In the figure of Bilkis Bano, an extraordinarily deserving, if unlikely, candidate for the Bharat Ratna has finally been found. Not only did Bilkis survive a terrible ordeal, but she has also prevailed, where most others in her position would have succumbed, in securing justice. And in the loud din being heard these days over the emergence of a new, young, and confident India, typified as much by India’s cricketing triumphs as by the launch of a dream car for the ‘common man’ and brash talk of India as a global power, Bilkis represents a genuine ray of hope that there is something to live for in the idea of Indian democracy.
The Bharat Ratna, initiated in 1954, is supposed to be conferred on those who have rendered meritorious public service to the nation or whose accomplishments do the nation proud. No one will dispute the worthiness for this supreme civilian honour of such eminent practitioners of the arts as Satyajit Ray, M.S. Subbulakshmi, Lata Mangeshkar, and Ustad Bismillah Khan. But the award has not been without its controversies, and the statute of 1955 that allowed posthumous conferral of the award has been the subject of some litigation. The posthumous conferral of the award upon Subhas Chandra Bose in 1992 led to an unusual outcome in that the award was withdrawn when it was argued that the government could not offer conclusive evidence of Bose’s death.
Close to half of the 40 awardees of the Bharat Ratna, including six former Prime Ministers, held high political office. It is understandable that the luminaries so honoured should include Jawaharlal Nehru, who served as the country’s first Prime Minister for 17 years but whose formidable place within the struggle for independence is equally indisputable. One need not even speak of his large and rather rich corpus of writings and his mastery of English prose. Nevertheless, it is worth asking why the notion of ‘public service of the highest order’ has been so narrowly defined as to preponderantly favour those who, as holders of elected office, were perforce performing their duties — and sometimes, to be candid, abusing the privileges of their office. The real question is not whether all recipients of the Bharat Ratna honoured for ‘public service’ have been worthy of the honour, but whether holders of office, who are getting recognition enough, should at all be rewarded. Far more deserving seem to be those, such as Baba Amte and Sunderlal Bahuguna, who have silently laboured over the years to bring tangible improvement to the lives of people who, in numerous ways, are at the margins of Indian society.
In the midst of the controversy over the recent proposal to award the Bharat Ratna to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, whose detractors have put forth the names of Kanshi Ram and Jyoti Basu as more viable candidates for this honour, we ought to entertain with seriousness the case for conferring India’s most coveted civilian honour upon a young and largely uneducated Indian woman who would have remained unknown but for her courage and determination that her tormentors should not escape punishment for their vile deeds. The unspeakable horrors of the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 have been recounted often enough, but Bilkis Bano’s harrowing tale cannot effortlessly be assimilated into a cauldron of stories of murder, rape and mayhem. Much of her family, including her three-year-old child, having been butchered before her eyes. Bilkis, then seven months pregnant, was herself repeatedly raped. She was left alive so that she could be among the living dead — dead to herself, and to the world, and yet alive so that she, among others, should visibly serve as an object lesson to members of her community.
Bilkis’s rapists and the killers walking around with utter abandon had vastly underestimated her resolve and sense of justice. Not one to be cowed into submission, Bilkis filed a First Information Report (FIR) the day after she was gangraped, and nearly two years later the CBI, which had taken over the case following Bilkis’s petition to the Supreme Court, apprehended 12 of the accused named in the FIR. At Bilkis’s request, her case was shifted to a state outside Gujarat, where victims such as herself cannot expect justice.
Though Bilkis is not a lettered woman, she recognised that the communal outlook is so deeply entrenched in Gujarat that no institution of either State or civil society can be said to be free of its grip or reach. Though subjected to rigorous cross-examination by the defence, Bilkis identified all the accused in court and could not be intimidated into abandoning or contradicting her testimony. Eleven of the accused have now been found guilty of criminal conspiracy, murder and rape and sentenced to life imprisonment, and the police official who sheltered them has been handed out a three-year prison term.
So wherein lies Bilkis Bano’s achievement? If one is called to admire her sense of justice and ability to persevere in the face of nearly insurmountable odds, it should not merely be from some sentimental notion of the ‘power of the wretched’ or even from the idea, which has little basis in life as such, that justice always prevails. Indeed, though it was Mumbai Sessions Judge U.D. Salve who vindicated Bilkis, the victims of the Bombay riots of 1992 still await justice. Nevertheless, to gauge just how monumental her achievement is, we must weigh it against the fact that the middle-class in Gujarat has yet again voted into power a man who must be viewed as one of the chief instigators of the killings of 2002 that took the lives of over 2,000 Muslims and left tens of thousands more homeless. If Gujarat’s chilling endorsement of brute authoritarianism, and some will say fascism, puts India to eternal shame, Bilkis Bano’s courage, dedication to the truth, and faith in the judicial system offer a faint glimmer of hope that Indian democracy is not entirely moribund.
Bilkis’s husband and lawyers stood by her through thick and thin. But the greater marvel is that she sustained her faith in the Constitution of India over six long years, and that too at a time when the middle-class has all but jettisoned the document and its promises of equality and justice. The middle-class endorsement of Rang de Basanti, a film that repudiates the political even as it celebrates a crude notion of vigilante justice, stands in stark contrast to Bilkis’s extraordinary embrace of the spirit of the Indian Constitution. The award of the Bharat Ratna to Bilkis Bano would not only honour her indomitable spirit and courage but may help to usher in a new era of political and ethical awareness.
Vinay Lal teaches history at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and is the Director of the University of California’s Education Abroad Program in India