Why Won't the Indian Prime Minister Condemn the Release of a Muslim Woman's Gang Rapists?
Narendra Modi's silence mocks his message of female empowerment and may be seen as a sign of his party's faith-cleansing agenda
Women protesters pointing out that the claim of Hindu legislators that the released gang rapists of a Muslim woman came from a sanskari—civilized—background was a contradiction in terms. Shutterstock Image.
In December 2012, India was convulsed by protests over the brutal gang rape of a young physical therapy student on a New Delhi bus. This happened about a year after Narendra Modi was re-elected chief minister of his (and Mahatma Gandhi’s) home state of Gujarat for a third time—and a little more than a year before he became prime minister of the country. After the 23-year-old woman succumbed to her injuries, Modi instantly tweeted : “Deeply saddened & distressed by the news of India's braveheart daughter passing away.” He offered his “deepest condolences” to her family.
In a Bloomberg column at the time, “The Tale of Two Rapes,” I called Modi’s tweet “obscene.” Why? Because, on Modi’s watch as the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat a decade earlier, Hindu militants associated with his party had perpetrated one of the worst anti-Muslim pogroms in the history of post-Independence India, killing over 1,000 Muslims, burning down homes and shops as the state police stood by and watched. Worse, they went out of their way to single out Muslim women—beat, rape and murder them. But Modi uttered not a single word in protest or condemnation—then or later. Yet because the New Delhi rape victim was a fellow Hindu, Modi lost no time in issuing regret and condolences, demonstrating a macabre double standard.
The column generated a maelstrom of protest. Nothing I had written in my two decades of scribing till then had generated anything resembling this level of vitriol. Hundreds of commenters condemned the piece, some accusing me of being a paid hack of the then ruling Congress Party—and worse.
I was completely taken aback. Anyone who knows anything about the Indian media—and the generally irreverent spirit of Indians (Nobel laureate Amartaya Sen, after all, penned a nearly 400-page book titled The Argumentative Indian)—would know that criticizing politicos in the harshest possible terms had been a time-honored tradition in India pre-Modi. The merciless pillorying of the then Congress Party Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress scion Rahul Gandhi offered daily testimony. So I was hardly defying any norms of good behavior. Also, given the lingering stain of the pogrom—which resulted in a travel ban on Modi in many countries, including the United States—I thought he was too radioactive for his bid for prime ministership to go anywhere and all I was doing was reminding people of that. What I totally missed was the cult appeal that Modi, an avowed Hindu nationalist, had already acquired— arguably the first ripple in the global populist wave that had yet to become apparent.
For the next year and a half leading up to the national elections, Modi tied the bus rape case around the Congress Party’s neck like a noose. At every turn, he hammered how the party’s weakness on law and order had turned New Delhi into the “rape capital” of the world. That was hyperbole, to be sure, but fine! This is politics and Congress richly deserved to be raked over the coals for many, many reasons. More stunningly, however, he flipped the script on his own law and order record, boasting that under him Gujarat had become the best run and governed state in the country. This wasn’t hyperbole, it was propaganda. For even before Modi, Gujarat had been among the better run Indian states, as Indian journalist Siddharth Varadarajan noted in a podcast for The UnPopulist a few weeks ago. But Modi claimed it as his own accomplishment and won a thumping victory in 2014.
But in Modi’s second term, far from his hypocrisy and blatant religious double standard diminishing, it is toucing new heights.
Here is the latest example:
On August 15, India’s 75th independence anniversary Modi issued an inspiring call for gender equality, exhorting the country to change its attitudes toward women. "I have one request for every Indian,” he beseeched. “Can we change the mentality towards our women in everyday life? Pride of ‘nari shakti’ [women’s power] will play a vital role in fulfilling the dreams of India," he entreated. “It hurts me to say that we have witnessed a perversion in our day-to-day speaking [and] behavior. We have been casually using language and words that are insulting to women.”
But the BJP government in his native state was evidently not listening to his fine speech. Literally as he was speaking, it was busy commuting the life sentence that 11 Hindu men had received for brutally gang-raping and torturing a Muslim woman, Bilkis Bano, during the 2002 pogrom.
If these were “ordinary” rapists, this would have been bad enough. But the term “crimes against humanity” was invented for acts like theirs. The grisly details of their savagery, established in a court of law, are hard to even type, but here is the basic story:
About 48 hours into the pogrom that got underway around February 28, 2002, 21-year-old Bilkis, the wife of a poor cattle farmer, five months pregnant, received word that Hindu militants were hunting Muslim families in her neighborhood. She fled barefoot with her large extended family. For a couple of days, they moved from one hiding place to another. But one horrific morning, a group of Hindu men, some she recognized because they were her neighbors and bought milk from her, spotted the family and mobbed it. They killed many of her family members, severing their heads. And they went on a gang-raping spree. Some 13 men raped Bilkis while her mother watched helplessly. Then her mother and her two sisters were raped and her three-year-old daughter’s head smashed on a stone and killed—all before Bilkis’ eyes.
