Look at Bilkis in this photograph: clad in a burqa, face visible to the world, eyes gazing straight at the camera, her index finger raised to show a mark which is indelible. It’s a mark that every Indian citizen sports like a badge of honour on an appointed date every five years.
The mark is proof that Bilkis Bano is one among those millions who have the power to decide the present and future course of their country. She is an Indian voter, an integral part of the description emblazoned on the first leaf of the Indian constitution – ‘We, the People’.
This is what she said:
“I was unable to cast my vote for 17 years because we were always on the run. Today I have cast my vote, and my vote is for the unity of the country… I have faith in the democratic system of my country – in the electoral process.”
Bilkis Bano was not alone. With her were her husband, Yakub, and four-year-old daughter. The woman standing outside a voting booth in Devgadh Baria, a town in Gujarat’s Dahod district, about 900 kms from the Indian capital, was not there just for herself – she was there for all of us. She was not merely exercising her right to vote; she was telling us that the mantle of Indianness doesn’t come within reach all that easily. It has to be acquired. It has to be paid for in blood and sweat.
Who deprived Bilkis of her right to vote for 17 years? Who was at the helm in Gujarat through those years and who held the reins of power at the Centre? Why was Bilkis forced to take flight and wander around the country for years at a stretch with her family, not staying in a place for too long and constantly remaining in hiding? Why was she not safe, why did she not feel secure in the place she calls her country?
At present, she stays with her husband and four children in a one-room house located in a relief colony in Devgadh Baria. The relief colony happens to be located in a state which is considered by the most powerful people of India to be an exemplar of development. It is a state that you are invited to come and experience at least once by no less than the person who is regarded by many as the man of the century. While extending this invite with a winsome smile, would it have crossed the mind of the man of the century that one Bilkis might consider this invitation to be a trap.
It is essential for every Indian to know the story of Bilkis and understand its significance, as well as register the import of the date, April 23, 2019. It was on this day that the highest court of the country accounted for the injustice meted out to Bilkis.
Mind you, it was just one instance of the guilty being brought to reckoning. The Supreme Court fixed the accountability for the gangrape of Bilkis Bano on March 3, 2002, on the government of Gujarat. Further, the apex court instructed the state government to give her a compensation of Rs 50 lakh, a job and a place of residence of her choice.
This was the second time Bilkis had knocked on the Supreme Court’s door, following her refusal to accept the Gujarat government’s insulting compensation offer of Rs 5 lakh. She told the court that the insignificant amount did not in any way match up to the grave injustice she had had to suffer. That the court took cognizance of her argument is a matter of great relief for us.
The purpose of telling the story of Bilkis is not to bring tears to your eyes or awaken your pity but to be aware of the resolve, courage and struggle it takes to hold on to one’s right of citizenship.
Bilkis was not alone in her long drawn-out struggle for justice. One must remember the tribal woman (and her family) who provided clothes for Bilkis to cover her body, gave her shelter and continued to be an unwavering witness to the atrocity committed against her. To stand firm as a witness on such a matter, especially in a state like Gujarat, is not for the faint-hearted.
One must also remember those in Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Mumbai, Lucknow and Delhi who had Bilkis stay with them during the years when she was struggling to stay out of the reach of murderers. They kept her fighting spirit alive, held her hand and helped her cross the court’s threshold time and again, as the killers looked on.
It is all the more important to keep in mind that those who helped Bilkis thus did not have blood-ties with her, nor were they from the same caste or religion. They saw themselves as her fellow citizens. In fighting the battle for justice they not only helped Bilkis hold on to her citizenship; they proved their citizenship and fulfilled their obligations as citizens.
What they proved was this: citizenship is acquired not in isolation but in togetherness. That is how the identity of the nation comes into being as well. The fourth, immensely significant, promise that we the people of India have made to ourselves in the Preamble of our constitution, is that our quest to attain Indianness be informed by the spirit of fraternity, or fellowship.
In the absence of that fraternal spirit, we would not be able to fulfill the other three promises of freedom, equality and justice. Who Bilkis cast her vote for we do not know. What one knows for sure is that her vote would definitely have been against the ruler who did not lift a finger to protect her right to citizenship despite the fact that the reins of the government of Gujarat were in his hands.
It was not an oversight but a considered decision. He felt no shame whatsoever that a resident of his state was forced to say that it was impossible for her to receive justice from the highest court in that state. Nor did it trouble him that he did nothing to either make her feel protected or support her quest for justice.
The vote cast by Bilkis is a vote of no confidence against a ruler such as this. We are being tested, too – are we with Bilkis or with those who did not protect her?
It took time for the day of April 23, 2019, to dawn. There will come a time when this date will bring to mind not just Pandita Ramabai’s birth anniversary but the name of Bilkis Bano as well, when the story of her long and arduous journey up to this date will be included in Indian school textbooks on political science and literature and made compulsory reading.
When the coming generations read this story, may they remember Gagan Sethi’s sad smile in memory of all those unknown Bilkis Banos who were felled on the road to justice. They constituted the price that was paid for the Indianness we stake our right on – a price paid by those whose names we are singularly unaware of.
Our daughters and their daughters will surely have such texts to read. We shall regain Hindustan. For now, it suffices to say, long live Bilkis.
Translated from the Hindi original by Chitra Padmanabhan.