I miss the innocence of childhood, the allure of play, the impish glee of friendship, the absolute purity of religion. I grew up a Hindu, devout though not fervent, immersed in the music, art and dance of Hinduism, enraptured by the stories of Hinduism. As I grew older, learnt more about other religions, my doubts about the veracity of Hinduism grew and I slowly drifted into atheism, but I never lost my love of those stories - how could you? There is magic in those stories, magic, kink, fire & brimstone, passion & fury, exquisite love, excruciating pain, deepest anguish and supreme joy. To this day, it is one of my great pleasures, finding some unsuspecting person and enthralling them with one or other wonderfully bizarre tale; of how Ganesh got his elephant head, or the dubious morality of villains, heroes and Gods embroiled in the Mahabharata.
In no doubt very rose-tinted glasses, the memory of Hinduism in my childhood is the idea of an open, welcoming religion, comfortable with its own flaws, curious about the flaws of men, women, Gods and Goddesses, keen on learning, on including, on absorbing, on swallowing the teachings from other religions and ideologies to create its own meta-story, crafting localised customs that adapted to the people, culture and religion of an area. I remember distinctly getting the blessings of a local Pastor and Imam before embarking on a childhood temple pilgrimage. My mother is a devout Hindu, but also a great believer in St. George. That is a thing to love, this amorphous, indistinct, blurriness, the fluid lack of ideology or certainty. So while I found atheism, I was never ashamed of my Hindu heritage and culture, quick to tell stories, quick to celebrate the soulful music, wondrous art, scintillating architecture or thrilling dance that came from such a rich, ancient cultural heritage. It never felt exclusionary or elite, rather an all-encompassing melting pot of many ideas, many thoughts, many, many ideals and non-ideals.
Things have changed though, through the rise of the BJP and Narendra Modi’s ascension to Prime Ministership in 2014, this wonder and awe has slowly seeped away, to be replaced with a primitive, right-wing, fundamentalist Hindu ideology, with no space or place for any other religion, thought or creed apart from the blind worship of the Saffron cult, of Hindutva, of the idea that Indian equates to "Hindu-ness". This regression is readily apparent in the Bilkis Bano case. Here are the facts, in summary:
- 60 Hindu pilgrims died in a fire on a passenger train in Godhra town in 2002.
- Blaming Muslims for starting the fire, Hindu mobs went on a rampage, attacking Muslim neighbourhoods. Over three days, more than 1,000 people died, most of them Muslims.
- Bilkis Bano was 21 years old and 5 months pregnant when she was repeatedly brutally gang raped by 11 men during these riots, on the 3rd of March, 2002.
- They snatched her 3 year old daughter, and smashed her head into the ground, killing her.
- 14 members of her family were killed that day.
- Bilkis Bano lost consciousness, and assuming her to be dead, her attackers left.
- Bilkis Bano lived, and spent too many years of her life in the pursuit of justice.
- She was repeatedly intimidated.
- Evidence was destroyed.
- The dead were buried hastily without post-mortems.
- Against these odds, surpassing these setbacks, she pursued the case and in 2008, through evidence amassed by the Central Bureau of Investigation, the 11 men were convicted.
- On August 15, 2022, a government panel approved the application for remission as the men had spent more than 14 years in jail. The men were released from prison.
- According to spokespersons from the panel, they considered factors such as their age and behaviour in prison.
- A BJP MLA, part of the panel that cleared their release, called the men Brahmins (the priestly caste) with "good sanskar" (culture).
- “Whether they committed the crime or not, I do not know,” said C.K. Raulji, a governing party lawmaker who was part of the review committee that recommended the release.
- The men were celebrated upon their release, with videos circulating showing them being fed sweets and garlanded, with much happiness and celebration among the Saffron faithful.
Bilkis wasn't consulted on their release. The review committee was stacked with government officials and pro-BJP members. This is quite clearly the political and religiously motivated acquittal of men who were punished for the most heinous of crimes. Somehow, this is what Hinduism has descended into, this brutish Saffron cult. Being a member of the cult is sufficient, and terrifying, brutal crimes can be ignored, simply dismissed with the wave of a hand. No, not ignored; celebrated and venerated, because - well, it was one of them right, not one of us?
This is not okay, this cannot be acceptable. Rage at the decision has already poured out, protests have sprung up across India; and yet the Saffron Tide swells gleefully onward. More of us need to protest, rise up and shout from the rooftops at the naked self-serving injustice of it all, curb that tide before the Saffron drowns us all out.
NY Times, In India, New Wave of Trauma as 11 Convicted of Rape and Murder Walk Free.
BBC, Bilkis Bano: The pain of seeing my rapists go free.
The Hindu, The remission laws that paved the way for release of the Bilkis Bano case convicts.
Frontline, All 11 persons convicted of rape in 2002 Bilkis Bano case released.
Washington Post, Outrage in India as men convicted of rape, murder walk free.
“Sanskaari” Rapists ? l BJP MLA Shocker on Bilkis Bano.