‘Itna sannata kyon hai bhai?” . Actor AK Hangal’s iconic dialogue in the film Sholay typifies the 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 outrage that coursed through society when Jyoti Singh (or Nirbhaya) was gang-raped and murdered a decade ago is starkly missing. Instead a marked hush has descended in the corridors of power and civil society spaces whose collective anger resonated so powerfully in the winter of 2012.
Lets start with the top leadership. On August 15th, as the country was celebrating 75 years of independence, prime minister Narendra Modi was delivering a rousing message of ‘nari-shakti’, 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 VHP unit in Godhra garlanding them like heroic figures. No expression of remorse from any of the convicts even as a BJP MLA who was part of the review committee was happily lauding them for being ‘sanksari’ Brahmins. The Modi government has chosen not to say a word on the issue, either trapped in the hubris of power or too embarrassed to turn the clock back to 2002.
No senior minister nor the normally voluble BJP spokespersons have reacted. Not a word from the Gujarat chief minister, Bhupendra Patel or any BJP leader from the state. Not a squeak from Smriti Irani, the high profile women and child development minister, who is normally never short of words. No statement from the National Commission for Women (NCW) which earlier this month was fulminating over a goof-up by Congress leader, Adhir Chaudhary when he mistakenly referred to President Droupadi Murmu as ‘Rashtra-patni’. Clearly, the deplorable image of rape convicts being garlanded has not offended the ‘sarkari’ organization. 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 gushingly praised the prime minister as a ‘versatile genius’.
Amongst the main national parties, only the Congress and the left have expressed their indignation over the Bilkis verdict. 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 which was on the frontlines of citizen activism during the 2012 protests? Ten years later, AAP has evolved from a volunteer force into a mainstream political party, its one eye firmly on the Hindu middle class vote in poll-bound Gujarat.
The Supreme Court which ensured a fast tracking of justice in the Jyoti Singh case has also played safe: in a strange 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. Scarcely any high-decibel prime time debates, no stirring editorials, no sustained campaign for justice for Bilkis.
And what of civil society, in particular the urban middle class, that appeared to shed its indifference a decade ago by becoming an intrinsic part of the street demonstrations? Somehow the utter bestiality of a gangrape and serial murders during a communal riot in Gujarat doesn’t seem to shake the ‘collective conscience’ like a gangrape in a moving bus in the national capital. It is almost as if what happened in a remote village of Radhikpur in 2002 is far too distant from the memory bank of a ‘new’ India. Signing the odd protest petition is a token effort at best.
In a sense, the contrasting responses to Jyoti Singh’s 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 effectively squeezed out any dissenting voices that might challenge the dominant narrative of the ruling 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 vote bank politics. In the 1980s, the Rajiv Gandhi government appeased the Muslim clergy by failing to stand by a Muslim’s woman’s fight for equal rights. The Shabano case weakened the secular project and gave the BJP a foot in the political door. Now, the wheel has come full circle as the BJP’s majority appeasement politics is designed to perpetuate its electoral dominance at the cost of another Muslim woman’s unrelenting pursuit of justice.
Moreover, the institutions meant to provide succor to victims of criminality have been severely compromised by a domineering political executive. With the Gujarat government’s review committee being monopolized 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 escape culpability? Truth is that a pliant bureaucracy, a weakened judiciary and a cheerleading media make it virtually impossible to check untrammeled use of executive power.
Why are so many influential citizens so fearful of lending their voice to a Justice for Bilkis campaign unlike the spontaneous 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 involved.
So where are you when a Hindu woman is raped and tortured is an oft asked question by the right wing internet army on social media. When the idealistic fervor of an enraged society in 2012 is now replaced by a tendentious ‘what-aboutery’ in 2022, then the polarization of minds appears sickeningly complete. Bilkis is a victim of this nauseating mindset. And worryingly, she wont 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, its time to move on,” is his unsolicited advise. If only he could look Bilkis in the eye and tell her to ‘move on’ too.