WE may cry or mope and petition the powers that be. We may even succeed in finding a kind-hearted judge who would cancel the shocking release of 11 men convicted for the gang rape of Bilkis Bano. The men murdered Bano’s entire family, including her three-year-old daughter whose head they smashed as their friends assaulted the five-month pregnant victim.
Bilkis Bano miraculously survived the anti-Muslim killing spree of Gujarat in 2002. That she was destined to live to tell her horrific story, and was crucially able to identify the rapists became possible when dedicated women activists like Teesta Setalvad picked up her case and several others, and tapped committed and capable lawyers to fetch them justice. It was a lottery of justice, which not every victim won.
Bilkis made a statement when her rapists were freed. She confessed with sorrow and fear that her faith in India’s judiciary was shaken after the supreme court allowed the BJP-ruled Gujarat government to sanction the release of her tormentors on Independence Day.
That the men were feted with sweets upon their release did not look really out of place in today’s India. In fact, it told the story of a very seriously ill nation. The nation that was baying for the execution of men who raped a young woman in a bus in Delhi in 2012 seemed deaf to Bilkis’s trauma. The usual suspects protested, and that was that.
There are other ways to confront the trauma that Bilkis endured.
Phoolan Devi was gang-raped by a group of powerful upper-caste men in an Uttar Pradesh village abutting the Betwa tributary of Yamuna southwest of Kanpur. The wounded Dalit woman returned with young bandits she befriended and became a leader of, to settle scores. Phoolan shot dead her alleged tormentors in the 1981 Behmai massacre. Her group used 150 rounds to kill 20 men. Bilkis said her faith in the judiciary was shaken. Phoolan didn’t seem to have any to begin with. Those were different times, perhaps.
Phoolan became the heroine of a book and a successful movie and, if this were not enough, won a seat in the Lok Sabha. But vendetta caught up and she was killed outside her colonial-style home assigned to MPs. Phoolan’s was not an unknown method for a woman to deal with predators, only the scale of the bloodletting was unusual in the annals of Indian patriarchy where a woman is raped every 16 minutes, according to a 2020 crime bureau report.
Mukhtaran Mai’s encounter with gang rape in Pakistan had shades of the Bilkis Bano episode but with a different political landscape. Mai fought her tormenters with the help of a robust media and the courts also offered support albeit in fits and starts.
Mai was subjected to what is commonly known in Pakistan as revenge rape. The story remains unaffected by diverse narratives. The sum and substance is that her young brother was kidnapped and allegedly raped by tribesmen who then accused him of courting a girl from the rival tribe. It was to get even with this apparently cooked-up insult that Mukhtaran Mai was ordered by a kangaroo court to be raped, for her brother’s alleged indiscretion. It was not the first or only such encounter in Pakistan’s battle with mediaeval misogyny.
Women in Manipur are remembered for a memorable protest they held against rape allegedly by Indian security forces. On one occasion, after the sexual assault and murder of a local woman, a group of Manipuri women took off their clothes before the headquarters of the security forces, with placards mocking the Indian army to rape them. Possibly the most respected chronicler of rape, disappearances, and custodial deaths in Kashmir is currently in prison.
Bakhtawar Bhutto-Zardari who used the phrase “cavemen sexism” was expressing her angst at the rape of yet another woman. One is not sure if cavemen were as barbaric as we find their “civilised counterparts” to be, but let’s stay with Ms Bhutto-Zardari’s description. The description can also be seen as an allusion to a tribal practice that is unabashedly biased against women.
Bilkis Bano’s trauma by contrast served a relatively modern purpose, if we can just ignore its primitive methods. See her as a victim of a nationalism that rejoices in the lynching and abuse of the weaker and vulnerable layers of Indian society. And since it addresses the needs of a no-holds-barred right-wing nationalist awakening, what shall we call it? If Bakhtawar Bhutto-Zardari’s evocative phrase describes a primeval context, what should we call the brutality that’s hitched to an undeclared but palpably overwhelming nationalist purpose?
It isn’t that terror-striking male instincts ever go away. Manto was not writing about something that he only imagined or saw in some other civilisation. He was witness to the putrid backstage of the celebrations of independence held by India and Pakistan 75 years ago.
In a remarkable collection of oral histories of women caught in the throes of partition, Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, has amazing accounts of the Jekyll and Hyde lurking in us. She quotes a gut-wrenching passage from Anis Kidwai’s recollections in Azadi Ki Chhaon Mein (In the shade of freedom). Working among women kidnapped by Hindu, Sikh and Muslim men, many women social activists were harnessed by Mridula Sarabhai, Kidwai among them.
Describing the lot of women from one religious group, Kidwai noted the trauma of the luckless women: “In all of this a girl would be killed or be wounded. The ‘good stuff’ would be shared among the police and army. The ‘second rate stuff’ would go to everyone else.”
It could be a reading from the diary of a Yazidi woman. It could be a passage from someone closer home.
Photo: Bilkis Bano rape convicts