New Delhi: Nearly six years ago, in May 2017, Bilkis Bano returned from a press conference in Delhi, went into the room she was staying in and locked the door.
Ten minutes later she emerged, re-adjusted her pink headscarf and sat down to speak to a reporter, who asked Bilkis, with a concern and sensitivity not often on display, if she was too tired to speak and offered to return another day.
Setting aside her exhaustion, Bilkis went through with the interview, not wanting to inconvenience the other reporters waiting to speak to her.
When Bilkis spoke, there was an urgency in her voice.
“This is the last time I have to speak of my life," said Bilkis. "Then I will go home to some peace.”
In her 20-year-long hard-fought battle for justice, Bilkis, now 41, tried to stay away from media attention. All she would say is, “I have faith in India’s courts, they will do justice.”
On 4 May 2017, when the Bombay High Court upheld the life sentences for 11 men convicted by a lower court, among those rapists and murderers who had shattered her life forever, she profusely thanked the legal system for giving her the justice she had fought so hard and long for.
On 15 August 2022, India’s 76th Independence Day 2022, those convicted were set free by a remission order of the Gujarat government. Given her long battle, she could have done what many suggested, let things be, the jail terms the convicts served were rare example of justice delivered in the cases of anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002 and the only convictions for rape.
Moving Home, 20 Times In 20 Years
For Bilkis and her family the determination to fight on has meant shifting homes more than 20 times in 20 years, often living anonymously in neighbourhoods with no extended family or friends.
It meant long drives from Ahmedabad to Mumbai, in the cover of the night, to come and testify in court where the cross-examinations would stretch for a month and then be repeated shortly after. It meant recounting every detail of being raped, then reliving the rape and murder of her loved ones.
It called for determination to keep going when other Gujarat riot cases were falling apart, as the latest one did on 21 April 2023, when a special court in Ahmedabad acquitted all 69 accused. It involved forcing those who offered inducements to back-off and coping with the threats and intimidation, which continue.
The fight also meant that for 20 years, Bilkis could not block out the memories. “Sometimes when I smile, I feel guilty," she said in 2012, when I met her during the shooting of a documentary. “People will say, look at her laugh, Bilkis must have lied about the hadsa (the incident).”
Since the remission order, Bilkis and her family have had to move home once again. In the midst of her packing, she suddenly stopped to ask if it was worth it.
“Yeh log toh phir se bhagayenge mujhey, yahee mar jaatey hai. These people will chase me away again, let's die here," she told me over the phone when I spoke to her shortly after the remission order.
But Bilkis, as always, did not give up on either her own determination and faith in India’s justice system, despite the setbacks, the time and the trauma.
Her case, after being seemingly put to rest five years ago, is now back before the Supreme Court, which has scheduled the hearing on the Gujarat government’s remission order for a final disposal on 2 May 2023.
The Costs Of Repetition
Only Bilkis knows the cost of each battle. The 2017 judgement convicting the men who raped her and murdered her family had finally given her a chance to look beyond the courts, to forego the constant demand for her testimony.
For 20 years, she repeated the sequence of events, for lawyers, to judges, to journalists and to those who have tried to provide her support. She repeated how she was gangraped in 2002, her child's head smashed against a stone and 14 of her family murdered.
Bilkis was five months pregnant when she was raped in her village in Gujarat, run then and now by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of then chief minister and now Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“Each time I repeat it I can feel my pulse throb in my neck. It isn’t just pain but the fear that if I get one detail wrong their lawyers (the defence) will tear into me, accuse me of lying,” she told me in 2007, when I met her in Ahmedabad.
Acknowledging the nature of the crimes committed and Bilkis’ long and arduous journey for justice, the Supreme Court had said, “While the state eventually punished the perpetrators of the crime, the victim was left devastated after seeing human fury at its worst… Not only was she raped 22 times, her daughter aged 3.2 years, was smashed to death. Ever since the appellant has been living a nomadic life and surviving at the charity of NGOs.”
Justice, Not Revenge
Justice is all that Bilkis ever fought for, never revenge.
She refused to ever press for the death penalty. In 2017, when the Bombay High Court upheld the conviction of the 11 accused, she said she only felt a certain solace in the court’s recognition of the savagery she had witnessed and experienced.
Bilkis told me that as the judgement was being pronounced, she closed her eyes and whispered the names of each member of her family murdered, as if to tell them that she had managed to hold their perpetrators accountable.
She had tried to go back to the memories of them as they were—mother, sisters, uncles, aunts, in Singwad, adjacent to Randhikpur village, in Dahod district of Gujarat, 14 of her family, a large part of her maternal home, now wiped out.
