Nothing in Gujarat is devoid of a political angle in New India. Politics is to Gujarat what Bollywood is to Mumbai. So, those trying to brush off the release of Bilkis Bano’s rapists as a “local decision” smacks of hypocrisy and typical phoniness that is very striking of those who support Gujarat and its communal politics.
The release of Bilkis Bano’s rapists is a political move. If the Supreme Court reverses this malevolent order of the Gujarat government, it will be a humane move and Indians, perhaps, would be able to trust the judiciary and its credibility.
The BJP is very strong in Gujarat. It has been so since 2002 after the raw nerve of Hindutva consumed the 89% plus majoritarian population of Gujarat. In the past, there have been the Gujarat Model, the Developmental Model and other facades floated. They have worked to enhance Gujarat’s image in the national scenario but within Gujarat, only Hindutva matters. Whether it is the shoddy introduction of demonetisation, the hasty GST implementation, the Vikas Model, or the Gujarat Model; what has overruled everything in Gujarat is the Hindutva Model.
If the BJP is so comfortable in Gujarat, why release the rapists of Bilkis Bano and stir a hornet’s nest? Amidst loud political campaigns, ingenious political messages are conveyed glibly, in an almost surreptitious manner. There is nothing new in this. The RSS has been doing this in a distinguished Machiavellian fashion for decades.
In Gujarat, even now, the biggest newsbreaks originate from whispers. Gujarat has been a laboratory since the mid-nineties to try and test out various BJP and RSS fantasies. Most of them, unfortunately, revolve around minorities.
Mockery of justice is not a new phenomenon in Gujarat.
Even as the most secular among the seculars gave up, Bilkis Bano was firm in her determination to seek justice. She consistently fought, never missing a chance, to repose her faith in the Indian constitution and the Indian judiciary.
Bilkis Bano was one of the many faces of the macabre Gujarat riots. Her case stood out for its sheer brutality and “sense of revenge” that gripped a hysterical majority in the State after 59 kar sevaks died in a ghastly Sabarmati Express incident. As often happens in India, there are contradictory versions of the Sabarmati Express tragedy. One offered by the Left-leaning Centrists is that the Sabarmati train incident was an accident. And the second one, offered by the Rightists that the Muslims were aware of the kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya and burnt them alive as a part of a pre-planned conspiracy. Maybe the truth hinges between both these extremes but what happened to Bilkis Bano is even more extreme than any truth or fiction.
A roughly 21-year-old Bilkis Bano left her village on March 3, 2002, after news of armed mobs attacking her hamlet spread. There were 17 of them including Bilkis and her extended family that left Randhikpur village in Limkheda taluka of Dahod that fateful day. Somewhere near Chhaparvad village nearby, the attackers caught up. Bilkis Bano, then five months pregnant with her second child, was gang-raped in front of her three-year-old daughter and other family members. The attackers also raped her mother and some other women who were also killed. In fact, out of the 17 people travelling with Bilkis, eight bodies were found on the spot and six were “declared” missing. Three including Bilkis were left alive.
Why was Bilkis left alive? Bilkis in the past has told me that her attackers thought she was dead because she had passed out while being gang raped. Of course, since I was lucky enough not to work for a television channel, I had not asked Bilkis, the exact time and “when during being raped, had she passed out”.
But Bilkis had categorically told me that it was nearly three and half hours after she had seen the attackers hounding the group, that she had gained consciousness. Bilkis’s young daughter had been made to witness her rape. After that, she was pulled by her hair and then smashed to the ground. It required much courage on part of Bilkis to gather her life after this incident. She has moved 18 homes since 2002. The Gujarat government was ordered to build her a house and give her a job by the Supreme Court. But then, as everyone knows, Gujarat is a model which considers itself beyond all existing rules and regulations. So, obviously, they did not do anything in that direction. Bilkis Bano did get Rs 50 lacs, as ordered by the Supreme Court.
Even as Bilkis Bano was trying to return back to the average ordinariness of her life, attempting to forget her scars; the Gujarat government festered the 2002 scars with septic.
After one of her rapists, a Radheshyam Shah moved to the Supreme Court seeking remission, the Gujarat government after what now seems to be a clumsy committee sprang a surprise by releasing her 11 rapists under a special remission scheme. While the BJP claims that the remission has been done under a scheme chalked out in 1992 by the then ruling Congress in Gujarat, Congress’ Pawan Khera has highlighted how it is under a 2013 policy chalked out during the reign of then chief minister Narendra Modi that the rapists have been released. The Gujarat government has refused to share the details and even confirm that the 1992 remission policy has been repealed.
The majority of the members of this clumsy committee have been associated with the BJP. Some of them are government officers but as it is known, there are not many left in Gujarat with a spine. One of the committee members, a former minister and currently a BJP MLA CK Raolji has categorically defended the rapists by saying they were framed and were innocent. He made it clear that he based his assumption on the fact that some of the rapists were Brahmins and hence Sanskaris, incapable of raping a woman. There are some Gujarati Banias too and Gujarat indeed loves their Vaishya community which also makes them very sanskari by birth.
By releasing the rapists, the subtle political message that has been communicated is in the end, Hindus will prevail. Because Hindus are innocent. Because Hindus are sanskaaris and non-Hindus are traditional oppressors who frame the gullible Hindus. But Gujarat will reverse all that. This is the message. Because in the end what matters in Gujarat is not the number of overbridges or SEZs or employment generated. It is Hindutva that matters. When Gujaratis go to vote, the majority of them suddenly are okay with fixed pay wages, homelessness and unemployment. Modi hai to Mumkin hai is a phrase that still holds charisma in Gujarat.
