A Hindu woman said she was gang-raped in this shed in Subalpur, India. Associated Press
SUBALPUR, India—When the elders in this small Hindu farming village discovered last month that a local woman intended to marry a Muslim, their reaction was swift and savage.

The village chief and 12 others dragged the 20-year-old woman to a shed and gang-raped her, the local police allege. She and her suitor were then tied to a tree overnight, witnesses say, and the village council fined them the next day.

Thirteen men, including those in custody above left, are suspected of gang-raping a Hindu woman as punishment for her agreeing to marry a Muslim outsider.

Such rough justice is common across wide swaths of rural India, where local leaders often ignore the law to enforce traditional social norms that run counter to more-liberal views now gaining ground in India's cities.
More than a year after the December 2012 fatal gang rape of a student on a New Delhi bus, which shocked India and drew global attention, the Subalpur case shows the limits of new legislation aimed at protecting women in the face of deep cultural resistance.

The woman reported the gang rape to police. Her alleged attackers—their lawyer says they are innocent—are in jail. Still, her family fears retaliation from villagers. "Her entire life has been ruined," her mother says. "Maybe the best thing to do was to keep quiet."

For hundreds of millions of women in India's impoverished countryside, conservative local leaders and informal village councils have long dictated everything from whom they can marry to what they can wear.
These informal councils, which are separate from state-sanctioned local governments, can't legally rule on village disputes or other matters of law. But the penalties they illegally impose can range from fines and ostracism to forced marriage, rape and death.

"Urban India is changing. But our villages remain centuries behind," says Shamina Shafiq, a member of India's National Commission for Women. Local councils are "one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the road to progress for women."

In 2012, an informal village council in Uttar Pradesh state proposed that only arranged marriages be permitted and that single women be barred from having cellphones or wearing jeans. Central-government officials condemned that move. P. Chidambaram, home minister at the time, told reporters in 2012 that "there is no place for such diktats in a democratic society."

But the government has struggled to curb the extralegal councils. Authorities say it is hard to gather statistics about the councils' actions because villagers generally don't report them to outsiders.
In response to widespread reports of torture by the councils, the Law Commission of India in 2012 drafted legislation to clamp down on them, but Parliament has yet to consider it.

Men can be victims, too. Police in Rajasthan state say a man from the state filed a complaint late last year alleging that villagers held him in a cage in neighboring Haryana state for three months and sodomized him in retribution for his eloping with a married Haryana woman. Rajasthan police say they transferred the case to the village where the alleged attack happened; police in the village say they haven't received the transfer request.
Women are the most common target of the village councils, say women's rights groups, and the Subalpur case illustrates the extent to which the councils still dominate rural women's lives.

Subalpur, in West Bengal state, is a grain-farming village of roughly 30 families about 125 miles from the nearest city, Kolkata. The closest police station is about 13 miles away in the town of Labpur.

Late one afternoon last month, the young woman's boyfriend arrived at her home in the village and proposed to her around sundown, according to the woman's police complaint. She agreed.

A village leader saw the man, a Muslim, enter the house, villagers say, and word of his engagement to the Hindu woman soon spread.

Later that evening, community leaders burst into the home—a one-room dwelling plastered with Bollywood movie posters and portraits of Hindu gods—the woman said in a complaint filed with police in Labpur, which has jurisdiction over Subalpur.

The village chief "directed" villagers to "enjoy" the woman as punishment, according to her allegations in a police report, which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. The chief, Balai Mardi, allegedly joined in the rape, police say.

The next morning, police and witnesses in the village say, elders met in the square to pass judgment on the couple, who were tied to a nearby palm tree. They imposed an $800 fine on the couple for deciding to marry outside the community.

Dozens of villagers, children in tow, watched the proceedings, the witnesses say. A half-dozen village residents the Journal interviewed in the days after the alleged assault either deny there was a rape or say they were sleeping and don't know what happened. Most express approval for the council's fine.

"I think it's a very lenient punishment for the crime they committed," says Lal Kisku, a middle-aged village man, of the fine. He says he suspects the woman faked the rape. She "should have been prepared to face the consequences of having relations with a man outside her community."

