giving them ample time—should they have needed it—to get rid of incriminatory items. When forensic investigators finally visited Subalpur on January 25, they took away key evidence, including the rope bed from Balai’s kitchen, to conduct semen, blood, and DNA analysis at the Central Forensic Science Laboratory in Kolkata. A brief report they submitted to the police two days later described “grayish stains” on a loincloth, a piece of underwear, and the palm leaf mat that had been spread out on the kitchen floor, but revealed no other significant information.
January came to a close, and the cold peeled away. Birbhum was sedated by heat. Still, the police didn’t hear back from Kolkata. They weren’t surprised. Such delays were hardly unusual by the standards of India’s infamously overworked bureaucracy. There were only four forensic science laboratories in the country, and the fact that they were stretched thin contributed to DNA’s rarely being included as evidence in court cases. An academic study published in 2014 showed that DNA evidence played a role in only forty-seven decisions made by various Indian courts in 2011. Of these, only four concerned rape.
The medical reports, meanwhile, were inconclusive. Baby was examined at two different hospitals after she filed her police complaint, where doctors treated her for abrasions on her face and body. One doctor noted that Baby was “severely worried” and prescribed medication for anxiety. Rape was mentioned, but not in any conclusive way—the doctors were told that Baby was raped, and someone had simply scrawled on a report that Baby was “ganged raped [sic]…[as] stated by police and…her mother also.”
Baby’s final diagnosis would please Santhal activists: instead of specifying rape, the hospital release form stated that Baby had a “history of assault and body ache.”
Around the same time, the thirteen suspects were examined for evidence that they had committed rape. Here, too, the medical officer appears to have hedged, scribbling inconclusive answers in places where a “yes” or “no” might be expected. On Balai Maddi’s report, the doctor wrote in English that Balai’s ability to have sex “could not be ascertained.” According to Partha Ghosh, the medical examiner didn’t come to his conclusion scientifically. “He asked Maddi if he could,” said Ghosh, referring to sex.
But the police had collected other evidence that they said worked in their favor. Partha Ghosh had retrieved incriminating photographs from the digital camera of Debraj Mondal, the man who Baby alleged had directed her gang rape. Three images showed Khaleque and Baby tied to a tree, while a fourth one was a close-up of a woman’s bare buttocks pressed up against a man. The woman in the photo, police deduced, was Baby. The man, police claimed, was Sunil Kisku, who Baby said had pretended to feel sorry for her right before raping her a second time. Sunil had confessed to him, said Partha Ghosh.
Another key piece of evidence, Ghosh said, would help prosecutors refute the villagers’ claim that Balai Maddi was across the river on the night Baby was assaulted. The GPS data from Balai’s phone, Ghosh claimed, placed him in Subalpur. He may have crossed the river for a day of drinking and merriment, the investigator insisted, but by nightfall, he was back home.
The Kolkata-based activists’ allegations of conspiracy, said Ghosh, were baseless. Manirul Islam represented Labpur in the state legislative assembly, the deputy superintendent said, and he was at the police station because a crime that was soon to be front-page news had taken place on his home turf. Indeed, Islam would later say that he anticipated he would soon be at the receiving end of probing media questions, and it was in his interest to appear that he was doing everything in his power to bring the culprits to justice.
What some of the activists had been told about rape not being a punishment under the Santhal system was also not true. In May 2010, a teenager from Birbhum’s Rampurhat area was stripped and paraded naked for four miles as the village gathered to jeer at her for allegedly having a relationship with an outsider. This punishment, which the teenager told the police was given to her by the village council, bore some resemblance to the apparently false case that was filed against Kunal Deb. But footage of the event captured on the villagers’ mobile phones and then circulated widely among the Santhals—allegedly as a warning to other young women—proved that in this instance, it did happen. After Baby’s complaint made headlines, an investigation conducted by The Indian Express revealed the involvement of Santhal tribal courts in at least six incidents of sexual violence against girls and women between the ages of sixteen and twenty in the preceding three years.
