Sunday, January 27, 2008

Importance of being Bilkis

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, January 27, 2008

The Other Half

Kalpana Sharma

It is one of those horror stories from the Gujarat carnage of 2002 that few can forget. A young Muslim woman, six months pregnant, runs for her life from her village when rampaging mobs attack it on February 28. She has with her a three-year-old daughter, her mother and other relatives. They move out of their village under cover of darkness and
hide in a field hoping to escape. Instead, the next morning they are confronted with a mob of 20 to 30 men carrying swords and sickles who assault and gang rape the four women, including Bilkis and her mother, kill many of the others, and kill her three-year-old daughter by “smashing” her on the ground. Of the 17 who left the village, only three survived, the bodies of eight were found and six are still missing.

The horror does not end there. Bilkis pretends she is dead and waits till the mob leaves. Then with the help of a home guard, and with her six-year-old nephew and a three-year-old boy who have survived, she trudges to a police station to register a complaint. On the way she borrows some clothes from an Adivasi woman to cover herself.

At the police station she receives little sympathy. Instead the policeman on duty pretends to listen to what she is saying but writes something completely different in the First Information Report on which he gets the illiterate Bilkis’ thumb impression.

Two days later, local photographers find eight bodies of the massacred family. This forces the police to act and post-mortems are conducted. Again, instead of recording the truth, they conduct what has now been termed a “shoddy” post-mortem and bury the bodies. Some years later, when the bodies are exhumed as part of a fresh investigation, none of them have skulls. It appears that they were decapitated after the post-mortem to prevent identification. In addition, salt was sprinkled on the bodies so that they would disintegrate.

Need to intervene

The case of Bilkis Bano has all the elements of the worst kind of horror including the indifference and complicity of the State in covering up the truth. But it also illustrates the kind of intervention that is needed in such situations to ensure that some justice is done.

For, it is now evident that the case would not have moved if it had been tried in Gujarat where it was first filed. In August 2004, the Supreme Court ordered that the case be tried in Mumbai. At this stage the CBI took over the investigation and ordered that the bodies of the eight people from Bilkis’ village be exhumed.

In just over a year after taking over the investigation, the CBI gathered enough evidence to arrest 20 people including six policemen. On February 21, 2006, the trial began in Mumbai. On January 18, 2007, the trial court held 12 of the 20 guilty including one policeman, sub-inspector Somabhai Gori, who “suppressed material facts and wrote a distorted and truncated version” of Bilkis’ complaint, according to the CBI. While Gori was given only two years imprisonment, the other 11 were given life sentences.

Apart from hearing the case in Mumbai, the decision to hold the trial in camera has also made a difference as it encouraged witnesses to testify without fear, something they would not have done in an open court. The policeman’s conviction, for instance, was made possible because three witnesses heard Bilkis give her report and what they said they heard differed substantially from what the policeman noted down.

Even today, fear dominates Radhikpur village. In anticipation of the judgment, the 60 Muslim families who still live there apparently quietly left the village as they feared a backlash from the families of those convicted, most of whom are from the same village.
But above all, it is Bilkis’ courage in going to the police station in the condition in which she was after a gang rape and after seeing her infant daughter being brutally murdered that clinched the case. Most women hesitate to go to the police. If you are poor, a Muslim, and living in a situation like the one that prevailed in Gujarat in 2002, the chances of turning to the police are even more remote. This is what makes Bilkis’ action so exceptional.
Uncertain future

Even after filing the complaint, she could have given up, been intimidated, allowed herself to be bought off, decided it would be simpler to forget about it. Yet, she persisted even though the personal price she has paid is hard to imagine. Nor can we fully comprehend what is her future, whether she will ever be able to live in peace in her village, or whether she will forever be a refugee hiding from those waiting to teach her another lesson. But amazingly, she has gone on record to say that she will not give up and continue to pursue the case until the five policemen who were let off for lack of evidence are also convicted.
Seeing photographs of this diminutive woman, one wonders from where she got the courage at that terrible moment to make the journey to the police station. If she had not done so, the story would never have been told. This ordinary woman has to be saluted for her extraordinary courage.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

An assault on dignity

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, January 13, 2008

Kalpana Sharma

When 70 to 80 men surround two women, push them,
touch them, pounce on them, it is not
“molestation”; it is sexual assault. So
before we even begin to discuss the incident that
took place in the upmarket Mumbai suburb of Juhu in
the early hours of January 1, 2008, we should call
the crime by its real name.