Among those were Halima Abdul, her mother, constantly giving her advice on foods she should eat through her pregnancy. Her younger sisters Mumtaz and Munni, the youngest, not even seven, Irfan and Aslam, her brothers, Majid Patel, her maternal uncle, Amina Jamal Patel her paternal aunt, Yusuf Musa Patel, her paternal uncle (chacha sasra), Yakub’s father’s eldest brother, Sugra Yusuf Patel her paternal aunt, Mumtaz, Madina and Shamim Musa Patel, her cousins.
“Sometimes when I stand in the kitchen, like this, doing simple things like this I can feel a man approaching me from the back, wanting to kill me,” Bilkis had said, while we were filming her making tea in a temporary home in Baroda in 2012.
It was at the time she made an impulsive decision to return to her father’s home in Singwad with us, as we filmed her for NDTV, for the first time since the violence of 2002.
The Journey Home
“Every day I grapple with the thought. I feel like returning to my village but without my mothers or my sisters it will no longer be my maika (parental home)," she said in 2012. "But I still have family there and I long to see them, be with them.”
Her husband Yakub and other members of her family were concerned for her security, unsure whether she should make the journey but she felt that accompanying us would help her confront the past. The two-and-a-half-hour drive, through Dahod’s rocky, forested terrain was a difficult one. Yakub kept naming villages where other Muslim families had been killed, until Bilkis pleaded with him to stop.
Bilkis’ own home was in the main market street. A decade later the family still felt it was unsafe for her to go there. Many of the members of her extended family came to see her at her uncle’s home, tucked away on one side of the village.
At first, she looked at them, dazed, then smiled until an aunt came to hug her. Both of them held each other and wept. Not a person in the room was without tears. I do not have the words to describe what our cameras captured, emotions that could not really be recorded.
We left Bilkis with her family while we went to the main market, which caters to Singwad and the adjacent village of Randhikpur. About 500 Muslim families lived here, mostly cattle traders.
Socially, economically the Muslims were tied to the Hindus, mostly merchants. The 2002 violence against the Muslims had socially and economically shattered that bond forever.
Neighbours Turned Killers
The shops and businesses lining both sides were run by neighbours and people Bilkis and her family knew well. Among them were the homes of the accused, the men who had gone from being lawyers, doctors, shopkeepers to murderers, like Shailesh Bhatt and his brother Mitesh.
Their house was just across the road from Bilkis home. Shailesh Bhatt was the BJP’s district secretary and we were told the two brothers ran a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) shakha in the main school ground in Randhikpur. Radhey Shyam, another convict, was a lawyer.
Ten years later, as I recall that visit, the travesty of what is unfolding now is evident. In the same streets where Bilkis once lived, where she was always afraid to return, her rapists and those who murdered her family, now roam free, celebrated and welcomed as heroes.
C K Raulji, the BJP member of Parliament from Godhra was part of the committee recommending the release of the 11. He virtually exonerated the men, calling them sanskari Brahmins, in an interview to Mojo Story on 18 August, 2022.
It is precisely because of distortions such as this that it becomes necessary to recount Bilkis’ story once again. It is an account that is readily available in the many stories that have been written on the case but an entire generation has grown up that sees the Gujarat riots as the past, as an incident that is now history.
On 28 February 2002, violence engulfed Godhra, a day after a fire on a passenger train killed 60 kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya. Accusing the Muslims of setting the train on fire, Hindu mobs went on a rampage. Countless testimonies from eye-witnesses and journalists chronicled how the mobs went about their task with minimal or no interference from the police.
Bilkis, five months pregnant at the time, was visiting her father’s home in Singwad. Neighbours, shop-owners from the village market, most of them people Bilkis had known since her childhood, overnight become abettors or part of murderous Hindu mobs.
The family fled the village. Her cousin Shamim was about to deliver a baby. The doctors told her it could come any day.
Death, Rape & Survival
At first the sarpanch or headman of Singwad tried to protect them but under pressure he felt they would be safer if they left the village. By the evening of 28 February, the family reached Chundadii village where another sarpanch gave them refuge.
Bilkis always remembers the kindness of this “Manjhi sarpanch” (from the Manjhi community), a Hindu, who gave them all something to eat. But when they were told that location had also been revealed to the mob, he asked them to escape.
A few kilometres away they stopped at Kuwajer, a small settlement where Shamim delivered a baby girl. They stayed the night here, hoping the rocky hills would provide some cover. The next morning, they fled to Khudra village, staying at the home of an Adivasi who gave them shelter until they had to leave and flee again.
On 3 March 2002, near Panivela, as they were making their way through the rocky forested area, typical of this region, the mob hunted them down.
Two members from the group, along with Bilkis, escaped. Seven-year-old Saddam survived because his mother, Amina, clutched him and held him under her own body, even as she bled to death after being stabbed repeatedly.
The mob thought they had killed Hussain, Shamim’s four-year-old son, when they threw him into the bushes, but he survived. Bilkis was pinned down and raped by three of the men. She fell unconscious. Leaving her for dead, they walked away.
