Q&A: 13 Men author Sonia Faleiro

In Interviews

In 13 Menbook No. 5 from Deca, Sonia Faleiro takes readers deep inside a remote tribal community to the scene of one of India’s murkiest crimes. On January 22, 2014 a twenty-year-old woman approached the police in a rural hamlet in West Bengal, to say that she had been gang-raped by thirteen men. The rape, she alleged, was ordered by the village council  as punishment for her relationship with a non-tribal man. The woman’s complaint drew global condemnation—rape in India, according to some interpretations, now had official sanction. Just as Baby’s case slipped out of the news, Faleiro traveled to West Bengal, where she conducted dozens of interviews with villagers, politicians, lawyers, activists, and the victim herself. What she discovered was beyond anything that had been reported in the press. As some people demanded justice, she learned that others were crying out for the truth. Deca’s Elizabeth Dickinson asked Faleiro about the experience of writing 13 Men.

How did you come to this story and what made it stand out amid the cases of gang rape that we’ve seen in India in recent years?

Like many people in India, I had been trying to process the deluge of news reports on sexual assault. Twenty-year-old Baby’s case stood out because the details were very affecting—the young woman, a member of the indigenous Santhal tribe, had allegedly been gang-raped by 13 men on the orders of the village council for falling in love with an outsider. Once I started reporting the story, it became clear that some of the very details that had grabbed my attention and made Baby’s story a global headline had been misreported. The truth, as it turned out, was not what it seemed.

When I flew down to Kolkata, the first people I met were some Santhal activists, who now figure in the story, and they are incredibly sensitive, empathetic people – exactly the kind of people who you would expect to stand up for a victim of a sexual assault. But they were convinced that Baby was not telling the entire truth. I then traveled to Birbhum, where I received permission to meet Baby, and then on to Subalpur, where I met the family and friends of the thirteen men accused of gang-raping her. It took me months to begin to make sense of the very conflicting testimonies that I recorded.

You discuss some of the ways that the press gets the story wrong in its first telling. What does this tell us about reporting on these issues in the media?

Some of the inaccuracies arose from Baby’s police complaint, which she gave on January 22, 2014. Keep in mind that if Baby had been gang raped the previous morning, she couldn’t be expected to give a linear description of what had happened to her.

In her police statement, Baby said she had been gang raped on the orders of the village council. When she offered judicial testimony some days later, she clarified that the rape had taken place before the village council was held. But it was the police complaint that was shared with the press, which ran widely with that telling of events.

Subalpur is 117 miles outside of Kolkata. To get there you need to take a train, then hire a car, and then find someone who can show you where the village is because it isn’t on the map. This person must speak Santhali, and should preferably be a Santhal—and this person needs to trust you, but should also be trusted by the other Santhals. So it takes a lot of effort to report a story like this, and the inaccuracies we all read in the press were a combination of newspapers not having the time to report this story deeply, and later, not having the interest to clarify the misinformation they had unwittingly printed.

What impact did this misreporting have on the course of justice?

It was in part because of the inaccuracies of Baby’s police statement that the story became front-page news. So in that sense, the inaccuracies served Baby and perhaps the cause of justice.

But I do worry about the possible impact that the misreporting could have on the functioning of village councils as well as on mainstream attitudes toward the Santhal community.

We can all agree that some village councils, whether tribal- or caste-based, have done terrible things: They have encouraged mob justice, for one. The people who suffer most from these decisions are women. But some of these councils have also served their people well. They have kept the peace, resolved disputes, and delivered true justice in communities so poor and so marginalized that they are routinely dismissed by the police, and have no hope of ever seeing complaints investigated, never mind going to trial.

In this case, it wasn’t the village council that demanded the rape. The council fined Baby for breaking what they believed was one of their laws. Whether or not we agree with this decision, and their general treatment of Baby, we cannot deny that Santhals have been mistreated for centuries and are doing the best that they can to survive in this rapidly changing world. I don’t mean to say that they shouldn’t be asked to take responsibility for their actions, but rather that their behavior must be viewed in context of the abuse they have suffered.

How difficult was it to get in touch with Baby?

I asked the police if I could interview her and they said yes. I was told by many people that I wouldn’t get permission, because she was placed in a high security government facility for her own safety and no other reporter had been allowed to meet her. But I just followed the first rule of journalism school: ask.

With rape becoming such a high profile issue in India, are politicians getting involved to help – or to exploit – the issue?

In this particular case, the villagers believe that Baby concocted the story of rape on the behest of politicians. They argue that politicians want to take away the right to self-police from the villagers and from Santhals in general, as a first step to taking control of their mineral-rich land.

Elsewhere, there have been several rape cases that have benefited from political involvement. Politicians, under pressure from the media, have urged the police to investigate cases thoroughly. Some politicians have been a force for positive change, but too many others continue to speak of sexual assault, and women in general, in incredibly offensive ways that speak to their ignorant and misogynistic thinking.

What has been the initial reaction to your story from within India?

Readers do like a neat ending. They want to know, understandably so, that something either happened or it didn’t, that someone is either good or bad. But the fact is that real life isn’t that simple, that some things are not black and white. In this case, a young woman said she was gang raped, and why would she lie? On the other hand, there is no hard evidence to prove her claim. The question isn’t even who is lying (people do lie, after all), but whether the justice system succeeded in this case. The fact that we are debating this matter at all should tell you something.

You said you came to this story in part as a way to understand your own reaction to the wave of sexual assault. How did reporting this story affect you personally?

This isn’t a story with one villain, or even one victim. I met Baby and had great sympathy for her, and I admired the choices she had made to broaden her horizons – to work in Delhi, to be independent, to become a modern woman. I got a sense of her great love for the outsider, Khaleque Sheikh.

Then I went to the village, and heard people say that Baby is a liar – and I felt a sense of sympathy for them as well because a lot of them truly believe that this rape did not happen. Meanwhile, 13 able-bodied men have vanished from Subalpur leaving behind 13 families without a breadwinner. It’s going to be very hard for their wives and children to make ends meet.

The question of survival is really at the heart of this story. In the course of everyone seeking survival – Baby, the villagers, the tribe – something went terribly wrong.

As to how the case changed me. Well, let’s just say, I now know better than to believe everything that I read in the newspapers!


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Elizabeth Dickinson
Elizabeth Dickinson is a Gulf-based American journalist whose writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Foreign Policy, The Economist, The Christian Science Monitor, and The National, among other publications. She is the author of the Kindle Single Who Shot Ahmed, an account of a young videographer shot in cold blood at the height of Bahrain’s Arab Spring. She is also co-editor of the recent book The Southern Tiger, a narrative memoir by Chilean President Ricardo Lagos. She has reported from five continents and speaks French, Spanish, and Krio (Sierra Leone), as well as basic Yoruba and Arabic.

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