The activists, prompted by what they’d been told by the residents of Subalpur, would argue that the police had still not explained the presence of the outside mediators, or of the stranger who transcribed Baby’s statement at the police station. But Partha Ghosh brushed aside the objections as an attempt to obfuscate details around a terrible crime. He had his own theory as to why the villagers were adamant that no rape had occurred after Baby and Khaleque were seized: most were genuinely ignorant of the crime. “It was a winter’s night,” he said. “They were fast asleep in their huts.”
The monsoons returned to Subalpur in June, eight days after they were expected. The sky belched rain, and the village echoed with what seemed like endless static. Subalpur quickly flooded, trapping some villagers inside their homes for hours on end.
What did it matter? they asked. A year had passed since Baby had returned home from Delhi, bringing with her new ways that would change the course of village life forever. They were still angry at her, but now they saw themselves through others’ eyes, and they were also ashamed. Subalpur was spoken of as the village of rapists. “It will be hard for us to marry off our sons and daughters,” said Ajit Soren.
The villagers had sent a petition to Debasis Ghosh at the Labpur police station, pleading for an impartial investigation. The document featured several villagers’ first-person accounts of the events of January 20 and 21—Baby and Khaleque had indeed been tied up, the villagers all agreed, but Baby wasn’t raped. Pakuh Maddi, Balai’s mother, accused Baby of filing a false complaint under the influence of nontribals, referring to Manirul Islam and other members of the AITC party. Like everyone in Subalpur, Pakuh was convinced that the people most culpable in the case were greedy politicians, and that Baby was paid to lie.
The villagers had also learned that Mamata Banerjee’s government had compensated Baby under the law, and the lavishness of what they saw as her ill-gotten gains confirmed their suspicions about her colluding with politicians. Baby had been given a plot of land on which a house had been built. The land came with an animal coop, a toilet, even running water. In addition, Baby had received 550,000 rupees ($8,915) from the government. If she ever returned to Subalpur, she would be the richest person in the village.
Meanwhile, said Pakuh, she was struggling to make ends meet. The village had been thrown into such turmoil after the arrests, she said, that she hadn’t found anyone to help her in the fields. To survive, Pakuh tied up bundles of twigs and sold them as brooms for a few coins around the village. She made her brooms sitting cross-legged in the doorway of the hut she had, until recently, shared with her only son, facing the palm tree to which Baby and Khaleque had been tied on that cold evening in January.
On July 18, 2014, the thirteen suspects appeared before the Bolpur Subdivisional Court, represented by a bespectacled lawyer named Dilip Ghosh (no relation to Partha or Debasis). The charges against them were read out by the public prosecutor, Mohammad Shamsuz Zoha. For demanding that Baby pay a fine, the men were charged with kidnapping for ransom. The other charges were wrongful confinement, voluntarily causing hurt, criminal intimidation, and gang rape. The men, who had been in jail for six months, pleaded not guilty.
When the villagers of Subalpur had first approached Dilip Ghosh, he had two other tribal clients. One was accused of stealing fish, and the other of selling fake liquor. He had never represented a man accused of rape, and his inexperience showed. He planned to make the bold argument—unsupported, the villagers later said, by anything they had told him—that Baby was a prostitute and had merely been serving clients on the evening of January 20.
When the closed trial started on August 18, the family of Debraj Mondal, the man who Baby claimed directed the gang rape, had fired Dilip Ghosh. The new lawyer hired by Debraj’s family, Sanjay Jaswal, refused to speak to the families of the other suspects, said the villagers.
The police, for their part, had still not heard back from the Central Forensic Science Laboratory on the forty-seven items they had sent in for analysis. But what some might have considered a gaping hole in their investigation, the police took in stride. Partha Ghosh helped the public prosecutor line up thirty-one witnesses. Baby was the first.
She was an ideal witness, said Zoha. Confident and believable, Baby narrated the events that she said began that January evening with barely a break in her voice. When Jaswal, the defense lawyer, asked if it were true that she and Khaleque had been caught having sex, Baby flatly denied it. He then asked if she’d been convinced to fabricate the gang rape by politicians affiliated with the AITC party. Baby’s response was succinct. “What I’m saying is a fact,” she said.
