Demonstrators take part in a protest against the release of men convicted of gang-raping of Bilkis Bano during the 2002 Gujarat riots, in New Delhi on Aug. 27. (Photo: Sajjad Hussain/ AFP)
On Aug 15, while India basked in the glory of celebrating 75 years of independence from colonial rule, the news of the remission of sentences for 11 men convicted of gang-raping Bilkis Bano and murdering her family members, sent shock waves down the spine of this nation.
Bilkis’ ghastly experience of being a 21-year-old watching the chilling murder of 14 members of her family including her three-year-old daughter and getting gang raped while being five months pregnant is perhaps the most heinous thing that could happen to a woman.
The magnitude of the crime found some respite when its perpetrators were convicted by a special court in Mumbai in 2008. However, the early release of these murderers and rapists and their reception as heroes is nothing but horrendous.
A question by a numbed Bilkis, “Is this how justice ends?” (The Indian Express, Aug 22) challenges the nation to wake up and recover its lost integrity.
The plight of Bilkis would find a strong echo in many hearts, though the distress experienced may be far distant from the intensity of her torment. In her question, we find a confluence of pain, anger, frustration and helplessness that one feels on seeing that lies, deceit and cover-ups triumph while justice is distorted and truthfulness gets trampled underfoot.
Even as Bilkis’ disquieting question continues to haunt me and many people across the country, I am tempted to ask: Does this disturb the Church in India?
"Barring some exceptions as individuals and institutions, the justice quotient of the ecclesiastical establishment is markedly low"
I ask this because the sentiments underlying the loaded query, “Is this how justice ends?” was intensely felt by the nun who survived rape and all who accompanied her closely on hearing the verdict of the trial courts on Jan 14 acquitting the bishop accused in the rape case.
The humiliation encountered by Bilkis when the hardened criminals who crushed her life were honored with garlands and sweets mirrored the hero’s welcome awarded to the bishop on his return to his diocese when released on bail.
Even the brazen silence of the political leadership of this country before the mockery of justice in the Bilkis Bano case finds an echo in the marked indifference on the part of Church authorities to the plight of the survivor nun and her companions.
Irrefutably, the Church in India has made notable contributions to the nation’s development through its involvement in the fields of education and health care. Yet, barring some exceptions as individuals and institutions, the justice quotient of the ecclesiastical establishment is markedly low.
Most Catholic institutions and projects run because of the high monetary returns or other social benefits that are intrinsic to such ventures.
Commercialization of religious practices; construction of palatial churches; the extravagant lifestyle of many Church leaders; rampant clericalism and the laity remaining infantile — all these have become striking manifestations of the deviation of the Church from the ways of the Spirit.
"When corruption sets in, justice gets eroded and the Church is not immune to this fraudulence that is rampant in today’s world"
Besides, when income generation for institutional sustainability becomes the sole motive for starting new undertakings in the name of mission, one cannot help but see how the Church has got trapped into the politics of the Empire and moved far from the politics of the Gospel initiated by Jesus Christ.
Justice cannot be divorced from truth and the affirmation of the dignity, rights and fundamental equality of all concerned in any enterprise. When corruption sets in, justice gets eroded and the Church is not immune to this fraudulence that is rampant in today’s world.
The cover-up of clergy sexual abuse and the Church leaders being concerned solely about protecting the abusers; different expressions of gendered aggression afflicting women, particularly nuns in the Church; sacramental power abuse, and other forms of clerical violence are all pointers to this disease afflicting the ecclesiastical body.
A glaring illustration of this fact is brought out in a recent publication titled My Prophetic Struggle: The Narakkal Story (2022), a book that narrates the traumatic experiences of a group of nuns who resisted the abusive power dynamics of the clerical leaders of their diocese.
As noted in the Afterword of this book, “the ecclesiastical gender politics unearthed in the Narakkal story is an indicator of the interplay of power and gender, which becomes all the more tyrannical and manipulative, when exercised within a religious framework” (p.139).
Just as the prophet Nathan pointed to King David and said, “You are that man!”(2 Sam.12:7), the Narakkal story is pointing a finger at the Church in India.
"This is a wake-up call to come out of its stagnating slumber and reclaim its prophetic mission in today’s India"
Would the Church pay heed to this prophetic interrogation, break free of its tyrannical cultural conditioning and return to the ways of Christ?
If the Church in India is committed to following the liberative and prophetic vision of Jesus Christ, it is meant to be counter-cultural. This implies saying ‘No’ repeatedly to the unjust and discriminatory cultural practices of our society that are marked by caste, class, religion and gender hierarchies.
The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us, observes Walter Brueggemann (2001, 3). For the Church to become a credible witness of Jesus Christ, apparently this is the only way.
The Bilkis Bano case is a litmus test for the political regime of this country to prove its credibility. For the Church, this is a wake-up call to come out of its stagnating slumber and reclaim its prophetic mission in today’s India.
“The Church is nothing if not prophetic,” asserts the visionary Indian theologian George Soares Prabhu (1999: 170).
More than ever, there is urgency for the Church to be prophetic since despotic forces are gambling with the integrity of life, particularly of the vulnerable humans and the earth in this country. Prophetic voices raised in righteous anger become a tool to dismantle the dominant consciousness that is oppressive.
This calls the Church to ask along with Bilkis Bano: “Is this how justice ends?”
*Dr. Kochurani Abraham is a Catholic feminist theologian based in Kerala, southern India. She engages with liberative theological groups and movements for the renewal of the Church and Society. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.