This is the story of two daughters of India, both victims of horrific sexual crimes. Jyoti Singh was a bright 23-year-old, dreaming of a career in medicine that would lift her family out of poverty when she was brutally gangraped and murdered in the heart of the national capital in December 2012. Bilkis Bano was just 19 and five months pregnant when she was gangraped while trying to escape the mob in her village in Gujarat’s Dahod district during the 2002 communal riots. Bilkis’s three-year-old child was killed in front of her while 13 members of her family were also murdered. Jyoti and Bilkis hold a mirror to the darker side of our society and yet their narratives do diverge, a separation that deserves serious introspection.
Last week, Jyoti Singh’s killers were given the death sentence by the Supreme Court. It meant that within four-and-a-half-years of the date of the original crime, justice had been delivered. Just a day earlier, the Bombay High Court affirmed the life sentences of 11 accused in the Bilkis case, while sentencing the six police officers and a government doctor who tried to cover up the case to three years jail. While Jyoti Singh’s verdict was the top headline and received 24 x 7 carpet coverage across television channels, the Bilkis ruling did not attract screaming banner headlines or prime time debates.
The difference is not surprising. Jyoti Singh’s sickening death occurred in the national capital where most television channels and newspapers are headquartered and barely a few kilometres away from parliament where our law-makers reside. Within hours of her death, thousands of people had converged on Rajpath, with constant live coverage magnifying the surge of protests. The anger echoed in parliament, the country mourned her death, leaders went and met her family members and eventually a high level committee was set up to examine the troubling issue of sexual violence.
Bilkis Bano, by contrast, was languishing in a refugee camp for riot victims in Dahod, a tribal-dominated district of southern Gujarat, about 200km from Ahmedabad. Bilkis had attempted to register a case with the local police station who chose to ignore her pleas and threatened her instead to drop the charges. It was only with the support of highly committed NGOs, the National Human Rights Commission and a strong legal team that Bilkis managed to get the Supreme Court to direct the CBI to take over the investigation and transfer the case out of Gujarat. For over a decade, Bilkis fought her case bravely even as she had to move home repeatedly and couldn’t return to her village out of sheer fear that her attackers were still around.
Bilkis’s case slowly became just another Gujarat riots case even as the Jyoti Singh case became a cause celebre, a symbol of the fight for gender justice. Those who supported and fought for Bilkis were accused of being pseudo-secular “jholawallah” liberals only seeking to malign the government in Gujarat. Those who took up the Jyoti Singh case were seen as being at the vanguard of redefining rape laws. Global documentaries were planned in memory of Jyoti Singh’s courage, hardly anyone wanted to visit Bilkis and her family.
While the accused were punished in both the cases, the judges final orders reflected the contrasting public mood. Describing the Delhi gangrape case as ‘demonic’, the judges saw it as a “crime against humanity” and ruled that it was a “rarest of rare” case that deserved the death penalty. In the Bilkis case, the judges rejected the conspiracy charge, claiming that the crime had occurred on “the spur of the moment” even while admitting that the accused were “hunting for Muslims”. While rejecting the death penalty for the rapists, the judges said, the “accused were boiling with revenge” after the Godhra train burning.
Ironically, when I asked Bilkis if she was satisfied with the verdict, she softly replied: “I always wanted justice, never revenge!” My counter-question to the world at large is simply this: is ‘justice’ then for a gangrape victim in a communal riot different from ‘justice’ for a gangrape in a bus in Delhi?
Post-script: Bilkis is now 34. The child she was pregnant with when she was gangraped is now 15. “He wants to be a lawyer”, she tells me with a smile. Maybe, he will one day be able to tell ‘new India’ the true meaning of justice.