“What persuades men and women to mistake each other from time to time for gods or vermin is ideology” — Terry Eagleton, in Ideology: An Introduction
It is fairly easy to decipher who the “gods” and “vermin” are in today’s socio-political context in the country — and particularly in Gujarat. In the Hindutva laboratory of Gujarat where assembly elections are due later this year, the timing is opportune for such a binary to be re-established. The reasons for release of 11 convicts in Bilkis Bano’s case, therefore, are political and part of this binary that helps the BJP in the elections.
Issues of unemployment, agricultural crisis had brought the BJP to the brink in the 2017 assembly polls. Although the ruling party is looking comfortable this time given the Congress’s perennially crippled state, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has started to raise some uneasy slogans about free education (a big plank in the 2017 elections), healthcare and electricity.
The BJP, let us be very clear, leaves nothing to chance in any election. And ideology is a time-tested winning formula in the Prime Minister’s home state.
Accordingly, the “gods” have come to the rescue of those who raped Bilkis Bano and killed her family. BJP MLA from Godhra CK Raulji, who was part of the state government panel that recommended remission to all the 11 men found guilty, gave interviews underlining that they were “Brahmins with good sanskar” and practically exonerated them, arguing that they may have been framed: “It is possible that they might have been fixed in the case due to their past family activities. When such a riot takes place, it happens that those who are not involved, are named.” Raulji has not been censured or warned against misrepresenting the judgment of the court which has unambiguously accepted their guilt and sentenced them.
Further, just so the “vermin” know their place and remain there, the 11 men were feted and garlanded, as per all media reports, in the office of the BJP’s ideological brethren, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). The VHP spokesperson Vinod Bansal’s statement titled “Gujarati Hindus have a right to live” on August 20 is noteworthy here.
“Those who oppose the release of 11 convicts in this case are anti-Hindu. After such a prolonged incarceration, should the families and friends of the convicts not have the right to garland them and feed them gods’ offerings and sweets? Should they stand outside the prison with a noose to hang them? Every action has a reaction,” Bansal said in his statement, the detailed contents of which would be too incendiary to reproduce here.
The project to reassert that “Gujarati Hindus have a right to live” just before the elections, is part and parcel of a post-truth discourse that has become the order of the day. Sociologist Emile Durkheim has aptly described this as using “notions to govern the collation of facts rather than deriving notions from them”. Or simply put, it’s like saying that all facts are relative and secondary. The notion of Hindus being in danger arising from a proven fact of a pregnant Muslim woman gang-raped and made to watch her three-year-old child’s head smashed and the rape of her mother and sister may sound incredulous or perverse to the uninitiated. But in a state where the ideological discourse has flourished and prevailed for over three decades, its electoral appeal cannot be ignored.
Lack of empathy
This cynical and non-factual discourse thrives on the general lack of empathy for the ‘other’. And it succeeds regardless of the legal direction the Bilkis Bano case takes. If, for instance, the Supreme Court decides against remission granted to the 11 convicts, the notion of Hindus being persecuted can be exaggerated. Any future spectre of the “sanskari Brahmins” being sent back to jail is sure to trigger more rounds of chest-beating from the Hindutva foot-soldiers who are ready with ammunition from the 2002 post-Godhra riots to drive home the “Hindus in danger” narrative.
The incarceration of activist Teesta Setalvad and demonisation of Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) leader Medha Patkar by the Gujarat Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel has created mythical enemies. These “urban naxals” who are presumably in cahoots with the Islamic jehadis, a category often used by Hindutva foot-soldiers to tar all Muslims, can then be publicly pummelled with generous assistance of friendly TV channels.
The battleground becomes ready for the “gods” to slay the enemies (which includes English media, liberal intelligentsia and other cohorts of the ‘tukde tukde gang’) opposed to ‘Gujarati asmita’ in the run-up to the elections. This plank effortlessly deepens the communal discourse, that could neutralise AAP’s efforts to focus on economic and livelihood issues in a state where BJP has ruled for three decades.
Alternatively, in the event of the apex court upholding the decision to grant remission, the story can be turned around. The court’s decision can be touted as a validation of this political feat. Already, in the statements dished out by the VHP and sundry local leaders, the Supreme Court’s direction in May 2022, to consider the application of one of the convicts, Radheshyam Bhagwandas Shah alias Lala Vakil, for premature release in terms of the Centre’s remission policy of July 9, 1992, is being hailed as directive for the release of all the 11 convicts.
The subsequent policy, adopted in 2014, prohibits the premature release of criminals with rape and murder convictions. This is the question before the SC now, with all the petitions seeking review of the remission — which was the relevant scheme under which remission was granted. The VHP has, in the meantime, declared that the convicts were indeed released on the directive of the Supreme Court whereas the Court had merely asked the state government to consider the application.
“The convicts have been released on the direction of the Supreme Court under the general remission scheme by the state government. The secular brigade cannot stomach that a Gujarati Hindu can live in peace with dignity,” says the VHP statement of August 20, 2022.
The ideologues are of the view that they have effectively annihilated empathy with their relentless efforts. If they are proved right, it would be a society that revels in the trauma and humiliation of fellow human beings — the triumph of a will that has killed collective conscience.