Khaleque was the eighth witness called to the stand, following Baby’s mother. He took the opportunity to say something he had chosen to keep to himself during the village council. “I love Baby,” he told the court. He said he wanted to marry her.
In Jaswal’s rebuttal, the lawyer highlighted the lack of hard evidence proving that Baby was raped by calling to the stand a doctor who had examined the young woman when she was first brought to hospital. The doctor testified that although he found several nail marks on Baby’s body, he could not discern “any mark of violence” on her genitals: no lacerations, bruises, swelling, or inflammation. In his closing statement, Jaswal returned to the doctor’s testimony to suggest that Baby’s injuries were self-inflicted. He questioned the absence of a forensic report. The accusations of rape, he concluded, were a conspiracy, echoing the theories put forth by the Santhal activists.
Judge Siddhartha Roy Chowdhury was unmoved by Jaswal’s words. In his judgment, he wrote that an absence of documented injury did not prove that Baby’s allegation was false. Chowdhury cited judicial precedent. India’s Supreme Court had been dismissive of medical reports, especially in rape cases in which a victim’s testimony was convincing. In his judgment, Chowdhury described Baby as the “best witness” for the case and wrote that he saw no evidence of a conspiracy. The lack of a forensic report, he said, spoke more to how overworked the technicians at the Central Forensic Science Laboratory were than to the innocence of the accused.
Chowdhury fined each of the thirteen men 5,000 rupees ($80)—a mere fifth of what the village council had fined Khaleque—but sentenced them to twenty years in prison for committing gang rape. He also tacked on nine months in prison and a small fine for two other offenses: wrongful confinement and voluntarily causing hurt. (The men got off on the charges of kidnapping for ransom and criminal intimidation.)
The men claimed that they were unable to pay the fine. If that turns out to be true, they will serve an additional year in prison. If Balai Maddi is indeed fifty-eight, as the doctor who examined him after the rape claimed in his report, then he will be nearly eighty years old when he is allowed to come home to Subalpur.
This decision didn’t make the front pages, like the news of the rape had. There had been other, widely discussed sexual assaults in India in the interim, and people—or perhaps just news editors—were no longer interested in the destiny of some poor tribal men, or even of their victim.
Ruby, who was out of the country when she heard the news, called the judgment questionable. “The case wasn’t black-and-white,” she argued. “For the court to arrive at a conclusive decision so flawlessly and so soon is something I cannot digest.”
Nityananda was in Kolkata. He wasn’t particularly surprised by the verdict, given what he believed to be political collusion in the case, but he refused to give up hope. He cited the absence of DNA and forensic evidence as proof that justice hadn’t been done. That wasn’t all. The police, as it turned out, had failed to produce the GPS data that Partha Ghosh had claimed placed Balai Maddi in Subalpur on the night of the gang rape.
“The men will surely appeal,” Nityananda said.
They would. But that afternoon, when they heard the verdict, several broke down in tears.
In Suri, an hour’s drive from Subalpur, there is a neighborhood so serene that the loudest residents might be the bright-beaked parrots chattering high up on the telephone wires. A neat grid of low-slung homes occupied by small-time traders and their families, the area boasts a school, a football field, and a temple. The people who live around here are devout, and stores fragrant with the smell of burning incense sell objects for family altars—garlands of plastic flowers, oil lamps of heavy brass.
The Asha Short Stay Home, a couple of streets down from one such store, doesn’t quite fit into these neat surroundings. The walls are in need of paint. The roof sags. A policeman keeps watch on the road outside from behind a formidable barricade of sandbags.
Inside sits Baby, sick with boredom. There is nothing to do but watch TV. Her twenty-five housemates, all of them women, are bathed in a white orb of florescent light as they stare blankly at soap operas. There are no organized activities to keep them occupied, and no yard or facilities for exercise. Some of the women are victims of domestic violence, but they aren’t referred to counselors. The shelter is like a prison, except that inmates don’t know if they will ever get out.
When Baby is truly fed up, she runs up and down the stairs to rid herself of excess energy.
