NEW DELHI -- India's Supreme Court on Friday ordered an investigation into charges that village elders in West Bengal state ordered the gang rape of a 20-year-old woman because she had had a relationship with a man from another community.
The case has sparked fresh outrage in India, which has seen a staggering number of high-profile cases of sexual violence against women.
The high court ordered a district judge in West Bengal's Birbhum district, where the alleged assault occurred Monday, to visit the village and file a report by next week. Chief Justice P. Sathasivam called the allegations "disturbing," according to the Press Trust of India.
Thirteen villagers, including the head of the village council that allegedly ordered the gang rape, are in police custody. The victim is in stable condition at a nearby hospital, where her mother has joined her, officials said.
"She is able to talk, she is taking food and medicine," Dr. Asit Biswas, superintendent of Suri Sadar Hospital, said in a telephone interview. "A team of gynecologists [and] physicians are monitoring her condition."
Police have begun questioning villagers but were reportedly receiving little cooperation. Such village councils are common in rural India and often dispense a strict form of justice.
"The village local court took an order; therefore the entire village is denying any wrongdoing," said Suraja Pratap Yadev, a police officer participating in the investigation in Bolpur, an area in Birbhum district.
The woman's family filed a police report Wednesday alleging that the couple was brought before the council in their village, about 125 miles southwest of the state capital Kolkata, and tied to a tree. The village council convicted her of consorting with a man from another religion and ordered each to pay fines of about $400, according to Indian media reports.
The man's family paid the fine and he was released, but when the woman's family couldn't pay, the head of the village council ordered that she be "enjoyed" by the men of the community.
The woman told police that she "lost count" of the number of men who raped her, the reports said.
Rape cases have become a national crisis in India, where a series of new alleged assaults has refocused attention on the problem of sexual violence against women and raised pressure on elected officials. West Bengal's powerful chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, fired the local police commissioner responsible for the case amid the growing public outcry.
Earlier this month, protesters in Kolkata accused police of failing to act in the case of a 16-year-old who allegedly was gang raped and then died of burn injuries. The girl's father accused her attackers of setting her on fire to punish her for reporting the crimes.
West Bengali, in eastern India, had the country's highest number of crimes against women in 2011 and 2012, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.
Sharma is a news assistant in The Times' New Delhi bureau. Times staff writer Bengali reported from Mumbai, India.