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Mainstream, VOL LX No 36 New Delhi, August 27, 2022

Release of culprits in the Bilkis rape case exposes the misogyny of the VHP-RSS & BJP | Arun Srivastava

Friday 26 August 2022

by Arun Srivastava

THE SUPREME COURT has issued notices to the BJP government of Gujarat and the Modi government at the Centre asking them to ascertain whether there was application of mind by a government panel that on 13 May granted remission to the eleven convicts in the Bilkis Bano rape case. The question that should have been put to the Gujarat government was to ask if it had the ‘power of remission’ in the matter.

Bilkis Bano is the victim of the RSS and the Modi government’s (when it happened, Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat) efforts to alienate Muslims from the mainstream of Indian society and push them to the periphery. The many lynching cases that have taken place since 2002 are testimony to the machination of the RSS and BJP to supress Muslims in India.

The remission was just a small part of the larger design to establish a Hindu country. The hero-like reception the perpetrators were given by the Hindutva brigade speak volumes about the ruling party’s intent; they were garlanded and offered sweets and the RSS cadre and bhakts touched their feet and took their blessings, as if they had won a war and were victorious warriors. This is no doubt a shame for humanity as the rapists walked free on 15 August, India’s sacred Independence Day, the day prime minister Modi was reminding the people of the country about the dignity of women and their role in shaping the future of the nation. Ironically, Modi has not uttered a word on the Gujarat government setting the rapists free.

This act of eulogising the rapists and killers was primarily aimed at sending the message to Muslims and those nursing democratic and liberal values that fall in line or get ready to face the consequences. Bilkis Bano was 21-years-old and five months pregnant when she was gang-raped while fleeing the riots that broke out after the Godhra train burning in 2002. Her three-year-old daughter was among the seven family members killed.

A petition was filed in the Supreme Court by the CPM leader, Subhashini Ali, along with the journalist-author Revati Laul, and former Vice Chancellor of Lucknow University, Roop Rekha Verma against the release of the convicts in the Bilkis case. TMC MP Mahua Moitra also filed a separate petition in the Supreme Court against the release of the convicts in the case. She alleged that the remission ‘completely fails to bolster either social or human justice and does not constitute a valid exercise of the guided discretionary power of the State’. Moitra also tweeted that the nation ‘had better decide whether Bilkis Bano is a woman or a Muslim’. These petitions are very important in that they signal this battle must not be fought only by the victim but by fellow citizens who challenge wrongs for all.

Though peering into the political domain of a government probably is not the task of the court, it could well have comprehended the implication of this move in the backdrop of intensifying hate campaigns against Muslims. The bench could have got the reply to its question sought from senior counsel Kapil Sibal, appearing for one set of petitioners: ‘Merely because the act was horrific, can you argue that remission is wrong? Day in and out, remission is granted by the government to life convicts. What is the exception? What they have committed, for that they have been convicted. The only question is whether remission was within parameters of the law.’

Notwithstanding Chief Justice Ramana’s clarification that the Supreme Court had never directed the remission of the convicts’ sentences, the question put to Sibal by the bench gives the impression that it was not against giving remission. In a democratic setup, the judiciary cannot ignore the political aspect of the cases coming before it for seeking justice. Eleven persons had committed the heinous crime of rape and murder of seven persons. They also butchered a three-year child. Do these acts of commission not underline their mindset?

It is worth mentioning that Gujarat had granted the remissions despite the Centre directing the States in 2014 not to remit the sentences of people convicted of crimes like rape and murder. Obviously, the Gujarat government dared to defy this Central government order as their big brother, the BJP, holds power at the Centre and as such, Gujarat was sure no one would pull it up. Justice Ramana, who led the Bench, also directed the petitioners to implead the 11 convicts as respondents in the case. Issuing notice, the Bench asked the State to file its reply and posted the case for the next hearing in two weeks’ time (that is by 8 September or thereabouts).

Senior human rights lawyer Indira Jaising has said, ‘Bilkis Bano’s gang rape cannot be seen as an isolated crime by a group of individual criminals, but one committed as part of a coordinated strategy of an attack with intent to eliminate a minority community’. And she is right.

