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Tavleen Singh writes: Why I felt ashamed as an Indian last week

Tavleen Singh writes: It was when I met Bilkis and her husband, a year after the violence, and heard them tell their story, that I felt the deepest shame. It is deep shame that I feel this week and a sense of despair that her rapists can be granted this shortening of their life sentences.

Author Salman Rushdie (Left) and Bilkis Bano (Right). File photos.

There are weeks when instead of being proud to be Indian I feel ashamed. Last week was one of them. For two reasons. When Salman Rushdie was stabbed nearly to death by an Islamist fanatic, I waited for a response from the Government of India. He was born in India, is one of the most famous writers in the world, and in my view among the most courageous writers ever born. Every major leader of a democratic country has spoken out against the attack and in solidarity with Salman. The presidents of the United States and France spoke with special eloquence.

Joe Biden said, “Truth. Courage. Resilience. The ability to share ideas without fear. These are the building blocks of any free and open society. And today, we reaffirm our commitment to those deeply American values in solidarity with Rushdie and all those who stand for freedom of expression.

Emmanuel Macron said, “For 33 years, Salman Rushdie has embodied freedom and the fight against obscurantism. He has just been the victim of a cowardly attack by the forces of hatred and barbarism. His fight is our fight; it is universal. Now more than ever, we stand by his side.”

From the leader of the world’s largest democracy, we have heard not a single word. Narendra Modi has said in many speeches that the idea of democracy is an inherently Indian idea and not one borrowed from the west. In one recent speech, he described India as the ‘mother of democracy.’ So why has the Indian Prime Minister found it so hard to condemn this horrific attack on a writer who has told India’s story to the world with beauty and elegance in so many of his books? As puzzling as Modi’s silence was the response of our Minister of External Affairs. When asked a question about the attack, all he said was that he had heard about it. India has let Salman down many times before. This time shamefully.

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Then came the news that the Gujarat government had decided to release the 11 monsters who raped Bilkis Bano and smashed her three-year-old daughter’s head before her eyes. They also raped Bilkis’s mother and killed several members of her immediate family. And these crimes have been proved in a court of law. The legal battle for justice happened because Bilkis, left naked, bleeding and half dead by these sub-human brutes, found the courage to go to a police station and register an FIR. Her complaint was reluctantly registered by the local police probably because she was able to name each one of the 11 rapists.

They were her neighbours in her village. Bilkis fought with great courage a long, traumatic battle for justice, and her rapists were finally convicted in 2008. The crimes they committed were so awful that when the Supreme Court awarded her compensation of Rs 50 lakh three years ago, the judges remarked that what had been done to her was so horrifying that she deserved the highest recompense paid in a rape case.

Her rapists should have spent the rest of their despicable lives in jail. But the Gujarat government decided last week that they had been punished enough and reduced their life sentences. A member of the committee that ordered their release was the BJP legislator from Godhra. When asked about why the decision had been made, he told Barkha Dutt’s Mojo Story that the men were Brahmins and since they were of so high a caste, their ‘sanskaar’ were good. In English, a loose translation of what he meant was that they had earned points for good behaviour over lifetimes past, hence granted the honour of being born Brahmins.

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For me it was sickening enough to see these fiends being greeted with garlands, sweets, and prayers as if they were heroes and not demons. But, to hear the elected representative of the constituency of Godhra publicly excusing their horrific crimes on the grounds that they were Brahmins, made me want to vomit. If you watch the interview he gave to the Mojo Story, you will hear him cast doubts on whether they were guilty of the crimes they had been charged with at all. Bilkis Bano will now have to live with losing her brave fight for justice and she will have to live with the terror of what these men could do to her and her family now that they are free.

The only time I met Bilkis was a year after she was brutalized. The editor of The Indian Express sent me to Gujarat to do a story on the aftermath of the violence, and at that time, she and her husband were hiding in the homes of friends and relatives because her rapists were threatening her with dire consequences if she pursued her fight for justice. I drove from Godhra to Ahmedabad, stopping in the villages where the worst violence had occurred. I heard many terrible stories from people who were trying to rebuild their broken lives. But it was when I met Bilkis and her husband and heard them tell their story, that I felt the deepest shame. It is deep shame that I feel this week and a sense of despair that such monsters can be granted this shortening of their life sentences, and that there are people who see them as heroes and not demons.

First published on: 21-08-2022 at 04:10:56 am
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