Bilkis Bano Case: The Silence is Deafening
Rape victims are beyond religion, race, caste, ethnicity or even political affiliations
When anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by her students about the first signs of civilisation, she is supposed to have posited the discovery of the 'healed human femur' (bone that connects the hips and the knees). This, according to Mead, was a telltale mark of an injured person having been helped by another, to heal and recuperate, as a sure sign of empathy, care and 'civilised' behaviour. Otherwise, in the animal kingdom, a broken leg would render any animal to be hunted and eaten by others, or in any case, be unable to survive.
In a wounded world of extreme vulnerabilities, isolation and 'othering', the anecdote attributed to Margaret Mead about the 'healed human femur', is so relevant. She is supposed to have said, "overcoming difficulties and helping someone else is where civilisation begins".
If that be the noble construct of 'civility', ponder over the gut-wrenching irony of a Bilkis Bano in this great land of antiquity that justly prides itself to be a civilization that is at least 5000 years old, if not more. Pause and shed the partisan lens for once, just once. Don't bring BJP, Congress, Left, AAP or any other political passion into Bilkis Bano's already cruel admixture.
A clearly pregnant and helplessly pleading woman is brutally and mercilessly gang-raped, then her mother and two sisters are raped. As the macabre ordeal continues, her three-year-old daughter's head is smashed with a rock. And as statistics no longer bear any emotion anymore, 14 members of her family are murdered in cold blood, all in front of her! Finally, her assailants leave her naked body for dead, but the unconscious Bilkis lives to retell her horror.
The nightmare does not end here, as she faces unprecedented pressures, threats, and humiliations. This included some doctors who went to the extent of saying that she wasn't raped!
The Supreme Court intervened and restored some semblance of sanity, albeit temporarily. Her perpetrators were finally sentenced to life terms after a tortuous trial. Perhaps not enough, as many would argue in the aftermath of the Nirbhaya uproar, that had pricked the consciousness of an usually indifferent citizenry. But justice was meted, or so it was presumed.
But again, a dumbfounding and inexplicable leniency was afforded to the perpetrators of this indescribably heinous crime. It was done for their ostensible age and 'behaviour' amongst other reasons. The newly burnished policy of prohibiting remission-release for those convicted of rape, was conveniently and glaringly, rested.
The committee formed by the Government to consider the remission included partisan legislators. One of them unbelievably went on to question the initial conviction, "Crime Kiya ya nahin, pata nahin" and offers a reckless cultural context about the preparators who are, "Brahmins, and Brahmins have good sanskaar". All this is said in 2022, by a lawmaker. Mull over it, hard.
The dark dance of unreason continues with the release of these perpetrators, accompanied by garlands and feting. A forlorn, tired and numb Bilkis Bano is left lamenting that she is, "bereft of words".
The otherwise hyperactive social media is also seemingly oblivious to the ensuing horror. The usually thin-skinned social media warriors who creatively dissect each little word of purported inexactitude, inelegance and inappropriateness towards their own magnified hyper reaction, no longer show any interest? Pray, why not now?
Indeed, names of victims/perpetrators have societal 'identities' and even the backdrop to such events have undeniable political connotations – but if it helps, just imagine a changed name or timing for this horrific incident, and hopefully the magnitude of what is casually labelled 'travesty and grave miscarriage of justice', may just dawn upon all citizens. For the usual practitioners of whataboutery, this incident ought to be beyond partisan one-upmanship.
Like the lynching of the Palghar sadhus, beheading of the Udaipur tailor, death of a 9-year-old schoolboy in Jalore, or any other crime that was perpetuated needs to be condemned unequivocally, unanimously and very loudly (beyond politics of 'identities'). Failure to do so, is nothing but abject partisanship and 'othering'. Sadly, the ensuing deafening silence speaks for itself.
Paradoxically, the Prime Minister had rightfully invoked Nari Shakti (women power) from the ramparts of the historic Red Fort, as part of the Amrit Mahotsav (elixir of energy of independence). But this controversial release of the perpetrators of the most barbaric and inhuman crime onto women, militated against the same.
Someone, somewhere, had officially facilitated the same. Surely, the alluded portents of Amrit Kaal (sacred times) besetting the destiny of India deserved a more auspicious start.
If ever there were unfounded fears about the extent of societal division, of ingrained politicisation, or of the demise of our much-bandied humanity and civility, then the same got validated with our telling silence. It's not just about legality or politics surrounding the same, but about the sheer impunity and inability to look at things beyond the partisan prism.
Rape victims are beyond religion, race, caste, ethnicity or even political affiliations – just as perpetrators ought to be the same, they are just perpetrators. Period.
It is us, the 'un-pained' and shamefully oblivious citizens who actually allow the wily politicos to colour every little shred of what ought to be basic humanity, to be a lever of politics, to be ultimately galvanised and aggressively postulated, or like now, inhumanely swept under the carpet.
The age-old wisdom of the saying 'The world suffers a lot, not because of the violence of bad people, but because of the silence of good people' couldn't be more apt today. It is time that we honestly heed to the Prime Minister's clarion call on the Amrit Mahotsav, "Can we change the mentality towards our women in everyday life?" That needs to be nuanced and deeply introspected by Bilkis Bano's haunting and heartbreaking resultant query, "Is this how justice ends?".
Metaphorically and contextually, going back to Margaret Mead's theory of 'healed human femur', our current silence certainly does not behove our illustrious, noble and dignified credentials as people of a civilisation. It is, as the moral compass of our nation i.e., Mahatma Gandhi once said, "silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly." India deserves better, as does Bilkis Bano – it is not just about her, it is about all of us.
Lt General Bhopinder Singh is retired from the Indian Army. He is former Governor of Andaman Nicobar islands, and Puducherry.