August 15, 2022, the day India completed 75 years of independence, will go down as one of the blackest days in the history of post-independent India. A terrible day for Bilkis Yakub Rasool and for millions of other Indians who cherish all that is sacred: justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. On that day, as Bilkis Bano (as she is referred to) watched the news in her home in Devgadh Baria, Gujarat, her entire world came crashing down. She could not believe what she was hearing. It was worse than the worst nightmare: The 11 men who had been sentenced to life imprisonment for gang-raping her and murdering her family members during the 2002 Gujarat riots, had been released from Godhra sub-jail. Apparently, the Gujarat government had set up a panel which approved the application of the murderers and rapists, for remission of the sentence.
The horrendous tragedy of 20 years ago would naturally have unfolded before Bilkis Bano in an unimaginable manner. Following the burning of the S-6 compartment and tragic death of 59 persons (mainly ‘kar sevaks’) on 27 February 2002, all hell broke loose, the next day, in several parts of Gujarat. Sensing trouble, a group of 17 persons fled their native village of Radhikpur in Dahod district. The group comprised Bilkis, her three-year-old daughter Saleha, her mother and 14 others. They took refuge in another village Chhaparvad hoping they would be safe there. On 3rd March, however, they were attacked by about 20-30 people armed with sickles, swords, and sticks. Among the attackers were the 11 accused men, just set free.
Bilkis, her mother, and three other women were raped and brutally assaulted. Of the 17 Muslims, eight were found dead, six were missing. Only Bilkis, a man, and a three-year-old child survived the attack. Bilkis was unconscious for at least three hours; after she regained consciousness, she borrowed clothes from an Adivasi woman, made her way to the Limkheda police station to register a complaint. The Head Constable there, according to the CBI, “suppressed material facts and wrote a distorted and truncated version of Bilkis’ complaint”.
Bilkis has relived the horror of that tragedy several times over as she unwaveringly narrates the brutality, she was subjected too. In great pain she says, “All the four men of my family were killed brutally. The women were stripped naked and raped by many men. They caught me top. My 3-year-old daughter, Saleha, was in my arms. They snatched her and threw her into the air with all their might. My heart broke as her little head shattered on the rocks. Four men caught me by the arms and legs and many others entered me one by one. When satisfying their lust, they kicked me and beat my head with a rod. Assuming that I was dead they threw me into the bushes. Four or five hours later I regained my consciousness. I searched for some rags to cover my body, but couldn’t find any. I spent a day and a half on a hilltop without food or water. I longed for death. Finally, I managed to find a tribal colony. Declaring myself as a Hindu I sought shelter there.
“The men who attacked us used foul language; I can't repeat it ever. In front of me they killed my mother, sister and 12 other relatives. While raping and killing us, they were shouting sexual abuses. I could not even tell them that I was five months pregnant because their feet were on my mouth and neck. I have known the men, who raped me, for many years. We sold them milk. They were our customers. If they had any shame, they would not have done this to me. How can I forgive them?"
Any lesser mortal would have given up; not so Bilkis Bano! Her husband Yakub Rasool (who was away from home when the violence broke out) was a fortunate survivor. He has stood by his wife Bilkis, through thick and thin. At first Bilkis could hardly open her mouth. With the help of some concerned citizens, she slowly regained her confidence and realised that she was key to bringing the perpetrators of this heinous crime to book.
She picks up courage and begins that struggle for justice. She knows who the murderers and the rapists are and bravely identifies them. The journey is fraught with obstacles and hostilities; threats and intimidation. The Gujarat Government, with Narendra Modi at the helm, obviously is supportive of the criminals who raped her and killed her family members. The FIR is manipulated; the medical reports and post-mortem of the bodies omit significant details; evidence is destroyed as all the dead are buried by the police themselves; the body of her three-year-old disappears. The prosecution sides with the accused; the lower court which hears her case upholds all the falsehood and the lies. The case is closed!