Why would PM Narendra Modi want the embarrassment of this scale when Gujarat BJP is so comfortably poised to win Gujarat for the sixth consecutive time since 1998? Remember when Nirbhaya happened and everyone including then CM Modi wanted to save Bharat ki Beti. Thankfully, Nirbhaya’s rapists were hanged. Justice was delivered.
But then, why a duality in approach towards Bilkis Bano? Yes, Bilkis Bano was raped because she was a woman. But she was also raped and gang-raped in 2002 just because she is a Muslim. What is at stake with this remission of 11 rapists is that we are normalizing all sexual and political violence against Muslims. This is the toxic politics Gujarat loves. This is the slant that Gujarat soars high on. Start talking about moral compass and Gujaratis will antagonistically take you back to the times Mahmud Gazni invaded Somnath and did injustice to Gujarat. They will regale you with stories of how Congress appeased Muslims who shamelessly celebrated every time Pakistan won a cricket match. In short, in every narrative, Hindus are victims.
Let us study the political constitution of the Gujarat Legislative Assembly. The BJP has been ruling the State continuously since 1995 with a brief exception in 1997 when Shankarsinh Vaghela-led Rashtriya Janata Party(RJP) gained power with outside help from the Congress. There are 182 Assembly seats in Gujarat. The BJP has 111 members, Congress 63 and one each represented by Bharatiya Tribal Party(BTP), NCP and an Independent. The Independent MLA Jignesh Mewani has thrown in his weight with Congress. The BTP is supporting the Aam Aadmi Party. The sole NCP MLA supports the BJP. He also voted for the BJP candidate Droupadi Murmu in the presidential polls. The Congress won 77 seats in the 2017 elections but over a period of time, its members have joined the BJP leaving Congress with 63 MLAs only at the moment. That Congress has not done anything concrete is altogether another story.
What makes the December 2022 elections more interesting is the fact that this is the first time AAP is in the fray along with AIMIM. Though BJP is comfortably placed in clinching yet another term; the BJP is wary of the fact that AAP may open an electoral account for the first time in Gujarat. AAP would not come on record but its leaders admit that they do not expect to get into power in these elections but exude overconfidence that they may replace the Congress as the main Opposition Party.
Obviously, the BJP has decided to stay silent on the Bilkis Bano issue. Unlike the past, when the Saffron party has “welcomed” communal decisions by hailing Hindutva, this time the BJP has opted to keep quiet considering it is a woman, a gang-raped woman in question. Interestingly, the only party to emulate this BJP stand is the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Even as Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has visited Gujarat four times so far in August(and is scheduled to again visit Gujarat today for two days along with his deputy Manish Sisodia if he is not arrested before that) besides promising a lot of freebies and assurances of good governance if the Party comes to power in Gujarat; his party’s silence on the Bilkis Bano issue is deafening. But those within the AAP say that this strategy of silence could actually benefit the Party in the December Assembly elections. Sadly, the AAP is playing the same politics that the BJP is. To win over Hindus.
Gujarat is an intensely polarised State. If the Aam Aadmi Party takes a stand criticising the early release of Bilkis Bano, the AAP stands the danger of being classified as a neo-liberal party which it does not want. When it comes to Gujarat, Arvind Kejriwal knows that Hanuman Chalisa can work better than demanding justice for Bilkis Bano. Though no leader wanted to be quoted on record, at least three AAP leaders claimed that “raising Bilkis Bano issue in Gujarat is a guarantee of losing votes ‘. It must be recalled that AAP assumed a similar position in Delhi during the anti citizenship Amendment Act protests in Delhi two years ago. “We are secular. We do not want to be branded as Muslim sympathisers. If we take up the Bilkis Bano case in Gujarat, no Hindu is going to vote for us”, another AAP leader maintains.
Pawan Khera of Congress took a dig at AAP without naming them. He lucidly asked, “why some sections of the opposition were silent on the release of the convicts in the Bilkis Bano case?
At a press conference, he said: “Why are parties that entered politics making ‘Nirbhaya’ the base silent today? Do they only exist to garner votes?”
“We will not be raking up Bilkis Bano case”, AAP leaders say justifying that “it is better to face some criticism than lose several votes”. “We are confident that the BJP is going to win Gujarat but we hope to snatch the Opposition space from Congress. Gujarat is deeply polarised. We know it is wrong that Bilkis Bano’s rapists are moving freely but taking her side openly would do us much damage”, they maintain. AAP in Gujarat has been focusing on the bad governance of the BJP, corruption and the fake Gujarat Model, trying to amplify how development in Gujarat is just confined to a few selective industrialists. After initial reluctance, Congress has decided to go ahead and speak out in favour of Bilkis. Everyone who matters in the Gujarat Congress from its Election Observer Ashok Gehlot to Rajyasabha MP Amee Yagnik has vociferously taken up the issue demanding accountability on part of the Gujarat government and criticising them for releasing the 11 rapists under a special remission scheme.
Would this not dampen whatever little prospects the Congress has in Gujarat? “For us, this is not politics. Bilkis Bano is not for votes. It is for human rights. Every woman’s rights”, Amee Yagnik told media persons recently.
Whether Congress will gain back their Muslim voters moving to AIMIM remains to be seen but AIMIM for sure is consolidating its Muslim voter base in Gujarat by strongly rallying behind Bilkis Bano. Asadduddin Owaisi has criticised the BJP government in Gujarat for its decision to release the 11 rapists before they complete their jail tenure.
Amidst this politics, a hopeless Bilkis Bano stays put. The only hope that rare seculars from Gujarat have is that the Supreme Court may reverse the order when Bilkis Bano again gathers herself for a legal battle. Poor lady. And yes it is nothing but bad luck and destiy to be a Muslim in Gujarat.