Battered and scarcely breathing, Bilkis was left for dead. Eventually, she made her way to a shelter for survivors where she found her husband, who too had miraculously escaped. Then she spent the next 17 years of her life battling to bring her torturers to book. Most of the survivors of Gujarat were too traumatized or too afraid of more retaliation to press their cases. But Bilkis, despite threats, soldiered on. She even relocated to another state where her case was moved for the duration of the trial after it became clear that there was no possibility of conducting fair proceedings in Gujarat given the widespread intimidation of witnesses by Hindu groups. She did this, noted Pratap Bhanu Mehta, one of India’s most thoughtful public intellectuals and a contributor to The UnPopulist, because, she wanted “justice, not the crime, define her.” Eventually, 11 of the rapists were given a life sentence.
But thanks to a 1994 law that hands states discretion to commute sentences for good behavior, Gujarat’s government—which is in the hands of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)— released these men. This was despite recent guidance from Modi’s own Home Ministry barring the release of rapists, murderers, and perpetrators of other heinous acts. She wasn’t even extended the courtesy of an advance warning that the men were being released, possibly to resume their lives as her neighbors. As if this isn’t shocking enough, some BJP state legislators feted the rapists with garlands and sweets. One of them defended the men because they are “Brahmins, and Brahmins have good sanskaar (culture).”
Bilkis’ lawyer has indicated that Bilkis no longer has the strength to endure another legal round to reinstate their sentence —“How much courage can one human being have?” she asks. But some members of India’s opposition parties along with a women’s rights outfit have appealed to the Supreme Court. But from the line of questioning pursued by one justice, it is hardly a foregone conclusion that they will prevail.
It would help if Modi, a man never lacking for words, would speak up. But just as with the initial pogrom, he has uttered not a single syllable in protest. He has expressed no outrage at this gross miscarriage of justice. He hasn’t condemned those in his party who celebrated their release. He has offered no regrets and condolences to Bilkis and (what remains) of her family.
By contrast, after the four rapists in the New Delhi bus rape case were hanged, Modi immediately issued a satisfied statement that “justice had finally prevailed” and reiterated the “utmost importance” of women’s “dignity and safety” for him.
Modi’s silence is baffling. A strong statement expressing distress at the release of these men would go some way in washing the stain of Gujarat. His muteness, on the other hand, undermines—nay, mocks!— his message of women’s equality and “nari shakti.” At best, his failure to call out the celebrating BJP legislators signals a fear of taming the militants in his party. At worst, it signals that he endorses their actions because they are in line with his vision of an India cleansed of Muslims (and other non-indigenous religions).
But it’s not just Modi’s reaction that is surprising. Compared to the massive protests that rocked the country after the Delhi rape case, this time the street response has been relatively mute. There have been only a few sporadic and sparsely attended protests. This is no doubt partly because civil rights and human rights groups that typically organize such events are shaken and shocked. But there is another reason too: Some prominent celebrities of my acquaintance whom one would typically count on to galvanize protests are missing in action. Why? They admit in private that they are simply too afraid of retaliation by the Modi government. Modi’s modus operandi is not to send armed battalions to crack down on protesters because that generates terrible optics. No, he is far more sophisticated than that. They are verbally attacked by Modi’s minions; some prominent Bollywood actors who had the temerity to speak up against the release of Bilkis’ rapists have already been condemned as traitors and anti-nationals who want to “dismember” India. And then the Indian state throws its might against them for unrelated reasons: tax raids, going after their loved ones, and other creative methods.
Consider just one such method, deployed against New York-based Indian American journalist Aatish Taseer after he wrote a cover feature for Time magazine on the eve of the 2019 general election titled: “India’s Divider in Chief.”
Modi instantly attacked Taseer as a Pakistani stooge. And within a few months of getting reelected, his administration cancelled Taseer’s OCI card—the equivalent of a green card—effectively exiling him from the country. I wrote about Taseer’s plight here at the time. But till today, Taseer has been unable to land even a tourist visa to go back home and see his 92-year-old grandmother. The national BJP spokesman continues to publicly and viciously attack Taseer.
In an exchange yesterday, Taseer told me that the Indian ambassador to the U.S. has said to him that he’d love to give him a visa but his hands are, once again, tied because Taseer is now suspected of leading protests in the U.S. against the Modi administration’s blatantly anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act. Taseer insists that he merely participated in the protests but had nothing to do with organizing them. But none of that matters, really, given that the point is to make an example of him and chill anyone tempted to follow suit.
That India’s cacophonous streets should turn quiet after something this awful might be cause not for relief but concern. It might well mean that persecuted minorities and their supporters are abandoning all hope in their country’s capacity to deliver anything resembling justice even in the face of gruesome crimes. But when ordinary channels are closed off, people resort to extraordinary ones.
Postscript: Here is a Justice for Bilkis petition that prominent Indian journalist Barkha Dutt, who has become much reviled in Hindu nationalist circles, has initiated.
Bonus Material: My colleague Tyler Cowen’s fascinating interview with Dutt on the contradictions that is contemporary India. It was conducted before the release of Bilkis’ rapists so doesn’t discuss her case.
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