Bilkis Bano, however, does not give up: she is relentless in the pursuit of justice. The National Human Rights Commission receives her petition and conducts its own independent inquiry and unequivocally supports her case. She then appeals to the Supreme Court. In 2004, the case is reopened and referred to the CBI. Twelve of the twenty accused were arrested in 2004 and the trial began in Ahmedabad. However, after Bilkis expressed grave apprehensions that witnesses could be harmed and the evidence collected by the CBI tampered with, the Supreme Court transferred the case to Mumbai. Bilkis was the only direct witness. She was constantly under threat. For her own safety, she had to move from one place to another.
In 2008, the Special Court sentenced 11 accused (one died during the trial) to life imprisonment on the charges of conspiring to rape a pregnant woman, murder and unlawful assembly under the Indian Penal Code. The police and the doctors who were accused of being complicit in fudging reports were exonerated; but in May 2017, on an appeal from the CBI, the Mumbai High Court upholds the sentencing and also finds the doctors and the police guilty. One of the judges, Judge Salvi, termed Bilkis’ “courageous deposition as the turning point in the case.”
In 2019, the Supreme Court awarded compensation of Rs 50 lakh to Bilkis -- the first such order in a case related to the 2002 riots. The Bench of the then Chief Justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi, and Justices Deepak Gupta and Sanjiv Khanna stated, “It is very apparent that what should not have happened has happened and the state has to give compensation.”
But on Independence Day 2022, it’s back to square one for Bilkis, her kith and kin, for the many victim survivors of the Gujarat carnage, for human rights defenders and others who have given up so much for these victim survivors (Teesta Setalvad, R. B. Sreekumar and Sanjiv Bhatt are languishing in jail) and for the many millions of others. On the other hand, the rapists and the murderers are felicitated by the ‘hindutva’ brigade with ladoos and garlands when they were released. Interestingly, the moment their remission order was received, they were out of prison. They all seem to have enjoyed their ‘sentence’ – fatted, well-dressed and groomed. Most prisoners in India are certainly not as privileged as these henchmen of hindutva. In the meantime, the lynchpins and many of the accused of the Gujarat carnage continue destroying the country with impunity, having cloaked themselves with immunity.
The nation and the world at large are aghast and even outraged at the fact that the 11 criminals have had their sentence remitted. For such a ghastly crime, this ‘remission’ is just not given! Officialdom tries to justify this act: with flimsy and unacceptable reasons. Social media has gone viral, with people from all walks of life coming together to express condemnation. Leading newspapers (nationally and internationally) have had editorials and op-eds clearly taking a stand against this remission. Interestingly, even some of the ‘godified’ electronic media have gone and named the RSS and the VHP in their reportage. Powerful statements of condemnation have come from eminent citizens, intellectuals, politicians, activists and others from across the board. The voice of all is loud and clear: this act is a blatant travesty of justice. The People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) states, ‘As concerned citizens of the country we demand that this injustice be undone
1. The remission of these 11 convicts be immediately revoked
2. Protection measures for Bilkis and her family be immediately ensured
3. The Central and the State government be held accountable for such arbitrary abuse of power
4. The Government of Gujarat should place in the public domain the entire process, the proceedings of the committee leading to the Governor finally giving assent to the remission of sentences.’
Bilkis, in a public statement on 17 August, says, “Two days ago on August 15, 2022 the trauma of the past 20 years washed over me again. When I heard that the 11 convicted men who devastated my family and my life, and took from me my 3-year-old daughter, had walked free, I was bereft of words. I am still numb. Today I can only say this -- how can justice for any woman end like this? I trusted the highest courts in our land. I trusted the system, and I was learning slowly to live with my trauma. The release of these convicts has taken from me my peace and shaken my faith in justice. My sorrow and my wavering faith is not for myself alone but for every woman who is struggling for justice in courts. No one enquired about my safety and well-being, before taking such a big and unjust decision. I appeal to the Gujarat Government, please undo this harm. Give me back my right to live without fear and in peace. Please ensure that my family and I are kept safe.”
But do those who hold the reins of governance have the heart to listen to her? Seventy-five years after independence, it is so obvious that the country is not free. The nation at this moment needs to stand in solidarity with Bilkis Bano and ensure that justice triumphs! Bilkis, with all that she has gone through, could well be the new ‘Bharat Mata’ for India’s latest struggle for freedom against murderers and rapists!
(Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights, justice, reconciliation & peace activist/writer. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org )