The assault happened not because a group of
“lustful louts” were indulging in
“Mumbai molestation”, as the media put
it by using sexy shortcuts to describe the incident.
It was in fact an illustration of a range of
assaults on women that take place every day of the
year and in every part of this country. It became
national news because there was visual evidence. The
other thousands of similar and worse crimes get only
a brief mention in the newspapers because cameras
are not positioned to record them.

Other crimes

On the same day that the Juhu attack took place and
a few days later, here is a list of some of the
other crimes against women that occurred in Mumbai
and Maharashtra as reported in the English press:

On December 31, a 28-year-old woman in
Khadegolavali, Kalyan (east) was raped by two men
who entered her first floor room in a chawl, beat up
her husband who is a zari worker, and raped her.
This was at 2.30 pm in the middle of a working day.

On December 31, in Maharashtra Chief Minister
Vilasrao Deshmukh’s constituency of Latur, a
14-year-old girl was found hanging from a tree. When
her body was exhumed, there was a suspicion that the
men who killed her had also raped her. She had
complained about these men “teasing” her
but no one paid heed.

On December 31, the conductor and driver of a state
transport bus raped a woman who was on her way to a
village just north of Mumbai.

On January 5, a 13-year-old girl was gang raped and
burnt alive, her body found in the fields in a
village in Ahmednagar district, Maharashtra. She was
on her way back from school.

Maharashtra is competing with other states in its
record of crimes against women. Last year, Mumbai
police registered 356 cases of
“molestation”, that is almost one a day
and the railway police have a record of 1,068 cases,
almost three a day.

None of these incidents was reported in any detail,
nor did they make it to the front page or
“national news”. Crimes against women
don’t always make news. They hit the headlines
only when they are particularly horrific, or when
they affect women like us (that is urban, middle
class women) or when they are captured on visual

The Mumbai incident has shock value. But that shock
should result in introspection and a reality check.
The reality is that crimes against women occur, have
been occurring and have not stopped just because
there is more money, more education, more
urbanisation, more globalisation, more
liberalisation. The difference is that more of them
are being noticed and reported.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link)

Friday, January 04, 2008

Invisible women

The Hindu Sunday Magazine, Dec 30, 2007


They flit in and out of our homes like ghosts in the
night. They sweep and swab, wash and cook, look
after our children, care for the elderly. Yet we
know little about them. Most of us just about know
their first names. We don’t know where they
’re from, where they live, whether they are
married, how many children they have, how many other
homes they work in, what they earn — how they
survive. They are virtually invisible.

We usually wake up to their existence when they
don’t turn up for work. And the first response
is annoyance, because of the inconvenience caused to
us. Many professional women don the title of being
superwomen because they manage jobs and homes
— work life balance. But in fact the real
superwomen are these silent workers, without whom
few professional women in India would be able to
function. Yet, while those in formal employment get
sick leave, casual leave, privileged leave and
weekends, our domestic help is not entitled to any
of this. If she rests too long, she’s lazy. If
she doesn’t turn up for work, she’s a
shirker. It would appear that these women
don’t have the right to relax, to fall sick,
to have some fun. And of course, no one acknowledges
that when they’re done with our homes, they
still have their own homes where they have to do the
very same jobs, sweep and swab, wash clothes, cook
and take care of children and elderly.

Nishtha Jain, a Mumbai-based documentary filmmaker
has done what all of us need to do. She has not just
acknowledged that this silent worker in her home has
a name, but she’s followed her life so that we
see the person behind the name — a person just
like any of us. And instead of viewing the woman
from a distance, the filmmaker has bravely placed
herself in the frame, honestly dissecting her own
relationship as an employer. “Lakshmi and
Me” is a remarkably honest documentary about
21-year-old Lakshmi and the filmmaker, Nishtha.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link)