Rewriting the present notions of justice

The late Ruth Bader Ginsberg of the United States’ Supreme Court was one such figure of authority, speaking truth to power and using her own wisely.
Bilkis Bano. (Photo | PTI)
Bilkis Bano. (Photo | PTI)

CHENNAI: In August 2022, eleven convicts who had been serving life sentences since 2008 for the brutal gang-rape of Bilkis Bano — who was a pregnant teenager at the time — during the 2002 pogroms in Gujarat were released from prison. This was deeply disturbing news on multiple levels, with myriad repercussions as well, including in terms of legal precedents — especially in cases where religious and gender minorities are concerned.

The Gujarat High Court’s decision to release the convicts was also, as I wrote in this space at the time, “a judgement of character on purely casteist grounds — that as Brahmins, the perpetrators were inherently good-natured and had reformed [and that this] prevailed over the acute need for the survivor’s physical and mental safety.” The Supreme Court of India has now reversed the decision, with Justice BV Nagarathna and Justice Ujjal Bhuyan making a statement that the Gujarat High Court had abused its power, and “acted in tandem and was complicit [with the convicts]”.

Bano sa

id to the press after the news: “I felt I had exhausted my reservoir of courage. Until a million solidarities came my way.” She referenced thousands of petitions supporting her. There is solidarity in this country for equality and justice, even if there is not always faith that we will achieve them. The Supreme Court’s decision can be optimistically read as the nation experiencing the positive effects of having forward-thinking people, especially forward-thinking women, in the apex court. Appointed only in September 2021, along with three other women (earlier, there had been just one woman among the thirty-four seats), Justice BV Nagarathna is poised to become the Chief Justice in 2027 and will be the first woman to hold this position. It’s going to be quite interesting to see how — or more prudently, if — she uses the role to assert justice and improve social norms through a compassionate and intelligent use of the law.

The late Ruth Bader Ginsberg of the United States’ Supreme Court was one such figure of authority, speaking truth to power and using her own wisely. Maybe we in India don’t deserve someone like that, because here, as in any democracy, those in power are only reflections of the citizenry. But that’s exactly why we need someone who poses a challenge to widespread discrimination. Someone who shares the voice of those who are suppressed, trolled, persecuted, silenced, and eliminated. Who reminds us of solidarity and gives us hope that we aren’t alone in believing in civil rights.

I’m not going to be quick to lionise Justice Nagarathna, as much as her work is certainly hope-giving. But let’s also return for a moment to Bilkis Bano herself, a person who experienced immeasurable tragedy (in addition to her assault, many of her family members, including young children, were murdered in 2002) and whose speaking out even two decades later is courageous, in the context of an increasingly draconian climate. But she doesn’t need to be out there — an activist, visible, and vulnerable. We who want change for the better can keep remembering her, drawing solidarity and strength from knowledge and memory, and thereby do — and demand — better.

The columnist is a writer and illustrator


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