Bilkis Bano and the Question of 'Trust'

In a secular-constitutional framework, justice is based on a rational language of legality. Trust, even within the discourse of secular faith in India’s Constitution, involves a “leap”.

Nineteen-year-old Bilkis Yakub Rasool Bano was five months pregnant when she was escaping a mob on a truck on March 13, 2002 in Gujarat. She was gang raped by another armed mob that also killed fourteen of her family members, including her three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, and her mother, Halima.

On May 4, 2017, the Bombay high court upheld the life sentence given by a trial court to eleven convicted in the Bilkis Bano gang rape and murder case from the 2002 Godhra riots. In addition, the court set aside the acquittal of others accused in the case, including Gujarat police officers and doctors from a government hospital.

“I want justice, not revenge”, Bilkis Bano had told the media then, after hearing the court’s verdict.

Also Read: Bilkis Bano and Her Undeterred Resolve to Hold on to One’s Right of Citizenship

The Supreme Court on April 23, 2019, ordered the Gujarat government to give Bano Rs 50 lakh as compensation, a government job and a house. A day later, she reiterated in a press conference that revenge was not her aim: “Justice and not revenge was my aim. Throughout I kept my trust in the law, my rights as a citizen, and the Supreme Court has stood by me.”

The memory of the men who raped her did not incite any feeling of revenge in Bano’s admission. Revenge is an intense sentiment. Justice, in contrast, is not a sentiment, but an appeal. It is an appeal made to god or the world. Retributive justice has been a brutal norm in the history of power, where sentiment overshadows judgement. The juridical (or restorative) form of justice on the other hand shares one similarity with divine justice, even as the sources of authority differ in the two cases (though the element of “waiting” is present in both cases). Both forms of justice involve someone else, a higher authority (divine or human) that renders the justice you seek. Like divine justice, juridical justice is about faith in a higher authority, a higher law that may impart a just verdict.

From the private to the public realm

Bano’s expectations of finding justice from the court throw the question out of her private realm into the larger, public realm. It moves the question of justice from the level of the individual to the level of the community. Bilkis is no longer one woman, but many other Muslim women looking to find justice. She is the force of a community articulating and demanding their stake in the nation. It is another way of finding out if the nation belongs to them. Justice alone is proof of belonging.

To demand justice without any feeling of revenge testifies Bilkis’ ethical sensibility. Is she bound by such a responsibility? It is not an easy question to answer.

Firstly, it is a question the state, its system of justice and civil society, that need to ask the question, not her. Secondly, there is a trembling in the very asking of such a question. A crime recognised by law does not heal the soul. Still it offers a certain dignity necessary to live in the world.

Bilkis had said in 2017, “I want my daughters to grow up in a safe India.” All she asks of her nation is to offer her daughters safety. What is a nation if a mother does not feel safe about her daughters? Which television channel, which regiment of the army, which police force, which minister, will ensure this safety? If the nation is not safe, who and what are we protecting our borders for?

A view of Supreme Court of India in New Delhi. Credit: PTI

The Supreme Court ordered the Gujarat government to compensate Bilkis Bano. Credit: PTI

Faith and trust

To quote what Bano said on Wednesday, “Throughout I kept my trust in the law, my rights as a citizen, and the Supreme Court has stood by me.” We come back to the question of belonging. The word Bano used is, “bharosa”. ‘Bharosa’ means trust. Trust is interpersonal, while faith is the spiritual equivalent, or synonym, of trust.

The Bible does use the word trust in the religious sense: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding” [Proverbs 3:5]. Both ‘trust’ and ‘faith’ belong to the non-rational sphere of cognition. Both are matters of the heart. In both, intuition overwhelms an objective (mentalist) pursuing or realisation of truth. There is a conceptual incongruity between the idea of trust and the language of rights and justice. Rights and justice in a secular-constitutional framework is based on a rational language of legitimacy, legality, entitlement, etc.

Trust, even within the discourse of secular faith, the faith in India’s secular Constitution, involves a “leap” (a similar leap that we use regarding “a leap of faith”). But secular or not, the idea of faith connects to a theological order of justice. Trusting a system of justice mimics the intuitive language of the theological order. Bano’s trust is a matter of expectation, both within and outside secular faith.

When Bano says, “I kept my trust”, it is not merely faith in the law, but in the fact that there are people who run the law and the office of justice, who she trusted. Even though the source of trust and faith lies in the mysterious and intuitive elements of one’s being, the ground it emanates from and it seeks is material, and real.

Restoring trust 

The task of a secular state and Constitution is to restore trust in people. The term “secular faith”, which is not based on god and religion, still retains the element of hope that cannot be defined in rationalist terms. Faith and trust is clearly not reason, but it is that element that also makes us hope. Bano’s sense of trust or faith is not subsumed by the juridical system of law, but is drawn from sources other than secular law.

Despite the secular language of a democratic state, its language of constitutional rights in secular-humanist terms, the secular definition of the citizen, there is a (subjective) language of expectation that expresses itself through trust. The trust that citizens have on the Constitution, the state, the government, are not a purely secular matter, for trust or faith is not based on that privileged concept of secular-humanism: reason. Trust is deeply subjective, but rationalists cannot dare to call it – reduce it to – superstition.

Can the secular order run if people don’t have trust or faith in it? What does trust mean, here? Clearly, it means two things: 1) trust/faith in the political structure, even if that structure is secular, and 2) an expectation of justice. Even if justice is based on secular-humanist principles, it is the trust of the person, the citizen, the victim, her faith in the secular system of justice that keeps the hope and struggle for justice alive.

Trust/faith is the “spirit” behind the long wait and struggle for justice. It is also in the “spirit” of the law, something determined by the people who work in its name. The secular body of (constitutional) law is not complete without the spiritual ring (expectation) around it. There is an element of excess, beyond the rational order of things that keeps our trust or faith in the secular system.

There is also another important aspect regarding revenge. If Bilkis Bano does not want “revenge”, does revenge still have any reason to exist in this world? Bilkis is a woman of the nation who does not resemble nationalists who speak in the language of hate and revenge. That is why Bilkis can do what many nationalists cannot: perhaps forgive. The ‘perhaps’ trembles before the possibility of forgiveness.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is the author of Looking for the Nation: Towards Another Idea of India, published by Speaking Tiger Books (August 2018).