The convicts in Bilkis Bano case being offered sweets after their release

First up for the record: I am an extremely proud Indian. From the advantage of birth to every possible facility my country could conceivably offer, I had everything. Yet as an Indian woman, I have felt and faced discrimination because India has a huge, at times unconscious, bias towards men.

However, the early release of the 11 convicted gang rapists and murderers in the Bilkis Bano case in Gujarat has chilled my being. These convicts are monsters who raped a young girl after killing her baby. Worse after they were released, the rapists were publicly garlanded, fed sweets and felicitated.

Since when does gang rape and murder qualify for felicitation? Incredibly a defence was offered saying that the 11 couldn’t have possibly have indulged in the crime they were convicted of because they were “Brahmins” (high Hindu caste). This felt like a personal affront. I share the caste but, take no particular pride in the accident of birth.

The 11 convicts have vanished even as the outrage in Indian women grows exponentially. Mahua Moitra, the firebrand Trinamool Congress Member of Parliament, has moved a petition for a remission petition in the Supreme Court but, how can any sane society (note I do not say government) justify this release. That it is apparently being done for electoral considerations makes it worse.

Members of various women's organizations raise slogans during a protest against the remission of the sentence given to the convicts of Bilkis Bano's case by the Gujarat government, at Dadar, in Mumbai on Tuesday Image Credit: ANI

Who made the release possible?

Why would a voter appreciate such an act and then proceed to vote for a political party which made the release possible?

This actually indicts us all. Are we blind to the suffering of a young woman who has seen the worst that life had to offer and still had a residual faith that justice and right would be done by her? What does Bilkis feel today? I can’t stop thinking about her anguish, sharing the same space as her rapists. Every breath would be an effort for her.

I can tell you one thing as a woman — Bilkis’ reality is every single women’s worst nightmare. The kind when you get up in the middle of the night, covered in cold sweat and can’t go back to sleep. The kind you feel when as a crime reporter, out for the job at some unearthly hour, in an autorickshaw, you assess the driver and wonder if he could possibly want to harm you.

I have covered a riot and when the tear gas started, hid inside a shed with four men. I was terrified and chanting the Hanuman Chalisa (Hindu devotional hymn) in my head. I actually felt safer being tear gassed and blind then alone with four male strangers.

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Pure tokenism

And, this is not about me, dear readers. It is what every single Indian woman faces on the streets of India. Slogans about women remain just that: slogans.

India’s president is a woman — Draupadi Murmu. Women leaders — and we have plenty in India — including top leadership like Sonia Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee, Brinda Karat and Mayawati can’t collectively get the women’s reservation bill passed in parliament. When they do speak for women, it is patronising, smug and in real terms, pure tokenism.

Imagine if — after the release of these 11 gang rape convicts, women leaders across party lines put their collective political power and heft to come together and demand that the convicts be returned to jail.

If they actually collectively made the demand in the Parliament and refused to budge and sit on a dharna (protest) outside Mahatma Gandhi’s statue. Or if they collectively petitioned the Supreme Court as leaders and as women.

In reality this would never happen. Ruling party politicians and ministers for women’s affairs are mum because they have been made members of the boys club and don’t want to endanger their careers.

I judge my country on the never-ending nightmare faced by Bilkis. I, for one, am ashamed.