Jyoti Singh & Bilkis Bano: Two women. Two judgments. Two lessons of hope.

Will the death penalty really reduce sexual crimes against women?

ByDeepanjana Pal
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Jyoti Singh & Bilkis Bano: Two women. Two judgments. Two lessons of hope.
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As Justice Dipak Misra read out the Supreme Court’s judgment upholding the death penalty for the four men found guilty of raping Jyoti Singh in 2012, the entire courtroom reportedly burst out in spontaneous applause. It sounds like the kind of thing you’d see in the climax of a Bollywood film, but then again, much like filmi courtrooms, this one too had told a story; and a sensational one at that. The Supreme Court included in its judgment graphic details of the 2012 gang-rape, a reminder that none of us need, of what exactly had happened to Singh on that night.

It’s disturbing enough to think there’s a scale of brutality against which crimes are held, but if Singh’s case stands out in memory it is because of the media coverage it has received. The tragic truth is that there are innumerable stories of inconceivable violence being inflicted upon women’s bodies, and most of the time they don’t make news. How many people remember what was done to Surekha and Priyanka Bhotmange in Khairlanji in 2006, for example?

Today, though, we’re not looking back.

We should be rejoicing, because in one week we’ve seen two judgments upholding the charges made by rape victims and survivors. Yesterday, Bombay High Court reversed the acquittal of five policemen and two doctors in Bilkis Bano’s case. Today, the Supreme Court convicted Singh’s rapists and sentenced them to death by hanging. Yet, it’s only the second that’s been seen as a victory even though Bano herself has said in a statement that she’s happy with the court’s decision. After hearing the Supreme Court’s verdict, however, Bano has decided she wants the death penalty for those who raped her too.

If there’s anything that has seen the bulk of the country unite in agreement, then it is that people want Singh’s rapists to suffer the most severe of punishments. While in court there was applause at the thought of them being hanged, on social media there were suggestions of spectacular torture, such as “Chop their penises off. In public. Inch by inch” (112 retweets and counting). Leaving aside the medieval, voyeuristic hunger for public savagery, the reaction that the Supreme Court’s judgment has received shows that almost five years later we haven’t forgotten Singh or what happened to her. Reacting to the court’s decision, Singh’s father told the media that although it had taken time, he was happy with this verdict.

For Singh’s parents, five years is undoubtedly a long time, but considering the pace at which legal cases move in India, the “Nirbhaya” case has moved at a brisk pace right from the investigation stage. The rapists were arrested within 24 hours and public outrage acted as an electric prod, pushing the police to file a chargesheet within a week of the incident. Fast-track courts were approved by the Delhi High Court to try rape and sexual assault cases. At every stage, there’s been a crowd demanding the rapists be put to death. The clamour has only got louder over the years.

Is that our hunger for justice or a just a righteous lust for violence?

Singh’s case is one that hasn’t become an undistinguishable speck in a blur of atrocity. It’s been remembered because Singh as Nirbhaya can still bring us together. The media picked up Singh’s case soon after she was hospitalised and because her fighting spirit evoked a public response. Neither television nor print media let go of her case. Frequently, Singh’s family was made to relive the horrific incidents that led to Singh’s death so that India’s conscience didn’t wilt, at least as far as Singh was concerned.

Among the stories of atrocity that haven’t captured the public imagination in quite the same way is Bilkis Bano’s. In 2002, during the Gujarat riots, 19-year-old Bano was gangraped by a mob which also killed 14 members of her family, including her mother, sister and two-year-old daughter, whose head was smashed. Bano’s rapists left her for dead, much like Singh’s rapists had. Only Bano was abandoned a few hours away from Ahmedabad, rather than in the middle of a city. When she came to, she found herself naked and brutalised, surrounded by corpses. She took refuge with a tribal family nearby and began her long campaign to bring her rapists to court. It’s taken Bano 15 years to get justice. For most of this time, her story has been doubted and dismissed. There have been numerous attempts to silence her because she alleged that the state police had tried to intimidate her.

When Bano tried to file a first information report (FIR), the police threatened to have her killed. She then approached the National Human Rights Commission and petitioned the Supreme Court. Her case was shifted to Maharashtra in 2004 because she faced too many threats while fighting the case in Gujarat. It has been a monumental battle for Bano. And yesterday, after 15 years and changing residences more than 20 times, Bilkis Bano got closure.

Bombay High Court turned down the Central Bureau of Investigation’s request for death penalty to three men guilty of raping Bano. It said that life imprisonment was enough for Jaswant Nai, Govind Nai and Sailesh Bhatt. It also reversed the acquittal of five Gujarat police officers and two doctors involved in Bano’s case.

This is actually an immense victory for Bano, and one that we’ve lost sight of in our bloodlust of demanding death sentences.

The CBI had said that sentencing the three men, whom Bano has identified as her rapists, would send a “stern message” – and it certainly would have. However, leaving aside the political issues that make the Gujarat riots a no-go territory, the legal point to keep in mind is that Bano is alive.

The fact that Singh died because of the injuries sustained during the attack clears the way for the death penalty. Bano’s family was killed, you may argue, but that’s a detail for lawyers to analyse threadbare. For the rest of us, the question worth pondering upon is if the mass pressure for justice for “Nirbhaya” impacted the judgment or not. If Bano had been as much of a slogan and catch-phrase, would there have been a clamour for the death sentence in her case too? One must ask to what extent can the judiciary remain immune to social media conversations and news headlines?

Bano is alive and unveiled, but her face doesn’t have a fraction of the recognition that Singh’s mother has, courtesy the numerous television appearances. What was done to Bano’s body hasn’t been discussed and described in painful detail. There weren’t marches taken out for her and neither has she been used as an electoral plank. There was no public outcry or echoing of demands that Bano’s rapists be tortured, mutilated or hanged to death. And yet, despite the limited media attention and the absence of outrage, Bano has held on to her narrative. She remains at the heart of it and she is the hero. Hers is the name we remember, rather than the acts of her rapists.

Bano’s case is a beacon of hope for anyone who has the courage and the grit to enter a fight. She’s won against state law enforcement, which is an epic win.

Listening to the frenzied triumph that’s surrounding the Supreme Court’s verdict in Singh’s case, one can’t help but wonder whether Singh really is the victor. The spotlight is back on the rapists and their horrific acts. We’re not remembering Singh’s resistance, her determination to hold on to life and consciousness long enough to have the men who raped her arrested. Many don’t even remember her name, merely knowing her as a pseudonymous hashtag. What has been emblazoned in public memory is the perversion of the men who raped her. They have become, in the worst possible way, the “rarest of rare” and Singh’s courage and fury is now a footnote.

Our baying for hangings says nothing about our memory of Singh and has little to do with justice. What it lays bare is our fascination for violence and the eagerness to instil fear.  It is reminiscent of the hanging of rapist and murderer Dhananjoy Chatterjee in Alipore’s Presidency Jail in 2004, when crowds of people climbed atop buildings and trees to catch a glimpse of him being hanged to death. It is pure bloodlust. And there is no indication that sexual crimes against women reduced following his hanging.

Meanwhile, women continue to be harassed, assaulted, humiliated and crushed underfoot. What are the chances of the hangings or life imprisonment dissuading the next rapist? There is little proof that such punishments dissuade those who rape or murder.

Imagine, instead, a world where the media attention meant making the names, faces, actions and grit of the women who didn’t surrender, unforgettable. Because here’s the thing: even if she doesn’t put fear in men’s hearts, she will inspire strength in women and girls. Her name was Jyoti Singh, her name is Bilkis Bano, and these two women won.

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