India's Civilisation, Not Politics, Must Guide Our Reaction to Bilkis Bano Case
In Gurudev’s vision of free India, can any head be held high when Bilkis Bano is full of justified fear?
The Supreme Court has decided to the hear the case of the remission of the sentences of the convicts in the Bilkis Bano case. While the Court will consider the law the fact is that beyond the territory of the law with its intricacies and technicalities lies the domain of innate sense of society of what is right and equitable.
It is only when the two overlap that a feeling of justice prevails in the hearts and minds of individuals and of society at large. If the law is served in letter but its application leads to feelings of fear then can justice be served? Even more, in such a situation, can the aspiration, of what free India was to be all about be achieved?
Perhaps Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore expressed better than anyone else of what free India should be like. And, he did it best in his celebrated poem in the Gitanjali collection which begins with the evocative and immortal line “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high”.
It is this poem that the political class and indeed the judiciary too should turn to when considering the remission of the sentences of the convicts in the Bilkis Bano case.
If the law is served in letter but its application leads to feelings of fear then can justice be served?
Perhaps Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore expressed better than anyone else of what free India should be like.
Today, would Gandhiji have held his head high as he became conscious of the fear of Bilkis Bano seeing those who perpetrated horrors on her set free, their sentences remitted?
Politics, as diplomacy, require reactions to be cool and calm. They need emotion to be shunned for it only clouds judgment. But politicians and diplomats also require to take cognisance of individual feelings.
In the last line of Gurudev’s poem he prays “Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake”. Seventy-five years after independence are we still in slumber?
Bilkis Bano Case: A Touchstone for India's Civilisational Values
Bilkis Bano was subjected to unspeakable crimes of cruelty and depravity. It would be no surprise if today she is feeling fearful. Such fear would not be the result obsession or neurosis but in seeing those who perpetrated those horrors on her not only released from prison but, on release, standing together and having their photograph taken. Not only that, they have been seen to be welcomed with sweetmeats. Now the question, derived from Gurudev’s vision of free India which has to be insistently asked is this: Can any head be held high when Bilkis Bano is full of justified fear?
The national movement gave good reason for Indians to hold their heads high despite the all attempts of the colonial masters to break their spirit. India’s civilisational heritage rooted in an abundant and continuous search for knowledge and truth even amidst the clash of arms in a fratricidal war provided an inspiration.
India’s civilisational inheritance include embodiments of virtue and duty and compassion. They also include the life and message of Gandhiji. It was he who taught an enslaved people to hold their heads high and suffer pain and imprisonment and worse but never abandon the path of truth and shun violence.
What Would Mahatma Gandhi Think of Bilkis Bano Case?
Today, would Gandhiji have held his head high as he became conscious of the fear of Bilkis Bano seeing those who perpetrated horrors on her set free, their sentences remitted? He was a lawyer and conscious of the importance of laws and of the need to uphold them. But had he not always agitated against ‘lawless laws’? Had he not agitated against them through the path of satyagraha? How would he have perceived the application of laws and rules and guidelines which generate fear? Would he have been able to hold his head high?
Politics, as diplomacy, which was my profession, require reactions to be cool and calm. They need emotion to be shunned for it only clouds judgment. But politicians and diplomats also require to take cognisance of individual feelings. This is especially if these give rise to justified fears and resentments for, they can vitiate, sometimes silently, sometimes vocally, healthy social and political development. That is why the fears and unhappiness generated by the remission of the sentences in the Bilkis Bano case should not be ignored. This is also because they go to the heart of our current national predicament.
Political Class Should End the War Within
As ideological contestations continue opposing sections of the political class are engaged in hurling accusations against each other. There is no willingness to find common ground. The Congress and other opposition parties are consumed with anger and bitterness against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Sangh Parivar. Modi and his allies can obviously not forget or forgive all that occurred against them in the years after the Gujarat riots. They point to the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 and clearly feel that the forces opposing them did not show the same feeling or vigour about the injustices and killings that took place after the assassination of Indira Gandhi.
They accuse the forces ranged against them of selective outrage. They ask if today charges of the emasculation of the institutions of state are being made then did these institutions and the men who led them, barring a handful, stand up to be counted during the Emergency?
The truth is that no section of the political class can claim that it is blameless if the decades of independent India are examined. But this state of the political class at war with itself should not continue. Perhaps it is emotional and naïve to ask the leaders of all parties to look at the face of Bilkis Bano and of those who have been released and are being feted and open their ears and eyes to her anguish and pain.
External Challenges Aside, India Must Protect Its Own First
PM Modi spoke with such feeling and passion in his address to the nation on Independence Day of the need to rid our language of any disrespectful words against women. He has to be applauded for this. Is it not time for all political leaders to soberly and constructively ensure that Bilkis Bano’s fears are stilled? There is a time for politics and a time to go beyond it for our civilisational values cannot be the plaything of politics.
But perhaps this is hoping for too much. Perhaps these thoughts will be dismissed as emotion running riot. Perhaps some will point to the terrorism thrust on India by a dastardly neighbour which has led to so much blood being spilled.
This last point needs a clarification. External challenges have to the met emotionlessly and firmly and coldly for the protection of Indian interests demand so. India may subscribe to the dictum that the world is a family but within that larger family is the nuclear family of India, deserving priority and ruthlessness in protecting its interests.
75 Years Later, Is India Still in Slumber?
This is natural because all Indians, without any distinction, are our brothers and sisters. Bilkis Bano is our sister as are our Kashmiri Pandit sisters and other sisters in other parts of India who too have, on occasion, suffered unspeakable crimes. The perpetrators of all these crimes cannot and should never be forgotten or forgiven. There cannot be any selectiveness in these matters.
So, is it now foolish to hope that in this Amrit Kaal all political leaders will come together to ensure that we are able to do, what Gurudev wanted of us: to hold our heads high? In the last line of Gurudev’s poem he prays “Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake”. Seventy-five years after independence are we still in slumber?
(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is a personal blog, and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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