It was in May 2017 that the conviction of the 11 men involved in the gruesome rape and murder case involving Bilkis Bano and her family was upheld by the Bombay High Court. My mentor and anti-caste activist from Tamil Nadu called me that day and said: “I am really happy that justice has been delivered in Bilkis’s case but I’m also sad that it came very late ... The justice system in India works differently for different sets of people.” Then, he hung up the phone.
A few days back, as those 11 convicts walked out of jail under the Gujarat government’s remission policy, CK Raulji, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader, proclaimed that the 11 men were ‘Brahmin’ and of ‘good sanskaar’ (good values). After much backlash, he issued a ‘clarification’. But it’s worth noting that he was one of the five BJP leaders who were part of the 11-member advisory committee that recommended the remission.
15 Years for 'Justice'
The memories of the 2002 Godhra riots are fresh in my mind. I was in college and every day, as a family, we would watch the news together in shock and horror. We are a religious minority and caste-oppressed. The idea of something similar happening to us while the whole nation did nothing was terrifying, but not entirely unsurprising. Can you imagine being mauled by ferocious street dogs in daylight on a crowded public road while you are screaming and writhing in pain, but not a single soul turns around to help you? As a Dalit woman, I’m not entirely unfamiliar with that feeling.
Bilkis Bano is from a minority community, too. The ‘god-loving’, hate-filled men in the riots of 2002 spared no one. Fearing this, five-month-pregnant Bilkis and her family decided to flee their hometown. But on their way, they were stopped by a bunch of extremist goons.
Her cousin was raped and murdered. Her three-year-old daughter was killed in front of her eyes. Men and women in her family were killed. Then, she was raped by these men and thrown on the road, bleeding heavily. The papers published even the gruesome little details of the crime so that people would not forget.
Bilkis Bano survived and she lived to fight the hardest battle of her life. She was intimidated, threatened and blackmailed. But she stood strong. Her quest for justice continued despite tribulations. But it took 15 long years to get the 11 men convicted. She could not get justice in her own state, Gujarat, and the case had to be transferred to Maharashtra.
When Nirbhaya Verdict Was Announced
On the day the verdict was announced in May 2017, I was happy that Bilkis Bano finally got justice. I was eager to see newspapers and social media buzz with the news. But to my greater surprise, only a handful spoke about the verdict on social media and for a majority of mainstream media, the news fell through the cracks.
The very next day, the verdict in the Nirbhaya case was announced. The convicts’ death sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court and the nation rejoiced. It was considered the greatest milestone in the history of legal struggles against sexual violence in India. It made the headlines of most national media. I was even invited for a TV debate on the same by my local news channels.
The Deafening Silence Against All
This is the contradiction with the people of this country that disappoints me: their attitude towards selective justice. Here were two cases, both of rape, both horrific. But it was Bilkis Bano’s story that was conveniently ignored and which generated markedly less public outrage because of her religion and social location.
Even in 2002, when numerous women were raped in Gujarat, the vast majority of the country remained silent. When women were raped in Kashmir and Manipur, they were silent. When Kandhamal was burnt, they were silent. Dalit women are raped and killed on a daily basis, but the country sleeps on the news. Anything that happens in India in the name of religion and caste rarely attracts the anger of the common public.
As an intersectional feminist and a Dalit activist, I do not restrict myself to working only for Dalit or working-class women. I fight against the injustice happening to each and every woman in this country, irrespective of religion, caste and class. I strongly believe that anyone can be a perpetrator when it comes to crimes against women. But as an activist in the field, I also know that systemic oppression and planned crimes happen on a much larger scale to Dalit and Muslim women.
Of all the rapes in India, only 5 per cent are gang rapes, but 90 per cent of gang rapes happen to Dalit, Adivasi and Muslim women. Every day, an average of 10 Dalit women are raped in India, according to NCRB data. The nature of the crimes may range from kidnappings, gang rapes, murders, bodily violence, mutilations, etc. Every time a Dalit, tribal or Muslim woman is raped and murdered, it’s a warning.
Savarna feminists who talk about freedom to dress and who campaign against the burkha or hijab do not care about the threat to life and modesty that Muslim women go through every day when right-wing politicians or leaders in front of lakhs of cadres talk of raping or violating Muslim women. In fact, such leaders have often been lauded by the public in the recent past.
