NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An online petition seeking protection and justice for two low-caste sisters allegedly threatened with rape by a village council in Uttar Pradesh has gathered over 175,000 signatures in a week, Amnesty International India said on Monday.
The human rights group began the petition last week after 23-year-old Meenakshi Kumari, her 15-year-old sister and their family were forced to flee their village in May after their brother eloped with a higher caste, married woman.
An un-elected village council, dominated by upper caste "Jat" men, in Uttar Pradesh on July 30 allegedly ordered the two "Dalit" sisters be raped and paraded naked with their faces blackened as punishment for their brother's actions.
Himanshi Matta from Amnesty International India said the petition called on the government to take all steps to ensure the safety of the family so they can return home and for an investigation into the rape order and prosecution if necessary.
"The family is currently seeking shelter with their elder son who is a police constable in Delhi. They are too afraid to go back to their village home as they have received threats and their home has been ransacked," Matta told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The petition to Uttar Pradesh's Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav has so far attracted the attention of over 176,000 people, mostly on its British website since it was launched on Aug 24.
Only 17 people had signed Amnesty's India site, said Matta, attributing this to the family getting more international media attention than local media coverage.
Diktats issued by such kangaroo courts are not uncommon in rural regions and caste-discrimination remains widespread, despite being illegal.
In northern parts of India, these village councils known as "Khap Panchayats" act as de-facto courts settling rural disputes on everything from land and cattle to matrimony and murder.
But they are coming under growing scrutiny as their punitive edicts grow more regressive, ranging from banning girls wearing jeans and using mobile phones to supporting child marriage and sanctioning the lynching of couples in "honour killings".
One of the village council leaders Chaudhary Surendra Singh told the local newspaper Mail Today no such diktat was issued.
"Khap panchayats don't issue such orders. We are supposed to protect the honour of women. We don't know if some village rogues have taken such a decision," Singh was quoted as saying.
Police in Baghpat district also dismissed the case, saying there was no evidence of the order being passed.
But family members claim they are being influenced by the council members, whose caste wields considerable political and economic power in the region.
Officials from Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav's office were not immediately available for comment.
The family has also petitioned India's Supreme Court seeking protection to return their village. The court has ordered the Uttar Pradesh government to reply by Sept 15.
Reporting by Nita Bhalla, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org