One of the woman's brothers took her to the Labpur police station by bicycle. Police there say her blouse was torn, she was bruised and her underwear was stained with semen when she arrived.

Police arrested 13 men, including the village chief, on suspicion of participating in the alleged gang rape. All remain in custody, but none have been charged. In India, police typically have at least two months to prepare a charge sheet; suspects are rarely charged during that period.

Police decline to make the men available for interviews. Dilip Ghosh, the lawyer for the men, says they were framed.

Debasis Ghose, the police inspector investigating the attack, says that villagers in the area seldom come to the police, preferring to handle their affairs based on conservative moral codes handed down over generations.

"These people have no idea about their rights, about the universe outside their village," Mr. Ghose says. "The word of the village elders is often the last word on any matter."

Rape victims can't be identified by name under Indian law without their permission. The woman declines through her mother to comment. Her mother asks that her name and her daughter's not be used.

Police in cities point to recent shifts in sex-crime-reporting statistics as evidence that public dialogue has rapidly altered how urban victims perceive themselves, particularly in the wake of the 2012 bus gang rape in India's capital.

In Delhi, more than 1,500 rapes were reported in 2013, up from 706 in 2012. Harassment reports jumped fivefold from 2012. Delhi police say the increase isn't due to rising crime rates, but to women's newfound willingness to report abuse.

In the countryside, it is a different story. Villagers in the same district as Subalpur say at least two similar attacks took place in recent years.

Late last year in Gobra, a village not far from Subalpur, a teenage girl was raped for dating a man from another community, residents there say. The village chief says he isn't aware of any such attack.

No one has registered a formal complaint regarding the alleged attack, local police say. They say the woman's family left the village, restraining any efforts to conduct a probe.

The second assault was in Battala, a village about 50 miles from Subalpur where electricity arrived only two years ago. One day in August 2010, Sunita Murmur, then 15, says her Muslim boyfriend was visiting her Hindu home when local leaders barged in and dragged her outside. "Village leaders asked me to forget him," says Ms. Mumur, now 19. "I said I couldn't."

About a dozen men, acting on the village chief's orders, stripped her naked and paraded her around the village as punishment for dating a Muslim, she says.

"I shrieked and shouted," Ms. Murmur says. "But nobody—not even one person—came forward to help. They all seemed to be enjoying the show."

Ms. Murmur says the men marched her through three villages before dumping her, naked and alone, on a nearby mountain. She says she was "scared for my family" so never approached the police.

Many villagers took mobile-phone videos of the assault, she says. After at least one of the videos surfaced later that month in the local news media, police investigated the matter and arrested 11 men, charging them with molestation, court documents show.

The men, free on bail, couldn't be located for comment. Some villagers say they haven't seen them there for months. A trial in the case is pending in West Bengal state.

Several residents of Ms. Murmur's village confirm her account but say they won't testify. "Everyone knows about this," says a village woman. "But we don't want to get ourselves involved," she says. "You never know—tomorrow the men may come after our families."

Informal village councils have been a legal quandary for some time. In a 2006 ruling in favor of a couple tortured for marrying outside their community, India's Supreme Court said the village councils' practice of taking the law into their own hands is "wholly illegal and has to be ruthlessly stamped out."

In a similar 2011 judgment, the Supreme Court said: "It is time to stamp out these barbaric, feudal practices which are a slur on our nation."

But with no new laws to curb councils, "how can you expect people's mind-sets to change when the law itself hasn't," says Rehana Adib, head of Astitva, a nonprofit that fights for women's rights in rural India. "Because there is no real law, people, especially the illiterate masses, don't find anything wrong with what their local leaders say."

Rural sex-crime victims continue to be ostracized and often are blamed for attacks, she says. "Sometimes, they fear for their families. Other times, they fear they would be shunned if they speak up."

The Subalpur woman's family, under police protection in a neighboring town, say they fear retribution. "We will be killed if we go back," says Sital Murmu, one of the woman's brothers.

The police and family say they don't know where the woman's fiancé is.

The mother, sobbing, says she regrets her daughter's decision to go to the police. "Who will ever want to marry her now?"