A former CBI director had pointed out how the Narendra Modi government had, in 2015, successfully opposed in the Supreme Court a Tamil Nadu decision to release one of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination convicts. The Centre had, at that time and in this case, claimed the ‘sole right of remission in cases investigated by federal agencies’, and the apex court had upheld the argument. If the Modi government held’ the sole right of remission’, then it should have moved the Supreme Court against the Gujarat government’s release of the 11 convicts in the Bilkis Bano gang rape and murder case, ‘investigated by the federal agency, the CBI’. The Union government’s continuing silence clearly smacks of ‘double standards’; in Tamil Nadu it is a DMK government, in Gujarat, a BJP government.

It would be naïve to describe the statement of the BJP MLA from Godhara, C K Raulji (the BJP legislator who was part of the Gujarat government’s panel that recommended the remissions), as a statement that ‘would damage the image’ of the saffron party. In fact, his comment that ‘the rapists were Brahmins and have good sanskar (values)’ simply unravels the true political character and culture of the BJP. Rajauli’s observation clearly underlines the mindset of the saffron brigade, the RSS, the VHP and the BJP – that other communities (dalits and OBCs, incidentally the communities to which Modi and Amit Shah belong) do not have sanskars and values. All that his remark does is, it explicitly manifests the feudal and fascist ideology of the ruling dispensation.

Raulji ought to have realised that rapists really do not have any caste. In fact, projecting the supremacy of the Brahmins is a tactical move to preserve the contours of the BJP’s ‘Hindutva’ but may not yield any dividend in 2024. The RSS has been striving hard to bring the OBCs across India, especially in the States of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, into its fold. Now, following such a remark, it may be a really a tough proposition for these communities to repose their faith in the RSS and BJP. The remark alienates Brahmins too.

Pulled up by the grandparent organisation, Raulji has in a tweet, tried to amend matters by saying, ‘Rapists do not belong to any caste, and I have not said anything like that. My statement is being shown in a wrong way. If someone is guilty, he should get punishment for it. We should respect the court’s verdict’. Raulji’s argument has been, ‘The incident is from 2002 – who was Bilkis Bano, what happened, I do not know. From the government, we were told that our committee was formed on the basis of the Supreme Court’s guidelines. And we have to look at the behaviour of these 11 people, especially their behaviour in jail. So, we spoke to the jailor and we did not hear that they had engaged in any riot or violence there. We have to look at their behaviour, and their earlier behaviour, and their family’s activities were very good. …there was a communal situation where there are members of one community and also the other. This was in the past, and someone can also be [unfairly] punished, based on bad intentions’.

Meanwhile, around 6,000 individuals and institutions, including the National Alliance of People’s Movements, women’s groups and mass organisations of Left parties in a statement have urged the Supreme Court to undo the remission as justice has not been done to Bilkis. It is an open secret that notwithstanding their appeal to the Supreme Court to revoke the decision to grant the convicts remission of their sentence, the governments (Central as well as State) have not budged and have use every means to protect the convicts.

The right-wing political forces are very aware that release of the Bilkis case convicts will be beneficial for the RSS and Modi government in 2024 elections as this will add fuel to their anti-Muslim campaigns. There is no doubt that ever since Modi came to power in 2014, he has been working on a plan to alienate Muslims from India’s national life and turn them into an untouchable class, second-class citizens.

This is going to be the right-wing talking point in the 2024 general elections. The weaker opposition parties seem afraid to challenge the communal campaign of the RSS and BJP. This includes the left parties too. The left parties should not be on the back foot and should confront this menace by taking to the streets. It is time not to consider Muslims merely as vote-banks, and giving greater representation and visibility to Muslims and all minorities can only strengthen the non-Hindutva forces. Despite the constraints, Muslims are citizens of India.

Raulji and people like him draw their inspiration from Modi and Shah, who without any hesitation, have been pursuing the politics of hatred and humiliating the minorities and backward castes. It also exposes the BJP’s machination to use the judiciary to serve the interest of its cadres and leaders. The remission of the rapists is not only a mockery of the judicial system, but it is also an attempt to silence it. The action has also sent a strong message that the steps and decisions of the government must not be challenged.

(This article was edited by Papri Sri Raman)

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