SUBALPUR (AFP) - Male residents fled an Indian village Friday after the alleged gang-rape of a young woman on the orders of tribal elders as police told of how locals tried to prevent her from reporting her ordeal.
A total of 13 men have been arrested over the assault on the 20-year-old which was allegedly as punishment for "dishonouring" her community, a scattering of mud huts set amid palm trees and fields of rice and mustard.
Her ordeal on Tuesday night, when she was taken to a thatched shed and repeatedly assaulted for a relationship she was having with a Muslim man, has rekindled the outrage in India over the treatment of women.
Neighbours described the victim as a charming woman and said she planned to marry the Muslim companion.
Police near the village of Subalpur, about five hours drive from the state capital Kolkata, said that a mob had surrounded her house and threatened her with further violence if she spoke out.
"Members of the village council threatened her with dire consequences if she lodged a complaint with the police," Kazi Mohammad Hossain, a senior officer at the district police station in Labphur, told AFP.
"The villagers surrounded her house but on Wednesday afternoon she managed to escape and came to the police station to file the complaint.
"She was limping and bleeding when she came to the police station," he explained.
Most of the men had fled the village when AFP visited on Friday morning, leaving women and children who were reluctant to talk about the events of Tuesday night.
About a dozen policemen stood outside the small bamboo structure with a thatched roof where the crime allegedly took place. Neighbours said the structure was used by the village head as a kitchen.
Inside, an AFP reporter saw a makeshift wooden bed, a mosquito net and kitchen utensils.
The incident again highlighted India's dismal record on preventing sexual violence, after the fatal gang-rape of a student in New Delhi in Dec 2012 sparked angry protests about the treatment of women.
Politicians denounced the latest attack, while women's groups said it showed how little things have changed for women since 2012 in a deeply patriarchal nation.
Neighbours described the victim as a quiet girl who lived with her mother while working as a lowly paid agricultural labourer.
"She was charming and well-behaved," Laxmi Murmu, 45, who lives next door to the girl's hut, told AFP.
"The boy promised to marry the girl soon. But the village council did not accept this as the boy was Muslim," she added.
Murmu said that the council held sway over daily life, handing down punishments for misdemeanours such as theft.
The elders initially fined the victim's family 25,000 rupees (S$513) for the relationship but they were too poor to pay, according to police.
Councils made up of village elders, usually known as "Khap Panchayats", are common in rural parts of India, especially in the north.
They often hand down diktats which are denounced as moral policing by women's rights activists.
Relationships remain an extremely sensitive subject in rural areas, where pre-marital sex is taboo and marriages are usually arranged within the same community, caste or religious group.
Punishments outside of India's law and justice system are common. Shocking cases such as women forced to parade naked or public floggings are regularly reported in the local media.
"The girl who was gang-raped is recovering," Asit Kumar Biswas, superintendent of the local Suri Sadar hospital, told AFP.