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The Bilkis Bano case should matter to every woman

Aug 19, 2022 08:09 PM IST

Despite devoting 17 years of her life to battling for justice, the 11 men who violated Bilkis were released early from jail. This is an unspeakable injustice. Can any woman’s fight for justice end like this?

I’m saying this as one woman to another.

PREMIUM
Even for the most hardened, jaded hacks, some stories feel personal. Bilkis Bano is one such for me. (AP File Photo)

I’m saying this to all of you.

Can you even imagine what it feels like to be five months pregnant and have a mob of men lunge at you, one by one, as they rape you? Then, imagine, that you are forced to witness the gang rape of your mother, who has just been compelled to helplessly watch yours. Then comes the turn of your two sisters. And if this isn’t macabre enough, think of yourself lying bruised and bleeding on the floor, your arm broken by your rapists, as your three-year-old daughter is killed in front of your eyes, her head smashed with a stone.

Worse, imagine that you know these men. They aren’t strangers; they are your neighbours. They buy milk from your family. You thought they were your friends.

Imagine then that you devote 17 years of your life to battling for justice in the courts of India, moving 20 times along the way because your case has been initially transferred outside of your home state or because you fear for your safety. And then just when you think maybe, you are finally strong enough to start the process of healing and living, the 11 men who did this to you are released early from jail by an executive order of the State.

Even for the most hardened, jaded hacks, some stories feel personal. Bilkis Bano is one such for me.

The night I met her in a relief camp in Godhra, huddled together with other women, under a tarpaulin sheet, by the fading flicker of a kerosene lamp, was 20 years ago. But after the headlines of this week, it feels like yesterday.

I remember that as she recounted what had been done to her that night, she did not cry. She wore the trauma in her eyes with a blank, broken expression, as if something inside her was dead. Her husband Yakub told me that since the men who raped her and killed her child were let free — greeted outside the prison with sweets and garlands — Bilkis seems to have lapsed into the same numbness. She is barely speaking. She feels alone.

You would think it’s not possible to add any more insult to Bilkis’s injury. Think again.

A Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislator, CK Raulji, one of the members on the Gujarat panel that recommended the release of these convicts, told Mojo Story, the digital platform I helm, that these men were “Brahmins, and Brahmins have good sanskaar (culture). Their conduct in jail was good.” As the video interview with my colleague went viral, party sympathisers and supporters were also embarrassed. Our interview on the “Sanskaari” rapists settles one thing conclusively: There is nothing reformative in the decision to release these men after 14 years, as part of a prisoner remission scheme. Raulji went on to question their guilt: “Crime kiya ya nahin kiya, pata nahin (whether they did the crime or not, I do not know.)”

An unspeakable injustice is unfolding with brazen impunity. Its legality is dodgy. The home ministry guidelines announced in the summer of 2022 make it clear that rape convicts should be excluded from prisoner programmes on early release. If the Gujarat government has acted under an old 1992 law, then legal experts say it would have mandatorily needed the approval of someone in the central government. There is a veil of opacity over who gave the green signal and at what level.

Shobha Gupta, the lawyer for Bilkis Bano, has battled for years alongside the rape survivor to secure her justice. She told me that she is shattered and unable to face Bilkis. And yet when I ask her whether Bilkis will petition the court against the Gujarat government’s decision, her words put me to shame. “How much courage can one human being have? Someone else should fight now. The CBI [Central Bureau of Investigation] should appeal against the verdict, the Centre should appeal. The prime minister should step in.”

We can look away and pretend this is not our problem.

But woman to woman, you know it is.

Shobha Gupta told me that another woman who was sexually assaulted rang her up after these convicts walked free and dejectedly asked whether she should withdraw her case.

Where is the outrage we saw during the December 16, 2012 case?

Do these men not deserve to spend the rest of their lives in jail?

And as Bilkis asked, can any woman’s fight for justice end like this?

The answer to that question depends on how much noise we make.

Let’s raise hell.

Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

I’m saying this as one woman to another.

PREMIUM
Even for the most hardened, jaded hacks, some stories feel personal. Bilkis Bano is one such for me. (AP File Photo)

I’m saying this to all of you.

Can you even imagine what it feels like to be five months pregnant and have a mob of men lunge at you, one by one, as they rape you? Then, imagine, that you are forced to witness the gang rape of your mother, who has just been compelled to helplessly watch yours. Then comes the turn of your two sisters. And if this isn’t macabre enough, think of yourself lying bruised and bleeding on the floor, your arm broken by your rapists, as your three-year-old daughter is killed in front of your eyes, her head smashed with a stone.

Worse, imagine that you know these men. They aren’t strangers; they are your neighbours. They buy milk from your family. You thought they were your friends.

Imagine then that you devote 17 years of your life to battling for justice in the courts of India, moving 20 times along the way because your case has been initially transferred outside of your home state or because you fear for your safety. And then just when you think maybe, you are finally strong enough to start the process of healing and living, the 11 men who did this to you are released early from jail by an executive order of the State.

Even for the most hardened, jaded hacks, some stories feel personal. Bilkis Bano is one such for me.

The night I met her in a relief camp in Godhra, huddled together with other women, under a tarpaulin sheet, by the fading flicker of a kerosene lamp, was 20 years ago. But after the headlines of this week, it feels like yesterday.

I remember that as she recounted what had been done to her that night, she did not cry. She wore the trauma in her eyes with a blank, broken expression, as if something inside her was dead. Her husband Yakub told me that since the men who raped her and killed her child were let free — greeted outside the prison with sweets and garlands — Bilkis seems to have lapsed into the same numbness. She is barely speaking. She feels alone.

You would think it’s not possible to add any more insult to Bilkis’s injury. Think again.

A Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislator, CK Raulji, one of the members on the Gujarat panel that recommended the release of these convicts, told Mojo Story, the digital platform I helm, that these men were “Brahmins, and Brahmins have good sanskaar (culture). Their conduct in jail was good.” As the video interview with my colleague went viral, party sympathisers and supporters were also embarrassed. Our interview on the “Sanskaari” rapists settles one thing conclusively: There is nothing reformative in the decision to release these men after 14 years, as part of a prisoner remission scheme. Raulji went on to question their guilt: “Crime kiya ya nahin kiya, pata nahin (whether they did the crime or not, I do not know.)”

An unspeakable injustice is unfolding with brazen impunity. Its legality is dodgy. The home ministry guidelines announced in the summer of 2022 make it clear that rape convicts should be excluded from prisoner programmes on early release. If the Gujarat government has acted under an old 1992 law, then legal experts say it would have mandatorily needed the approval of someone in the central government. There is a veil of opacity over who gave the green signal and at what level.

Shobha Gupta, the lawyer for Bilkis Bano, has battled for years alongside the rape survivor to secure her justice. She told me that she is shattered and unable to face Bilkis. And yet when I ask her whether Bilkis will petition the court against the Gujarat government’s decision, her words put me to shame. “How much courage can one human being have? Someone else should fight now. The CBI [Central Bureau of Investigation] should appeal against the verdict, the Centre should appeal. The prime minister should step in.”

We can look away and pretend this is not our problem.

But woman to woman, you know it is.

Shobha Gupta told me that another woman who was sexually assaulted rang her up after these convicts walked free and dejectedly asked whether she should withdraw her case.

Where is the outrage we saw during the December 16, 2012 case?

Do these men not deserve to spend the rest of their lives in jail?

And as Bilkis asked, can any woman’s fight for justice end like this?

The answer to that question depends on how much noise we make.

Let’s raise hell.

Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

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