The silence in the Bilkis Bano case is deafening
From political leadership and the media to citizens, the release of the gang rapists and murderers in this case has not shaken our collective conscience
"Itna sannata kyun hai bhai? (why is there so much silence, brother?)” Actor AK Hangal’s iconic dialogue in the film Sholay typifies the sombre mood in the aftermath of the gang rapists and murderers in the Bilkis Bano case being freed and feted, their life sentences remitted by a Gujarat government committee. No candlelight marches, no dharnas or street protests: The spontaneous outrage that coursed through society and shook the government after the gang rape and murder on December 16, 2012, in a moving bus in the national capital, is starkly missing this time.
Let’s start with the top leadership. On August 15, as the country was celebrating 75 years of Independence, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi was delivering a rousing message of nari shakti (women power), reminding the citizenry that no country could progress unless its women were respected. Only hours later, the convicted rapists were released from a Gujarat jail with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) unit in Godhra garlanding them like heroic figures. No expression of remorse from any of the convicts even as a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member of legislative assembly (MLA), who was part of the review committee, happily lauded them for being sanskari (cultured) Brahmins. The Modi government has chosen not to say a word, either trapped in the hubris of power or too embarrassed to turn the clock back to 2002.
No senior minister or the normally voluble BJP spokespersons have reacted. Not a squeak from Smriti Irani, the high-profile women and child development minister, who is normally never at a loss for words. No statement from the National Commission for Women (NCW), which earlier this month was fulminating over a goof-up by Congress leader, Adhir Ranjan Chaudhary, when he referred to President Droupadi Murmu as Rashtra-patni. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has reportedly held one meeting to discuss the issue, but has not made any public intervention. Its chairperson, a former Supreme Court judge, had once praised the PM as a “versatile genius”.
Among the main national parties, only the Congress and the Left have expressed their indignation over the decision. While the Left is a marginal force, the Congress response, commendable in the circumstances, has been far more vociferous in Delhi than in Gandhinagar. What of the conspicuous silence of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which was on the frontlines of citizen activism during the 2012 protests? Ten years later, the AAP has evolved from a volunteer force into a mainstream political party, its eye firmly on the Hindu middle-class vote in poll-bound Gujarat.
The Supreme Court, which ensured a fast-tracking of justice in the 2012 gang rape case also initially played safe, before taking up a petition challenging the release of the 11 men this week. In its order in May this year, the court left it to the discretion of the Gujarat government to take a call on remission based on an archaic 1992 document which is more procedural in nature, rather than the substantive 2014 policy that explicitly prohibits remission for convicted rapists. The media which covered the 2012 protests with breathless energy has mostly chosen not to push the Bilkis issue beyond a point. Nor has there been a sustained citizen-driven Justice for Bilkis campaign, almost as if the utter bestiality of what happened in a remote village of Radhikpur in 2002 is far too distant from the memory bank of a “new” India.
In a sense, the contrasting responses to the 2012 tragedy and Bilkis’s unending quest for justice reveal just how much both State and civil society have been transformed in the last decade. The rise of majoritarian politics has squeezed out any dissenting voices that might challenge the dominant narrative of the establishment. So entrenched is the belief that the Hindu identity must be consolidated for any electoral benefit that political morality is the obvious casualty of crude vote bank politics. If the Congress is guilty of appeasing the Muslim clergy in the 1980s by failing to stand by a Muslim woman’s fight for equal rights in the Shah Bano case, the BJP’s majority appeasement politics stands exposed by the party’s dubious role in the Bilkis case.
Moreover, the institutions meant to provide succour to victims of criminality have been severely compromised by a domineering political executive. With the Gujarat government’s review committee being monopolised by partisan interests, including two sitting BJP MLAs, a distraught but defiant Bilkis had little chance of ever getting a fair hearing. A Constitution bench in the 2016 Sriharan case involving Rajiv Gandhi’s assassins indicated that consent of the Union government is mandatory to remit or commute a sentence: Can the political executive then escape culpability for allowing convicted rapists to get away?
But what has happened to our collective conscience that so many influential citizens are fearful of lending their voice to a Justice for Bilkis campaign unlike the unconstrained uprising of 2012? This is where the shifting moral compass reveals a divided society whose notions of justice are increasingly viewed through the lens of deep prejudice and outright bigotry. It’s a lens that is unable to identify with Bilkis’s plight without bringing in a communal twist, where her identity as a Muslim woman almost overwhelms the sheer inhumanity of the crime committed against her.
“So where are you when a Hindu woman is raped and tortured?” is an oft-asked question by the rabid Right-wing internet army on social media. When the idealistic fervour of an enraged society in 2012 is now replaced by a tendentious whataboutery in 2022, the polarisation of minds appears complete. Bilkis is a victim of this mindset. And worryingly, she won’t be the last.
Post-script: A young millennial colleague suggests that I should stop thinking of the 2002 violence and the Bilkis case. “Bees saal ho gaye (20 years have passed), it’s time to move on,” is his unsolicited advice. If only he could look Bilkis in the eye and tell her to move on too.
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal