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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 7 February 17, 2024

Waiting to Become Eichmann? Unpacking the Moral Relativism of a People | Subhash Gatade

Saturday 17 February 2024, by Subhash Gatade


“They took so much away from us that they ended up taking away our fear”
— Message scrawled on a placard in a women’s march in Spain

’How does Justice feel?’

A difficult query to answer but perhaps Bilkis Bano would be the best person to respond to it.

Yes the same Bilkis - survivor of a mass rape and the only witness to horrific massacre of her 14 relatives - when the state she lived witnessed a carnage when officially one thousand innocents perished in the communal pogrom and many thousands were displaced from their homes and were condemned to live as internal refugees.

One can still recollect her words when the highest courts of the country finally cancelled the remission of sentences to her perpetrators who had been convicted for this heinous crime. [1].

She frankly narrated her feelings before a reporter.

’It feels like a stone the size of a mountain has been lifted from my chest, and I can breathe again. This is what justice feels like.”

A leading national daily had even published her photograph on the occasion where she was seen smiling looking at her daughter.

Rarely one had felt so happy watching a photograph which showed a mother looking at her daughter.

At another level the smile looked deceptive too.

It was hiding the travails and tribulations of all these years; the long struggle for justice she waged with her husband Yakub, an unequal battle where she had to change houses one after the other to save herself from any repercussions from the rapists and their supporters for not giving up the fight for justice and truth.

It also skillfully covered up the shock she received when the state government - with due consent from the home ministry - decided to release these gang rapists and murderers, prematurely - without even bothering to inform Bilkis or her husband Yakoob- on fraudulent grounds. [2]

Ravish Kumar, the fiery anchor and journalist had discussed in detail the long years of the struggle she had to undergo and the shock of life which she received when the government decided about remission of the sentences of her rapists and murderers [3]

The decision of the Supreme Court clearly demonstrated how the state government was complicit with the perpetrators of the heinous crime and had taken the home minister or his associates in confidence.

In any other more civilised country / or in an ambience where repentance over one’s negative acts was still considered an important gesture, such an exposure would have prompted dismissals or resignations owing moral responsibility for this partisan role. Nothing similar was witnessed here. Forget the Chief Minister or the home minister at the Centre - not a single officer - who was involved in taking the decision or its implementation, received marching orders for this complicity.

For all those people who have watched the state closely it was a foregone conclusion.

It is common knowledge when a sitting Prime Minister prodding the Custodian of law and order in a public meeting then, over his handling of this carnage had not created even a ripple. His talk of observing Raj Dharma was brushed aside.

Or how the highest courts had even commented about the situation existing then when ’modern-day Neros looked elsewhere when innocent children and helpless women were burning..’

Bilkis’s perpetrators are now again behind bars, one just hopes that her smile would not loose its shine very soon.

Times are such that it is not difficult to predict anything as there is a strong realisation within that since around a decade such smiles have become rarer and rarer.

If imagining such a scenario looks difficult for you at the moment, try to bring before your minds eye faces of celebrated women wrestlers - Sakhsi Malick, Vinay Phogat and others, who had electrified the country once when they broke new grounds in an arena which is forbidden for women, who inspired a generation of girls and young women to enter this male-dominated field and create a separate space for themselves.

It is now history that Sakshi Malick declared her retirement from this game with teary eyes [4] or Vinay Phogat has returned her award or Bajrang Punia - another celebrated male wrestler - similarly returned his award in solidarity with their struggle to fight sexual harassment within the establishment.

They realised after a long and arduous struggle that it is easy to beat your opponent on a mat in wrestling but it is extremely difficult - nay impossible - if you have to fight against higher ups among the powers that be. Their quest for justice received support from different sections of society, even section of the media as well.

Despite their best efforts the struggle could not reach its fruition.

What is further disturbing to know is that instances galore how in the last around a decade, girls and women who have faced sexual assaults or have been brutalised by politically and socially influential people have consistently received a raw deal.

Gone are the days of Nirbhaya (2012) which had led to a mass movement in the country which was joined by all sections of society, there has been a sea change in the situation. Those were the days when the nation had rose up in defence of the victim, prompting even the highest courts to intervene and enunciate measures for reform and revision of anti-rape laws.

May it be the case from Unnao, UP when a ruling party MLA ( since suspended ) had come under scanner for his alleged role in the rape of a teenaged girl in 2017 or how the dalit girl from Hathras – who faced gang rape at the hands of her neighbours – was cremated in her own village in the dead of the night without even allowing her parents and others to attend the cremation.

Another self-styled godman - once very close to the ruling establishment - received life imprisonment in rape case last year [5] who was already serving life sentence for raping a minor girl in 2013 [6]. Thanks to the persistence of survivors against heavy odds who faced obstacles at every level.

The frequent parole to the Chief of Dera Saccha Souda, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, who is serving a 20-year jail term for raping two women disciples, and the justification provided by the ruling party in the state -has already received widespread condemnation. [7].

It is particularly noticeable that when the victim(s) of such assault(s) is a woman/ girl from the minority community then the viciousness sees a quantum leap.

For example, as already mentioned how rapists of Bilkis Bano who had even murdered fourteen of her relatives ( 2002) were given remission in their sentences by the ruling dispensation and how these rapists / murderers received a hero’s welcome after their release and were even felicitated. ( and it took around a year and half for the highest courts to order that this remission was illegal and the convicts be sent back to jail.

One can similarly recall the rape and murder of an eight year old Bakkarwal girl Asifa in Jammu. [8] and the national outrage which followed it.

In this particular case this nomadic minor girl from the Bakkarwal community was kidnapped on January 10, 2018 and allegedly raped in captivity in a small village temple in Kathua district after being kept sedated for four days. The motive behind this brutal gang rape and murder was clear from day one, the dominant people wanted to terrorist the Bakkarwals so that they leave that area.

Apart from one Sanji Ram, who was caretaker of the temple, two special police officers and three others were convicted for criminal conspiracy, murder, kidnapping, gangrape, destruction of evidence, drugging the victim etc. The special police officers came in from severe criticism of the courts because they were in the forefront of destroying the evidence.

What had particularly shocked common people across the country that despite enough proof about the sexual assault on the minor girl and the conspiracy behind it, two of BJP’s own ministers led protest marches carrying Tricolour / Tiranga and demanding release of the accused [9] It was a period when PDP had formed a coalition government with BJP and these two ministers of the saffron party namely Chowdhury Lal Singh and Chander Prakash Ganga, had participated in the rally organised by the Hindu Ekta Manch in support of the accused arrested by the state crime branch. [10]

India, which loves to project itself as the most tolerant countries on the face of the earth, perhaps presents a contradictory picture.Its outward tolerance or inclusivity does not explain the puzzling question that what makes such impunity towards sexual violence and murders possible among Hindutva Supremacists. It perhaps emanates from the unequal relations between the sexes where the woman is placed at the secondary status.

Like Nazis, who expected women to stay at home, look after the family and produce children in order to secure the future of the Aryan race , [11] from the days of its first Supremo Dr Hedgewar, RSS has always looked at women in hierarchial terms. The second Supremo Golwalkar has even written in his book ‘Bunch of Thoughts’ that ‘women are predominantly mothers who should rear their children.‘ [12]

Fact is that like all other such formations which are pivoted around mixing of giving primacy to particular religion and politics – women’s autonomy, her individuality, her assertion and her opposition to patriarchy and gender oppression are a no go area in the ambit of Hindutva Brigade.

Whether the impunity towards rape in Hindutva fraternity has its roots in how its premier ideologues believed in the politics of revenge in general or how they have justified rape and sexual violence against the ‘others.’ Savarkar, the ‘pioneer ideologue of Hindutva ‘ has elaborated upon it in his ‘‘magnum opus’ Bhartiya Itihasatil Saha Soneri Paane (‘Six Golden Epochs in Indian History)’

This much discussed book discusses Savarkar’s thesis of the ‘collective guilt of Muslims’ and even lays down the thesis that Muslims need to be punished not only what they themselves have done but what their coreligionists had done.

The most reprehensible but also the least known part of Savarkar’s life is the way he criticised Shivaji for his chivalry towards the daughter in law of Nawab of Kalyan who was captured and brought before him by his army. He calls this act perverted virtue. [13]. The legend goes that when one of his enthusiastic assistants presented before him the daughter in law of Nawab expecting to get some special favour, Shivaji not only reprimanded him for such an act but also punished him and sent back the women to her place with full honour. [14]

Savarkar condemns this act by Shivaji and says that Shivaji was wrong as this cultured and human treatment could not evoke in those fanatics the same feelings about Hindu women.

For a layperson now it is easy to comprehend that his condemnation of Chhatrapati Shivaji, a great icon of Hindu-Muslim unity inadvertently or so provides a theoretical justification for brutalisation of women when fighting the ‘enemies’.

The long struggle of Bilkis Bano in search of justice will continue to inspire girls, women of all ages and times.

A long drawn struggle in which she and husband Yakub were quite alone - barring support from stray groups or well meaning individuals, where the overall ambience was that she abandons the struggle.

While she was alone her rapists enjoyed mass support so much so that the state government as well as central government connived to release her perpetrators on fabricated grounds

Her isolation and her long struggle could be easily contrasted with scenes of jubilation on the streets of Madrid, when women of Spain were flashing signs of Viva . Coincidentally it was the same period when her perpetrators were given ’Hero’s Welcome’ and were even declared ’Sanskari’ ( virtuous) by a ruling party MLA.

Here the rapists and murderers of Bilkis Bano were being felicitated whereas streets of Madrid were celebrating successful culmination of six years of Spanishu womens’s joint struggle to render justice to sexual assault victims / survivors.

It was a moment of reaffirmation that how huge rallies in Madrid and other major cities across the country and the growing mass support they received from across the society ultimately had forced the Parliament to address the deep rooted misogyny in its statue books and pass a sexual consent law which clearly said consent cannot be assumed by default or silence.
It had all started after a rape of a 18 year old woman who faced sexual assault by a group of five men (2106) during a bull fighting festival in Pamplona - where the perpetrators were given less punishment of nine years - claiming that she had consented to the act.

Looking from afar it may look unbelievable when one learns that this problematic verdict so much incensed and angered the women there that immediately after the verdict, hundreds of thousands of women flooded plazas in dozens of Spanish cities to protest against the ruling, calling for Spain’s sexual assault laws to be rewritten. [15]
What stirred the women of Spain further was the way this reduction in the sentence of these rapists was welcomed on the ‘men’s only’ whatsapp groups or by statements issued by many right-wingers. This led to further resistance from them, which ultimately tilted balance in their favour.

Thanks to the consistent struggle by women from Spain the five rapists from Spain will have to spend time behind bars for a total of fifteen years.
Thanks to the Women’s movement, which organised itself innovatively to keep its focus on the issue, which also included the first feminist strike on International Women’s Day - which received support from trade unions as well (2018) when more than 5 million workers took part in this first action of its kind. The focus of this unique feminist strike was to highlight sexual discrimination, domestic violence and the wage gap. [16]

The “wolf pack” case, as the brutalisation of the 18-year-old women was called, was also a wake-up moment for the rest of the society which was forced to reflect on its inherent biases and the fetishisation of violence against women, right from increasing violence in ‘intimate relations’ - killing of women by their partners or ex-partners to the wage differentials between them.

It was an irony of sorts that when the Spanish people were deeply introspecting on these sensitive issues and when the Spanish Parliament was debating revision of the sexual consent law, which can further act as a deterrent to sexual predators of various kinds there, more than seven thousand kilometres away from Madrid, the executive in a province in the Western Part of the country which loves to call itself the ‘mother of all democracies’ was exactly walking in the opposite direction. It was giving the final shape to reduction in sentences of 13 convicts who were found to be involved in crimes against humanity, crimes about which any civilised society will always remain ashamed

No sane person in her / his wildest dreams would have imagined that such criminals who even evaded arrests for many years and who tried to threaten and intimidate the survivor and her close relatives after failing to buy her silence, would even be given reduction in their sentences but perhaps the Prime Minister’s home state, his local chieftains wanted to send a message to their base of a different kind.

Lest we forget there was an interesting commonality between the two cases.
The victim/survivor in both the cases never once decided to give up.
Bilkis Bano - the sole survivor in the case - who received all support from her husband Yakoob, refused to stop her fight for justice, despite threats to her life and similarly the 18-year-old woman from Spain never once decided to abandon the struggle for justice and dignity.

Both persisted against heavy odds, against patriarchal notions of society, sectarian mindsets of people.

No doubt, the contrast between the two cases was equally clear rather sharp.
Here were five rapists from Pamplona, Italy who assaulted a young woman during a bullfighting festival, stole her phone and bragged about their macho act on their WhatsApp groups, who ultimately found to their dismay that the quantum of punishment which they had been awarded earlier would be increased ; rapists who were now a disgraced lot, even in the eyes of the people as well, who will have to repent their acts rather alone behind bars
And here seven thousand kilometres from Madrid were these eleven rapists from Gujarat, finding themselves that the life imprisonment awarded to them by the court being remitted and they being allowed to walk free and being accorded a Hero’s Welcome and being felicitated in a city hall.

For the convicts it mattered little that their remission was taking place under controversial circumstances and clearly violating many legal principles, where it was clear that without the central government’s green signal this release would not have been possible..

Many conscientious voices were raised then to cancel their release, even the highest courts of the country were also approached but like the punishment meted out to them after more than six years of struggle, cancellation of remission of their sentences would also prove to be a long struggle.