Not All Rapes are the Same
In India, when people talk about rape, they talk about Nirbhaya’s case, primarily, because of the greater public outrage and media attention it received. The trial was monitored by the public tirelessly. But was that the first time a woman was gang-raped brutally and killed in India? So, why does the nation mourn one 'daughter' while caring little about others?
Not all rapes are the same. Lust and porn addiction are not the only reasons for rapes in India. The sense of entitlement and impunity are two of the key reasons behind sexual assaults. Masculinity, caste, religion and class are the power institutions that accord impunity to Indian men for sexual crimes. A larger number of sexual crimes are against Dalit, Adivasi and Muslim women. By controlling the body of a woman, upper castes often think that they can control the community they come from. It’s about power more than lust.
Now imagine being Bilkis Bano, where you get justice after 15 years with no public or media support. Even the judiciary is biased. According to Sections 300, 375, 376, 376A, and 376D of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), a few of the many charges that apply to Bilkis Bano’s case, the convicted criminals should attract a death sentence. Though I am against the death sentence, for comparison, it should be noted how Nirbhaya’s convicts were given a death sentence while Bilkis Bano’s perpetrators got a life sentence, and not even a rigorous life sentence, which made it easier for them to be out on remission.
Nirbhaya got justice in five years and the criminals were hanged to death, while Bilkis’s case took 15 years, and now the criminals are free.
While Nirbhaya’s case was a classic example of gender-based violence, Bilkis Bano was a victim of gender, caste, religion, class, and state violence. The judiciary could have formed an internal committee to stop the release of the criminals rather than just blaming the government. Such is the impunity enjoyed by the upper-caste men.
Who Will Mourn Nandini, Rajalakshmi, or the Hathras Victim?
With respect and solidarity with victims of sexual violence, I agree that assault is an assault no matter the magnitude of the violence. But here, we are talking about victims from Dalit, Muslim and Adivasi households, who should get the same level of support and public outrage as other victims. But they do not, by virtue of their birth. Justice is denied to them even as the state tries by all means to expedite cases involving upper-caste people.
In 1978, Geetha Chopra was kidnapped, raped and murdered, and the criminals were caught, convicted and sentenced to death in just four years. It should also be noted that if the accused are from a lower caste, the police take the law into their own hands in many instances. For example, in the 2019 Hyderabad rape case of a doctor, police said the suspects were killed in an encounter and the civic society welcomed it. But in 2022, the Supreme Court refuted this claim and ordered the state to try the police as murderers.
In 2012, when the Nirbhaya incident happened, I saw some hope that the country did actually care for women and that the social and legal consciousness that the case spurred would extend to other women too, especially those from minority or oppressed communities. I was so wrong.
There have been numerous incidents of rape and murder in different parts of the country after Nirbhaya, but they did not get the same media traction or generate similar war cries from the public. What happened to Unnao and Hathras victims – or the culprits? Except for activists and some journalists, nobody remembers them now. While justice became inaccessible under BJP governments, Congress did not care enough about Dalit rapes in other parts of the country or Congress-ruled Rajashthan.
When Dalit women like Nandini, Rajalakshmi and many more were raped and killed in Tamil Nadu, they did not even peep into their houses. But when a Brahmin girl, Swathi, was killed in Chennai, the whole political battalion was at her home.
When Feminism Isn't for All Women
Moments like these remind me of Phoolan Devi, the late Member of Parliament who shot dead more than 20 upper-caste men who raped her. Though the step and her life were highly controversial, what probably drove her was the knowledge of how the state, the police and the judiciary act as modern versions of Khap Panchayats. She knew that the legal system, in all likelihood, would fail her.
As an activist, I find myself being one of the very few voices shouting for justice when an oppressed woman gets raped in this country. It’s disheartening to see your fellow men and women who have been frontline warriors of justice for sexual violence turn a blind eye towards violence against Dalits and Muslims. Political parties raising their voice for women in any part of the country become silent spectators when it comes to Dalit women or religious minorities in their own state. The bureaucrats, the media, a surprising number of social activists and ‘equality-loving’, ‘anti-fascism’ politicians are silent as the 11 men walk free today.
I can only hope that Bilkis Bano and crores of women like her in India find the strength to rise above this phase.
(Shalin Maria Lawrence is a writer, social activist and columnist based in Chennai. She is an intersectional feminist and anti-caste activist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)