‘DON’T SPARE’ … Nirbhaya’s Last Words

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That time of the year when you want to look away, but your conscience pinches you hard.

Maijabeen Gaihlot Choudhary | Clarion India

THE year that marked the 10th anniversary of the Nirbhaya movement – 2022 couldn’t have been gloomier. It coincided with the release of ‘convicted rapists’ – punitively an ‘endangered species’; and ended with the apex court dismissing the plea challenging the remission of sentences policy.

Freshly painted murals washed away by torrential rain. Should we helplessly watch the painting smudge on the wall as colours flow into each other or as Bilkis Bano taught us – carve a new sense with fresh, unconventional strokes of the brush? The fact that Shraddha lies in thirty-five parts should be enough fodder for dejected spirits.

Neither ‘political mercy’ nor gaping lacunae in remission law can stonewall the Bilkis Bano story. She alone doesn’t own it. It jointly belongs to all those who partook in this historic struggle for almost two decades – from the guard who helped her file an FIR with the CBI; from India’s social conscience to the judiciary, people, activists and lawyers who could make no money out of this case. This David vs Goliath contest has several heroes who deserve to be garlanded not forgotten. Belittling their sacrifice is to unforgive ourselves. What better way to renew our pledge to the Nirbhaya movement than to protect the fruits of this spearheading toil.

A survivor extraordinaire, Bilkis Bano is crucial to the women’s abuse narrative not just in India but all over the world. The kernel of the nut, so to say. Her relevance lies not in simultaneously surviving genocidal, ethnic, religious and gender violence in its most gruesome form, but in her response to it. She successfully fought back in the most hostile of environments and will therefore forever be significant, giving direction and meaning to resistance movements. For victims, she stands like a lighthouse having dared to do what Nirbhaya and Shraddha tragically couldn’t. For abusers, (until now) a symbol of their possible nemesis.

Bilkis Bano is an important case study. Despite being a universal scourge, rape is the most under-reported crime. (90% of the cases go unreported). Shockingly, according to NCRB (national crime records bureau, 2019) in 96.8% of the cases, offenders were known to the victims. Identifying them is never a big deal. Yet, sadly, living with the nightmare in the constant presence of the abuser seems easier than reporting the crime. Bilkis Bano is hence a ground-breaker because she overcame many barriers that stall justice for a rape victim. She jumped the very first hurdle by being brave enough to report the crime in an extraordinary feat. It takes nerves of steel for a bleeding woman to rise from a heap of murdered bodies…borrow clothes from an Adivasi woman and find her way to the police station…still believing in the system part of which had failed her miserably. 

Another headwind that pulls the victim back is the shame and stigma attached to the crime which directly translates into dismal reporting. By sharing her story with the world, Bilkis refused point blank to take on the shame which clearly belonged to her abusers. She fearlessly identified her rapists in the open court. Gaslighting the victims and overburdening them with the abusers’ guilt is jaywalking into crashing the movement and should be forcefully stopped.

Legal loopholes that drag a case for years together with a dismal rate of conviction [27.8% according to NCRB, 2019] is another major stumbling block that forces the victim to move on, seriously compromising one’s self-dignity. Bilkis demonstrated that justice was worth the wait (18 years) and swam against towering tides to make it to the shore. The conviction and zero tolerance manifested by her is an effective workshop for victims and survivors. As a brilliant encore, she rose again to challenge the government’s decision to release her abusers who came home to a hero’s welcome.  

If the convicts were rewarded for good behaviour, what is the prize for the daunting courage of finding one’s feet after being gang-raped and witnessing the murder of seven family members whose heads were later severed to destroy evidence? Is there any award for not contemplating suicide, but with the constant memory of her child’s head being smashed on the ground, chasing her abusers to punishment? Bilkis Bano refused to be pinned down…not even as a poor Muslim pregnant woman many times removed from the powerful, dominant, masculine centre.

As we remember Nirbhaya, Bilkis Bano’s knock on the Supreme Court was very symbolic and will echo loudly in many directions. It is not just her fate that hangs on tenterhooks but India’s tolerance of women’s abuse. Has the judgement crushed the fears of the victims or made remission laws yet another hole for abusers to hide in? Will it bring hope or despair?  Forgiving an unforgivable crime in the 75th year of Indian independence carries unmistakable connotations. In setting them free, a lot has been caged.

In granting lifers to Bilkis Bano’s rapists, the Indian judiciary had set an amazing precedent by delivering when it mattered most; had upheld hope and justice against all odds! To abandon her now and let all this go in vain could well become the camel’s nose under the tent for we cannot go back on the promises we made to Nirbhaya, we cannot undo the progress we made since then, we cannot freeze our sympathy for Shraddha. By garlanding rapists we but dishonour only ourselves.

Whatever the outcome, I will continue to idolise for my son – as a role model and hero – the guard who accompanied Bilkis Bano to Limkheda police station.

__________

Maijabeen Gaihlot Choudhary is a Mumbai-based writer. The views expressed here are author’s personal.

File photo: A candlelight vigil for the sensational gang rape-and-murder of a 23-year-old girl, Nirbhaya, on December 16, 2012 in Delhi.

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