India

Did India village council really order rape of two sisters?

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Media captionThe BBC's Sanjoy Majumder travelled to Baghpat in northern India to investigate

More than 100,000 people have signed a petition by Amnesty International after allegations that a village council in India ordered that two women be raped as punishment because their brother eloped with an upper caste woman. It has even led to calls by British MPs for action. But local police and officials say no such order was given. The BBC's Sanjoy Majumder travelled to Baghpat in northern India to investigate.

The village of Sankraud is just an hour's drive from Delhi.

The narrow dusty lanes with mostly male residents milling around are typical of the area. The few women who can be seen have their faces covered.

But Sankraud has now achieved a level of notoriety. It's here that an all-male village council is alleged to have ordered the rape of two sisters because their brother eloped with a woman from a higher caste.

On its lanes and inside its tea-shops, people are outraged at the focus on an event they say didn't happen.

"We've read in the newspapers that a British MP has expressed concern over the so called shameful treatment of women in our village," one elderly man tells me.

"The reports are completely false."

"We are so ashamed that our village is in the news for something that did not even happen," one young man shouts.

"We feel dishonoured."

It's a theme that recurs throughout. Honour and dishonour.

'No love affair'

At a lawyer's office in Delhi, one of the sisters allegedly threatened seeks legal help.

She's petitioned the Supreme Court to order the police to protect her. Since the incident, she says her family's been abused and threatened by the girl's relatives and upper caste villagers forcing them to leave the village.

"The whole village knew that my brother and that woman were in love," she says.

"But her family disapproved. They said 'you've dishonoured us and now we'll dishonour you'. They're upper caste, they're capable of anything."

They are also concerned for the woman's safety, since she's now been sent back to her family.

So back in the village, I visit her home.

Her relatives and village elders are seated inside, some of them smoking.

A large crowd gathers outside as well, curious but also, it feels, in a show of strength.

"It's all lies," the woman's male cousin tells me. "She never went willingly. There was no love affair."

Eventually I'm finally allowed to meet and speak to her on the roof - but only under the watchful eyes of two of her male relatives.

Just two doors away, I can see the roof of the house belonging to the man she is said to have eloped with. It's easy to imagine how they met and decided to run away.

But when she speaks to me, I get a completely different version.

"I barely knew the man," she says her eyes fixed on the ground.

"I didn't even know his name. He tricked me into going with him saying he'll get me a job. Then he kept me against my will."

It's difficult to judge whether she's speaking of her own free will but her answers appear a bit rehearsed.

Image caption Residents of Sankraud are outraged at the focus on an event they say didn't happen
Image caption Police officer Vidyasagar Misra says the woman went with the man 'willingly'

But after the global reaction and the Amnesty International petition, extra police have been deployed to avoid any tension.

But they say that the matter has been misrepresented.

Social pressure

"We believe that the woman went with the man willingly," says Additional Superintendent of Police, Vidyasagar Misra.

"But in our investigations we didn't find any evidence that a village council meeting took place and order passed against anyone as reported."

We put this to Amnesty who said they had based their information on the sister's petition to the Supreme Court.

"We have not been on the ground, we have not visited the village," Amnesty spokesperson Gopika Bashi told us.

"We still believe that whatever has occurred, regardless of allegations being thrown back and forth that it's very important that the family is safe and the girls are safe."

The controversy has shifted the focus, perhaps unnecessarily, on whether the village council passed a brutal order rather than on a young couple facing social pressure because they belong to different castes.

It's a reality prevailing across rural India and perhaps best expressed in what one village elder in Sankraud told me.

"You people in the city may inter-marry, it's your custom," he said, slowly pulling on a hand-rolled cigarette.

"Not here, not in our village. We have our customs and our traditions and we will preserve them, at any cost."

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