What the faculty and, staff members of the prestigious IIM Bangalore in an appeal to the Supreme Court had then underlined needs recounting, which emphasised how this act by the Gujarat government “emboldens” perpetrators of such heinous crimes and “extinguishes” the hopes of millions of Indians on the judicial system

Perhaps the last part of their letter which posed a moral query needs to be emphasised more and more wherein they ask what kind of a nation we are turning into if Bilkis Bano is left to defend herself while her violators are given a hero’s welcome.

What kind of a Nation are we turning into?

What kind of a society have we become?

Whereas United struggle by the Spanish women and other people sympathetic to their cause forced the government to bow before their demands, there was no sense of mass revulsion in India - the ‘biggest democracy in the world population wise - about the remission of sentences to them, forget any mass struggle.

A society which once came out in their thousands in the Jyoti Singh Case ( popularly known as the Nirbhaya case), for the cause of justice suddenly going silent when one Bilkis Bano’s perpetrators are set free to wide applause and garlanding and felicitation.

Should we say that our anger is increasingly getting compartmentalised, it erupts only for ‘people of us’ kind

What is noteworthy that the ’jubilation’ one witnessed then on the streets of Surat, when Bilkis’s rapists were released, this absence of revulsion needs unpacking.

It would rather not suffice to attribute it to despicable, anti human world views of the pioneers of Hindutva Supremacism, who had provided theoretical justification for brutalisation of women when fighting the ‘enemies’ but acceptance of such views among the broader populace.

Should it be said that it is just a manifestation of the moral relativism of a people, for whom a violence is no violence if it is for a ’good cause’. ’Vaidiki hinsa hinsa na Bhavti’ ( Vedic Violence is no violence) is a very popular dictum.

Dr Ambedkar had tried to underline or understand this behaviour of an individual in a caste riddden society [17] and critically analysed Hindu Social Order and had explained how individuals are not a basic unit in the Hindu social order because it is based on Varna or class or how it is based on graded hierarchy where punishment for the same offence are based on the principle of graded inequality, for example Chapter 8, Verse 379, he says “Ignominous tonsure is ordained, instead of capital punishment, for a Brahmin adulterer where the punishment of other classes may extend to loss of life.”(-do-)

Before we conclude, we need to accept that the absence of revulsion over such inhuman acts in Indian society or neighbours themselves turning into perpetrators during outburst of communal frenzy is not uncommon. Listen to the testimonies of survivors of communal conflicts and they would narrate such incidents after incidents.

Celebrating rapists, sanitising their crimes or adding an aura to such despicable behaviour is no exception. Since around a decade when lynching of innocents - especially belonging to the sections of social and religious minorities - allegedly for killing a cow or just for bearing that identity, is increasingly being normalised, such images have also become common when the perpetrators of this crime have been welcomed by ruling establishment people. Perhaps one has not forgotten how one Shambhu Raigar, who killed an innocent muslim brutally and recorded the whole act in video, was glorified by people.

It is still a puzzle to fully comprehend this bloodlust among a section of While a ruling party MLA called these rapists ’Sanskari Brahmins’ and did come under intense criticism from opposition but people around us or ruling over us are no different.

Perhaps a mental exercise would make clear what one wants to say.

Whether readers of these lines would ever welcome in their respective homes convicts of gang rapes and brutal killings of innocents, or perpetrators involved in lynching - who were set free by courts on controversial grounds - and would like to be photographed with them or even felicitate them.

If the answer to this query is yes, then I request you not to proceed further.

Hannah Arendt, who had written on the holocaust tells us that the crimes against humanity which one witnessed then - where 6 million Jews and Hippies etc were sent to gas chambers - were not committed by psychopaths and sadists but by ‘normal, sane and ordinary human beings’ who performed their tasks in a bureaucratic diligence. She also adds that ‘evil becomes banal when it acquires an unthinking and systematic character, or when ordinary people participate in it, build distance from it and justify it, in countless ways. There are no moral conundrums or revulsions. Evil does not even look like evil, it becomes faceless.’ [18]

In fact, her book ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ focuses on this issue. It covers the trial of a Nazi era officer Adolf Eichmann, who was literally kidnapped from Argentina by Israel’s secret agents and was taken to Jerusalem where a trial took place. Her ideas about what she calls ‘banality of evil’ took shape in this book itself.

(As of now we will not go into the criticism of the book, which raises questions over the ‘kidnapping of Eichmann’ or raises doubts about Eichmann’s portrayal by Hannah.)

If we are able to discover some ordinariness in the garlanding of gang rapists and murderers and if for us felicitation of such scums in society is normal, then remember you are not much far away from becoming Eichman.

[13Bhartiya Itihasatil Saha Soneri Paane, Chapter 4 and 5, P. 147-74

[14Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History, P. 461, Delhi, Rajdhani Granthagar, 1971

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