Everywhere she goes, Baby is shadowed by two hard-faced policewomen who are determined to do their job perfectly. “She is a high-value item,” one of them says in English. “If anything happens to her, I will lose my job.”
The policewomen were assigned to Baby shortly after the rape, when she moved with her mother to the women’s shelter. The West Bengal government insisted on the move after Baby claimed that one of her attackers had threatened to burn her alive if she spoke out. She has left the shelter only three times, according to one of the policewomen—each time under guard—for meetings with lawyers and court appearances.
Baby says she misses Subalpur and wants to go home. She knows the villagers don’t want her back, but she doesn’t care. “I’m not scared of them,” she sniffs.
On November 19, 2014, two months after the thirteen men were declared guilty, the newspapers reported that Baby had attempted suicide because she still hadn’t been given permission to leave the shelter. She jumped into the well on shelter property, a police officer was quoted as saying. Employees reportedly pulled her out.
But Subalpur technically isn’t Baby’s home anymore. The house given to her by the West Bengal government is on a plot of land some distance from Subalpur, for her own protection. Baby’s brothers have filled the rooms with their families and things: toddling children, a television, gleaming kitchen utensils. Churko was threatened as well—he said the villagers warned that they would thrash him if he returned to Subalpur, so he locked up the family’s old house and moved into the new one.
Unlike their sister, Baby’s brothers are free to move around and to continue their work as manual laborers. But their freedom brings them no pleasure. “Some of the men used to be my friends,” says Som of his sister’s rapists. “One of them was the goalkeeper of my football team.”
The brothers can’t often afford to take the day off from work, so the first time Churko met his little sister in the shelter, he took her aside and set down rules. He told her that she would have to make some changes in her life. “This happened because you were with him,” Churko said. “Now you won’t meet Khaleque, you won’t talk to him, you won’t have anything to do with him. Do you agree?” Churko waited for Baby to respond, but she stayed silent.
Later, she explained her lack of response by declaring the request ridiculous. “I want to be with him,” she said. “I want to be with Khaleque.”
Her trademark stubbornness didn’t set off alarm bells for Churko. The policewomen were so protective of Baby that even he had difficulty getting permission to see her. And he had an ally in his mother, he thought. If Khaleque tried to contact Baby through Rashmoni, she would phone him immediately.
But one summer’s day several months after the gang rape, Baby apparently contrived to meet the man she loved. Khaleque waited at the gate, said the policeman who keeps watch on the road outside, and Baby came out of the building and walked quickly toward him, with the policewomen who are always by her side trailing behind her. The policewomen refused to unlock the gate, the policeman said, so Baby stuck her face through the bars. Khaleque moved his face in close to hers.
The policeman didn’t catch what they said to each other. The expressions on their faces embarrassed him, he said. “I turned away.”
I pieced together what happened in January 2014 from interviews I conducted in Kolkata, Subalpur, and Chouhatta, in West Bengal. Among the dozens of people I interviewed were family members of the accused, relatives of Baby and Khaleque, local politicians, activists, investigators, and lawyers for the defense and the prosecution. I also met Baby at the Asha Short Stay Home in Suri, Birbhum. I corroborated the interviews with Baby’s police complaint, judicial testimonies, and court documents.
I’d like to thank Mara Hvistendahl, Vanessa Gezari, Isaac Chotiner, Vikas Bajaj, Adrian Levy, Pankaj Mishra, Mary Mount, and Ulrik McKnight for reading the story and offering invaluable feedback, for which I’m truly grateful. For various kindnesses, I must also thank Soutik Biswas, Ruby Hembrom, Raboy Murmu, Abhijit Banerjee, Nikita Lalwani, and Bipin Aspatwar. Finally, a doctor in the Sundarbans painstakingly translated judicial testimony from Bengali to English. He insisted on anonymity here, but that will not stop me from saying that I’m most thankful.
13 Men is Story No. 5 from Deca, first published in February 2015.
Author: Sonia Faleiro
Editors: Mara Hvistendahl
Art Director: Madeleine Eiche
Copy Chief: Mia Lipman
Fact Checker: Zanna K. McKay
Copyright © 2015 by Sonia Faleiro