In May 2002 some of us student volunteers from Mumbai visited relief camps in Gujarat to try and help women and young children with the relief material we carried with us. Affected by the images of the riots on television, we had decided to travel to Gujarat by bus with bags of blankets, clothes and whatever little we could collect from well-wishers. Each relief camp had a similar story, weeping women and scarring images.
Newborns crying for their mother’s attention while the women recalled the horrors they had witnessed or suffered. Young girls with their bare wounds, flies buzzing around the cuts and pus dripping from the cuts.
Two of us in the group of close to 20 volunteers were Muslims and had been asked to wear bindis. The women would hesitate to talk, apprehensive that we were in cahoots with the police or the state. They would whisper about a woman in Dahod who was gang-raped by a group of men, her family hacked, her daughter murdered. The women would cry and then talk in awe of the brave woman who had filed a complaint with the police and then return to their prayer mats, to their crying children.
That brave woman was Bilkis Bano.
I first saw Bilkis at a press conference in Gujarat. She was surrounded by activists and her husband sat by her side. She was a young woman, barely 20, aged overnight by the trauma inflicted on her. I sat in the last row amid a group of journalists, activists and lawyers. At no point in my journalism career, despite attending most of her press meets, her informal meeting with journalists, have I been able to approach Bilkis with a question. Each time Bilkis would speak, a part of me would return to the horrors of 1992-93 when my sister and I were overnight sent to a hideout to escape rioters who had planned to attack our family and abduct the two of us.
The story of Bilkis was the story of Gujarat, a story that would haunt the moral conscience of the country.
On the fifth day of the burning of the train in Godhra where 59 karsevaks were charred to death, Gujarat broke out in a communal frenzy. Bilkis Bano and her family of 17 hid in a truck and travelled to move to a safer place. When the truck reached the Randhikpur village in Dahod, not far from Ahmedabad, a group of close to 35 to 40 rioters stopped the truck.
In a span of an hour, swords spilled blood as each and every member of her family was on the ground, heads mutilated, bodies ripped apart by fanatical swords. One of the attackers smashed her three-year-old daughter Saleha’s head on a rock and killed her on the spot as Bilkis stared at the sight, closing her eyes while another group of men ripped off her clothes. Bilkis pleaded with them, kept repeating in Gujarati that she was five months pregnant, but that did not deter the men who wanted to protect Hindu pride by violating Muslim women.
One by one, the men took turns to rape a pregnant Bilkis Bano who stared numb at the sky. They kept attacking her with their knives – her body had slits all over. Her cousin who had delivered a baby two days ago did not escape the savagery of the man who kept raping and finally killed her. The men kept violating her while another man slit her mother’s throat.
Assuming her to be dead, the rioters left her. When Bilkis gained consciousness a couple of hours later she covered her body with a petticoat and walked to the interiors of another village seeking help from an adivasi woman.
A woman who had never been to school, whose life revolved around her family, who had witnessed the most traumatic nightmare any human life could imagine gathered phenomenal courage to file a complaint despite a political atmosphere of intimidation of minorities.
The 17-year fight
Bilkis pursued the case at the local police station, but one year later the police cited inconsistencies in her statement and dismissed the case. This was not the first time the Gujarat Police, often found complicit in crimes during the riots, had dismissed a case with clinching evidence.
In 2003, Bilkis Bano approached the National Human Rights Commission and subsequently approached the Supreme Court. In August 2004, the Supreme Court transferred Bilkis Bano’s case to Maharashtra from Gujarat after her plea that she feared state actors would obstruct the process of justice. New reports around the time have documented the extreme intimidation Bano was subjected to by police officials. The Supreme Court-mandated CBI made the first arrests in the case when the Gujarat Police refused to act.
At a press conference in 2004, Bilkis Bano lashed out at the Narendra Modi government: “Was it not the state’s responsibility to protect us and should it not compensate us for the incident? Now that the Supreme court has taken up the matter I hope the question about compensation and impunity for sexual violence will also be addressed…Today, along with a sense of hope I am also filled with sadness because I know the manner in which sexual violence was systematically used against so many women of my community in the Gujarat carnage of 2002. I am not the only one.”
The same year in 2004, the Supreme Court took cognisance in the Best Bakery case, in which a mob set the bakery on fire 1 March 2002 in Vadodara and killed 14 people. The witness, Zahira Shaikh, was fighting a battle parallel to Bilkis Bano in Ahmedabad. In an unprecedented order where the Supreme Court quashed the appeal of all 21 accused in the case, a bench comprising Justice Doraiswamy Raju and Justice Arijit Pasayat gave a landmark judgment calling the Gujarat government “Modern day Neros who were looking elsewhere when Best Bakery and innocent children and helpless women were burning, and were probably deliberating how the perpetrators of the crime can be protected”.
In 2008, a special court in Mumbai convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment 11 men for raping Bilkis Bano and murdering members of her family.
Today, as the Supreme Court ordered the Gujarat government to provide Bilkis Bano with a compensation of Rs 50 lakh and provide a government job and accommodation to the family that has been stigmatised and moved a dozen homes in the last 17 years, it might be a bittersweet moment for the Bilkis Bano I know.
The age of amnesia
Bano deserved justice from the state that inflicted the trauma on her, from the former chief minister of the state who runs the country today and calls himself a chowkidar of women and children and the dignity of 1.3 billion Indians.
The story of Bilkis Bano is a story of bravado, resilience, feminism and the spirit of justice, but her victory will be incomplete till we acknowledge the pain of a thousand other women who had been struggling in relief camps since 2002. Her victory will be incomplete till those whose incendiary speeches provoked the masculinity of men to violate Muslim women and restore the much-hyped Gujarati Gaurav are brought to justice.
In many ways it was Bilkis Bano and the women whom I met at these relief camps who compelled me to go undercover to reveal the complicity of the men who were the conspirators behind the violation of Bilkis and other women. As I write this, I wonder what goes through Bilkis’ mind as she is told of the Gujarat government giving an affidavit in favour of Babu Bajrangi to facilitate a bail given by the Supreme court a month ago. Bajrangi had confessed on camera that he had slit the fetus of a pregnant woman and held it on the tip of a sword.
I wonder how Bilkis feels about Kauser Bi, wife of Sohrabuddin Sheikh who was raped, sedated, killed and her body burnt, the ashes thrown in a river, while the culprits of the crime, including top cops, flaunt Twitter handles prefixed with ‘chowkidar’.
As India votes for change, Bilkis Bano’s victory should be a stark reminder of the injustices of the past, of the unholy agenda of politicians who tread over the bodies of a hundred Bilkis Banos for their political aspirations. I hope the country feels the anxiety of Bilkis Bano and the other women who have had to fight 15 years to get justice from the Supreme Court of India when the Prime Minister of the country insisted on bringing a triple talaq ordinance to protect Muslim women.
The decision by the Supreme Court in favour of Bilkis is a small step forward, it is a ray of hope, but this is not closure. Not for journalists like me, not for human rights activists who have crusaded for justice, not for lawyers and intellectuals who have been fighting an unpopular battle in this age of amnesia.
The author is a journalist and the author of Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up. Views are personal.