Bilkis Bano who fought a 15 year long battle for justice, is a survivor of one of the most horrific incidents of violence in the Gujarat riots.
On March 3, 2002, Bilkis (then 19 years old) was 6 months pregnant and was gangraped by an armed mob of attackers that killed 14 members of her family. Her 3 year old daughter was ‘smashed’ on the ground and killed right in front her eyes while several female members of her family were raped and murdered.
Since then she has been fighting for justice despite threats and intimidation. She approached the National Human Rights Council and petitioned the Supreme Court after the local police reportedly dismissed the case and threatened her. The case was forwarded to the CBI for investigation and the case was shifted from Gujarat to Maharashtra when the court could reportedly not trust the state even with the judicial proceedings.
On May 4 2017, the Bombay High Court delivered a historic judgement in which the court upheld life imprisonment for 11 accused men. 7 Policemen and doctors were also convicted for their involvement. These men were accused of ‘covering up’ the event by beheading the corpses of her family members and burying them.
Bilkis spoke about her journey in an overcrowded room at a press conference in New Delhi. She called it a long and seemingly never ending struggle for her yet she held her faith in the judicial system in the stauch belief that “when you are on the side of the truth you will be heard”.
Even as journalists and photographers jostled with each other for a better view; and a scribe decided to be offensive by repeating questionable questions; and activists present gave differing views about the judgement, for Bilkis and her husband, it was all about picking life up again. And their focus was on their family, their livelihood and a desire now to begin anew.
Shonali Bose, a national award winning filmmaker described the judgement “too little, too late” demanding harsher sentences, a calm Bilkis said that for her and her family this is a new beginning as finally they could begin to live their life free of fear.
The family had to relocate to a new house 20-25 times at least in these years, as they lived in constant fear about the parole granted to the accused every two months, her husband Yakub Rasool said.
He spoke about how his belief in the judiciary was rekindled by this judgement. With tears in his eyes Yakub Rasool who has been a pillar of support for his wife, spoke of his elder daughter and how she wants to become a lawyer, and how they as parents want to hold on to that hope. After a battle of 15 long years the judgement he said, made him realise that there is some justice left in the country.
Some journalists sought Bilkis Bano’s comments on the Supreme Court verdict in the Nirbhaya case where the accused had been given the death penalty. Why not in her case? Activists agreed by for Bilkis Bano comparisons were clearly odious. She did not want to be drawn into this debate, and refused to compare tragedies despite the persistent questions.
She stated with a flash of the spirit that has kept her going for 15 years, “ I want Justice, not revenge. I want my daughters to grow up in a safe India.”
Also with her was Human rights Lawyer Vijay Hiremath, who represented Bilkis in the appeal in Mumbai read out startling statements from the judgement that had found the investigation into the case not just “faulty but tainted.”
The press conference posed inevitable questions at the delay in providing justice to offenders by the judiciary for this judgement comes 15 long years after Bilkis’ life was torn apart by an incident that scarred her and her family for the rest of their lives. Hate crime against minorities is on the rise and this judgement is a landmark as it convicts the police officers for their role in covering up gruesome rape and murder in communal violence. For the activists present at the media meet, the judgement remained insufficient as it punished the police officers who covered up the crime by beheading corpses for only 5 years. But for Bilkis and her family it is a new beginning, a chance to live life in security and safety.