A few hours later, when she regained consciousness, it was to the sight of torn clothes and bleeding flesh, with blood-stained rocks and the corpses of her family strewn around her. Bilkis would be the only adult eyewitness to the massacre.
Bilkis survived and was later reunited with her husband Yaqub in a riot relief camp in Godhra where she would give birth to a girl.
Ignored, Threatened By Police
Struggling to understand and accept what had happened, Bilkis first went to the local police. Near the Paniveala road, she found a police van, which took her to Limkheda police station.
In all that followed, the Limkheda police’s actions were severely indicted by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which took over the case on Supreme Court orders in December 2003.
Even though Bilkis had identified the rapists, the police did not include those names in the first information report (FIR). The police also recorded the killing of seven people instead of 14, claiming the other bodies had not been found.
The police refused to write the name of Bilkis’ three-year-old daughter Saleha in the list of those killed. A year later, on 25 March 2003, the Limkheda police filed what is called a summary A report, which cited inconsistencies in the testimony and a lack of evidence. It was accepted by the judicial magistrate, and the case was closed.
“I had hoped that once the police heard my story, they would support me and find the murderers," Bilkis , me when I interviewed her in 2007. "Instead, they threatened to kill me.”
It was only after the closure that she came to realise that the violence she had experienced could not be looked at in isolation, it was drawn from the political situation of Gujarat.
'People In Delhi Believe Me'
Bilkis’ personal loss and grief would soon mesh with the wider trauma of betrayal by the justice system. She had known nothing of law or politics but for the next 20 years, her life would be consumed by it.
In April 2003 Bilkis approached the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), which requested senior counsel, Harish Salve to represent Bilkis in the Supreme Court. Her petition in the Supreme Court asked the Limkheda summary be quashed and a CBI enquiry be instituted.
The NHRC with Justice Verma at its helm had, in the immediate aftermath of the riots, sent a fact-finding team, which indicted the Gujarat government for its failures. Bilkis met Justice Verma at the relief camp in Godhra in March 2002.
“The Human Rights Commission trusted me and assured me that I would get justice," she said. "They believed me.”
For a woman who, despite all available evidence, the Gujarat administration dismissed as either a liar or someone prone to exaggeration, the NHRC intervention provided her courage to carry on her battle.
“People in Delhi believe me but why won’t those in Gujarat?" Bilkis told.me in 2007. "They’ve actually seen what was happening.”
In Gujarat, the pressure to back-off from the case started mounting. The first of many death threats came shortly after.
Death Threats & Supreme Court Intervention
On 25 September, 2003, the Supreme Court had to ask the Gujarat government to stop an investigation by the state's criminal investigation department, as it was resulting in the harassment of Bilkis and her extended family.
In December 2003, the Supreme Court handed the investigation to the CBI.
On 22 January 2004, the CBI arrested 12 of those accused. A month later they filed an interim report holding the Gujarat police complicit in the matter. On 19 April the same year, the CBI filed a chargesheet against 20 of the accused, including six police officers and two government doctors.
As the threats grew, the Supreme Court ordered Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) protection for Bilkis and other witnesses.
'Can Justice For Any Woman End Like This?'
The CBI’s work laid the ground for the case to be transferred out of Gujarat and in August the Supreme Court did so, based on an additional petition that she filed.
This felt like a breakthrough. If Gujarat had shut its doors on justice, there was hope from both the courts in Mumbai as well as the Supreme Court. It was also the first time that police officers were being held culpable in a case relating to the riots.
But this did not hold up. On 18 January, 2008 a sessions court in Mumbai, while convicting 12 men for murder and rape, acquitted seven— the five police officers and two doctors.
Bilkis would fight the case for another decade. She had a team of lawyers, activists and a husband who would support her, but each day of the legal battle added to the stress and trauma that already possessed her mind and body. Threats and intimidation were constant.
But she has not allowed the threats to cow her, not even after the remission order.
“What will I tell my mothers and my sisters, my child when I speak to them?" said Bilkis, as she waited for the Supreme Court order on the remission. “Justice was the only thing I was holding on to. How can I give up on them?”
In a statement issued on 1 December 2022, Bilkis revealed her reactions to the remission order, “When I heard that the convicts who had devastated my family and life had walked free, I was simply numb. I was paralysed with shock and with fear for my children and above all, paralysed by loss of hope. But, the spaces of my silence were filled with other voices, voices of support from different parts of the country that have given me hope in the face of unimaginable despair….’
Despite all that she has been through, despite the threats, the abandoned homes and the trauma that she and her family have endured, Bilkis has not given up on her faith in the Supreme Court.
It is faith that still keeps her going, even when it wavers, as it did when she released that statement. “How," she asked, "can justice for any woman end like this?”
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(Radhika Bordia is a journalist and Director, Global Programme, University of Missouri School of Journalism, USA)