Virginity test of Adivasi women for state-sponsored Hindu way of marriage
All the women who took part in a state-run mass wedding last month were forced to take the test, witnesses say. Several of the women later complained that they had found the exercise shameful and humiliating.
Officials deny virginity tests took place. They said the tests had been to ensure the women were not pregnant. In India, a bride's virginity is highly prized and pre-marital sex is frowned upon. According to reports, young women who had signed up for the mass marriage ceremony in the city of Shahdol, 600km (373 miles) from the state capital, Bhopal, were told about the test when they reached the venue.
Almost all of them were from poor, tribal families. Eyewitnesses said the women had to queue up before undergoing an extensive physical examination by a female doctor before they were given a special badge which allowed them to participate in the ceremony.
Several of the women were quoted as saying that they had at first refused to submit to the test - but were told by officials that they would receive their wedding gifts worth 6,500 rupees (about $132) only if they took the test.
"Such a shameful act where girls had to reportedly undergo tests to prove their chastity to avail the government's financial aid were sinful and could not be tolerated in a sane society," the chairperson of the Indian National Commission for Women, Girija Vyas, said.
But a senior administration official in Shahdol, Neeraj Dubey, denied there had been any virginity tests. He told the BBC that the number of marriage candidates who had turned up at the venue had far exceeded initial applications. Many of the would-be brides did not have proper documents and some looked "dubious", he said. Therefore, officials present had asked the doctor to examine the candidates, he said.
Officials say pregnancy tests were introduced after a woman gave birth during an earlier mass wedding ceremony. Mass marriages, generally organised by social organisations, are common in India where the custom of dowry is still widespread.
The scheme in Madhya Pradesh was started in 2006 by Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan to aid girls from poor families to get married. The scheme helped Mr Chauhan's Bharatiya Janata Party win many votes in state assembly elections last year.
Reports that "virginity tests" were conducted on would-be-brides for a mass wedding has prompted India's federal woman rights watchdog to launch an investigation.
But a district magistrate said the tests were simply "clinical examinations" that were initiated after one of the brides gave birth at a previous mass wedding.
In largely-conservative India, pre-marital sex remains a taboo. In fact, sexually explicit scenes on screen in Bollywood and on television sometimes spark controversies.
The alleged tests happened in Madhya Pradesh state which is controlled by conservative Hindu nationalists who are members of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. The controversy is indicative of the row between them and their opponents in the Congress Party, who dominate the federal government.
The National Commission for Women (NCW) said it has also sought a report from the government and police of Madhya Pradesh state, its spokeswoman Kareena B. Thengamam told CNN.
She said the NCW had become aware of reports that some 150 brides-to-be, mostly tribal women, were subject to "virginity tests" before their mass wedding on June 30 as part of a state government scheme.
The watchdog has also formed an inquiry committee of its own. State authorities, however, denied conducting any virginity tests, but insisted they were "just clinical examinations" before the event.
On its part, Madhya Pradesh state insists the "clinical examinations" aimed to keep the event free from any fraudulent entries -- like women already married, but wanting to get free wedding goodies.
The state government organizes mass weddings involving economically-backward couples, with support worth $130 for each pair. The support is not in cash, but in the form of household articles.
The district magistrate of Shahdol, where the mass wedding took place, said 13 women were found to be pregnant in the examinations, which he claimed followed "routine" questioning about their age and health.
"Another was found to be minor (underage)," Neeraj Dubey added. None of the 14 was allowed to take part in the mass wedding. District officials introduced clinical examinations on women wanting to get married in the mass weddings after a participant delivered a baby right at the event earlier, he said. "But there is no internal examination; it's only abdomen check and that too after some questioning," he claimed