New Delhi: “I want justice, not revenge. I want my daughters to grow up in a safe India,” Bilkis Bano, one of the gangrape survivors of the 2002 Gujarat riots, said in reply to a question on whether she wanted the death penalty for those convicted in the case.
In New Delhi to express her gratitude to the Mumbai high court, which on May 4 upheld the lower court’s order of life imprisonment for the 12 accused persons and also set aside the acquittals of five policemen and two government doctors in one of the most horrifying gangrape and murder cases that emerged from the riots, Bilkis recalled the trauma she and her family experienced in the last 15 years during her struggle for justice.
“We led a life of vagabonds all these years. We shifted at least 20-25 houses out of fear,” said Bilkis as she questioned the Gujarat government’s decision to grant parole to the accused persons several times after they were convicted by the trial court in 2008.
“Each time they were out on parole, they held meetings and threatened us. We had no hope from the police, who were complicit in the crime. I am happy the high court punished the accused policemen too,” she said.
Also read: Bilkis Bano Case: A Timeline of Events
Last week’s judgement has ushered in new hope for Bano and her family, which lived under a constant cloud of fear.
“We want to start afresh. We want to educate our children. Such has been our experience in the last 15 years that our eldest daughter wants to become a lawyer now,” said Bano as her husband Yakoob sat beside her holding their one-month-old daughter.
“Although our journey for justice has been long-drawn, our faith in the Indian judiciary had been re-established. We are relieved now. I also hope that, like Bilkis, rape survivors of all communities should get justice,” Yakoob said with a sigh of relief on his face.
But starting afresh may not be as easy as one may think. And Yakoob already has an inkling of what comes next.
“Our traditional business has always been cattle-rearing and trading. But now we are being seen as butchers. We fear getting attacked all the time just for doing our job. We have to figure out what to do in future,” said Yakoob as he hinted at the duplicity of the cow protection campaign and rogue gau rakshak groups in Gujarat.
On March 3, 2002, Bilkis, who was a 19-year-old girl at the time, fled her village along with her family in a truck as Muslim homes were targeted by Hindutva mobs in the riots. The truck was stopped by an armed mob of around 30-35 rioters in Randhikpur village of Dahod district near Ahmedabad. The mob gangraped Bano, who was pregnant then, and killed 14 of her family members including her two-year-old daughter and her mother Halima.
Her long, arduous journey to secure justice had only just begun. She approached the Limkheda police station, where officials reluctantly filed a FIR but did not name the rapists, whom Bano had identified.
In March 2003, the Limkheda judicial magistrate effectively closed the case on the basis of a “Summary A” report filed by state police officials who quoted “inconsistencies” in Bano’s version.
Bano was forced to appeal at the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), which requested senior counsel Harish Salve to represent Bano in Supreme Court (SC). Bano, who became a petitioner in the SC case, prayed for the quashing of the “Summary A” report and, a CBI enquiry and action against the Gujarat police officers and adequate compensation.
Meanwhile, the state CID had started harassing Bano and her extended family, forcing the Supreme Court to hand the case over to the CBI.
It was only in 2004 that the CBI arrested 12 accused people and found the Gujarat police complicit in the cover-up of the horrific crime. As she and other witnesses faced threats continuously, the Supreme Court transferred the case to Mumbai and appointed a public prosecutor on Bano’s request.
On the basis of the CBI charge sheet, which had named 20 people including six police officers and two government doctors as the accused, and the cross-examination of 73 witnesses, the Mumbai sessions court found 12 people guilty but acquitted five police officers and the two doctors. One of the convicts had died during the trial.
Sexual violence and riots
Several estimates indicate that more than 250 women were gangraped during the riots and the conviction rate in these cases has been abysmal. “Lots of documentary evidence provew that women’s bodies are first and the easiest targets in any situation of a riot. Sexual violence has become a frequently-used tool to silence the powerless. Communalism and sexual violence against women are intricately linked with each other,” said Kavita Srivastava, activist with the People’s Union for Civil Liberties.
Vijay Hiremath, the counsel for Bilkis, said that in such a context, she should be really appreciated for her immense strength. “I have seen a number of cases in which survivors pull out because of many extraneous factors. Bano stood strong and took immeasurable pain despite such a long-drawn judicial process.”
He said that the high court judgment is one of the rare cases in which police officers have been convicted and the complicity of state officials have been acknowledged by the court.
He also read out portions from the judgment:
“They tried to gag the mouth of the prosecutrix… Her evidence emerged before us like a collage which we find completely trustworthy…They investigation was not only unsatisfactory but it smacked of dishonest steps to screen the culprits. This itself is the most incriminating circumstance against the accused… The earlier investigation has played the role of villain in the case… The omissions on the part of police accused are so grave and so obvious that their malafides and intentions are very apparent… The investigation is not only faulty but it is downright tainted.”
Activists who accompanied Bilkis said that the high court order is a historic moment as it is possibly the first time that police complicity was clearly acknowledged by the judiciary. “The impunity the police enjoy in India has been questioned. And many who have frequently pointed out the role of police in aiding and abetting the perpetrators of violence in riots stand vindicated. Not only Bilkis but many such survivors of riots will see this as a reference point,” said Gagan Sethi, a Gujarat-based activist who works on Dalit issues.
Farida Abdulla Khan, a member of the National Commission for Minorities told The Wire, “I think her victory is huge in the current political environment where everyday violence against minorities is on the rise. I admire the judges that they held the complicit state officials accountable. This reinforces the state’s responsibility to protect its citizens irrespective of caste, creed and religion. The conviction of police in this case is great first step towards securing justice for many like Bilkis Bano.”
Others pointed out that adequate mechanisms to compensate the survivors of mass violence need to be set up up by the government. “It is sad that people like Bilkis had to fight their cases without any state support. The governments are not even talking about compensation. It is high time they start thinking about it,” said noted writer-activist Farah Naqvi.
The award-winning director Shonali Bose, whose film Amu chronicles the 1984 pogrom against the Sikhs of Delhi, also addressed the press conference, as did retired bureaucrat N.C. Saxena.
“The judgment is being hailed as historic as it is the first time that state officials – such as the police and doctors – have been indicted in India for the cover up of a crime,” Bose said in a Facebook post after the event. “However, while this is indeed an absolutely terrific accomplishment on the part of the activists and Bilkis, it is the very least we can expect in a supposedly modern democracy and polity. The cover up was not just denial of an FIR but the beheading of the corpses and burial in mass graves to prevent future identification. For this heinous crime these officials have been given the extremely light sentence of 3 years.”