The Shame Of Honouring ‘Sanskari’ Rapists

On a day that was supposed to infuse us with pride, achievement and joy as Indian citizens there were other appalling, shocking and unbelievable scenes unfolding in the Country – garlanding, veneration and felicitation of a group of convicted gang rapists and mass killers post their release – that left many of us outraged, ashamed and distressed on the 75th Independence Day this year.

These very men were the perpetrators of horrific hate crimes, including mass murder and gang rape during the 2002 Gujarat riots. They were also known to Bilkis Bano being from the same neighbourhood but did not flinch to gang rape her while she was five months pregnant, smash her three-year-old child’s head on a rock and kill seven other members of her family right in front of her. The men also gang-raped her cousin before murdering her and her infant baby. Bilkis was gang raped, violently assaulted, and left naked and bleeding thinking she was dead. But she was alive and later took refuge with a tribal family after which she filed a police complaint. Bilkis Bano was 21 years old then and one of the only three people who survived the massacre.

Here is a courageous and exemplary woman, who along with her family toiled hard and fought relentlessly for justice for years. Initially, the local police rejected her complaint citing inconsistencies in her statement. But Bilkis along with her lawyers and family fought on and took the case outside Gujarat, approached the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and then the Supreme Court, which asked the CBI to examine the case. Subsequently, the CBI exhumed the bodies of those killed and arrested several people for the crimes.

Bilkis and her family spent years in hiding, constantly shifting homes with looming death threats. But she was resilient and tenacious while the case took years through multiple courts and the maze of the Indian justice system resulting in convictions in 2008, only to witness the horror and indignity to witness the killers walk scot-free under the Gujarat government’s remission policy. The government’s decision to release the convicts was based on their ‘good conduct and behaviour’ inside the prison. No one enquired about Bilkis’ safety and well-being before taking this decision.

The rapists walked free on Independence Day, hours after the Prime Minister’s rhetoric on upholding women’s rights, dignity and celebrating woman power. A total antithesis to the release of the criminals who received a hero’s welcome accompanied with a celebration in their honour. Among those who were applying tilaks on the foreheads of these men were several women as well.

The visuals of the 11 rapists and murderers being greeted with garlands, and sweets, their feet touched after walking free a little over 5 years after the Supreme Court confirmed their life imprisonment in the horrific gang rape and murder case – is a sight that’s going to haunt not just Bilkis but also other rape survivors and women in general.

We cannot even imagine Bilkis Bano’s suffering, trauma and rage to see the release of the convicts. In a written statement released on behalf of her by her advocate, she has been quoted as saying that the trauma of the past 20 years washed over her once again.

“When I heard that the 11 convicted men who devastated my family and my life and took from me my three-year-old daughter, had walked free, I was bereft of words. I am still numb,” her statement read. “Today, I can say only this – how can justice for any woman end like this?” I trusted the highest courts in our land. I trusted the system, and I was learning slowly to live with my trauma. The release of these convicts has taken from me my peace and shaken my faith in justice. My sorrow and my wavering faith are not for myself alone but for every woman who is struggling for justice in courts.” Over the years, Bilkis Bano’s fight for justice has been long and frightening with intimidation, harassment, accusations of lying and death threats.

The outrageous decision and the scenes thereafter have shaken and infuriated citizens and activists across the country. Condemning the move, Justice UD Salvi, the then special judge in the Mumbai Sessions Court who convicted the 11 men, is reported to have said that the gravity of the crime doesn’t change with time – be it 1992, 2002 or 2014. Justice Salvi is reported to have said, “If you don’t consider the theory of retribution, apply the theory of reformation. Has there been reformation? Have they felt remorse? I don’t think so. Then it only means the government is saying that the judicial decision was wrong.”

Activists, eminent writers, historians, filmmakers, journalists and former bureaucrats have also joined the chorus of protests urging the Supreme Court to revoke the early release of the 11 criminals. “The remission of sentences for the 11 convicted of gang-rape and mass murder will have a chilling effect on every rape victim who is told to ‘trust the system’, ‘seek justice’, ‘have faith’,” they warned in their statement.

That such a remission was even considered and then permitted, seems preposterous. Many have also pointed out that the release is in contravention of guidelines issued by both the central government and the Gujarat government – both say that rape and murder convicts cannot be granted remission. Life terms in these crimes are usually served until death in India.

The preposterousness does not end here. Amidst the countrywide outrage over the men’s release, the sitting MLA from Godhra supporting the men feted with sweets and garlands after their release, vouched for the “good sanskaar,” of the criminals just because they are “Brahmins.” And hence could really do no wrong. It’s no surprise that the MLA was part of the Gujarat government panel that unanimously decided to release the rapists.

I am appalled that the official panel’s decision was unanimous in granting remission and releasing all men citing their ‘age, nature of crime and behaviour in prison.’ Moreover, none of the criminals seems to have expressed any remorse or repentance which usually is the basis for the release of convicts convicted for heinous crimes. And not a single member of the panel seems to have assessed the impact of the nature and gravity of the heinous crime committed by the men. Also questionable is the discriminatory approach of singling out this particular case and the group of criminals for granting remission.

The remission of sentences for the men convicted of gang rape and mass murder not just sets a bad precedent but is unconscionable and completely overlooks the horror and gruesomeness of the hate crime and its ensuing impact on social order and safety of women and vulnerable and minority communities. It is not just about politics, religion and justice alone, but also about equality, dignity and humanity.

Now every rape and murder convict will not hesitate to apply for remission after 14 years. And there will always be politicians who are willing to help rapists and murderers. And there will be public felicitations of rapists and killers.

The glorification and felicitation of the perpetrators of such heinous crimes particularly are extremely agonising and disconcerting. Undoubtedly, the needle of the country’s conscience has been rapidly shifting, setting in motion a trend for more such practices in the future. The thought itself is dangerous and deeply ominous – not only as a woman but also as a citizen of India.

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