India completed 75 years of independence on 15 August 2022! That ‘special day’ however, was one of the blackest days in the history of post-independent India. It was indeed 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 in moments. She could not believe what she was hearing. It was worse than the worst possible nightmare: the eleven men who had been sentenced to life imprisonment for gang-raping her and murdering her family members during the 2002 Gujarat carnage, had been released from the 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.
That very day, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, waxed eloquent from the ramparts of the Red Fort saying, “I have one request for every Indian. Can we change the mentality towards our women in everyday life? Pride of Nari Shakti will play a vital role in fulfilling the dreams of India! Respect for women is an important pillar for India’s growth. We need to support our Nari Shakti!” With what was unfolding in the life of Bilkis Bano and her family -with his usual empty rhetoric, the PM was only fooling himself and his ‘bhakts’ who really no not have the capacity and objectivity, leave alone the intelligence, to think for themselves!
The horrendous tragedy of twenty years ago, would naturally have come alive once again for Bilkis Bano, in a most 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 seventeen persons fled their native village of Radhikpur in Dahod district. The group comprised Bilkis, her three-year-old daughter Saleha, her mother and fourteen others. They took refuge in another village Chhaparvad hoping they would be safe and secure there. On 3 March, however, they were attacked by about 20-30 people armed with sickles, swords, and sticks. Among the attackers were the eleven accused men, just set free. Bilkis, her mother, and three other women were raped and brutally assaulted. Of the seventeen Muslims, eight were found dead(beheaded!), 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 later, “suppressed material facts and wrote a distorted and truncated version of Bilkis’ complaint”.
Bilkis has relived the horror of that tragedy which engulfed her life. several times over, as she unwaveringly narrates the brutality, she was subject too. In great pain she says, “All the 4 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 is key in bringing the perpetrators of this heinous crime, to book. She plucked up courage and began the struggle for justice. She always knew who the murderers and the rapists were and she bravely identified them. The journey was fraught with obstacles and hostilities; threats and intimidation. The Gujarat Government, with Narendra Modi at the helm, obviously was supportive of the criminals who raped her and killed her family members. The FIR was manipulated; the medical reports and post-mortem of the bodies omitted significant details; evidence was destroyed as all the dead were buried by the police themselves; the bodies of the men were found decapacitated from the head to avoid recognition; the body of her three-year-old toddler disappeared. The prosecution sided blatantly and unjustly with the accused; the lower court which heard her case upheld all the falsehood and the lies. The case was closed!
Bilkis Bano however, did not give up: she was relentless in the pursuit of justice. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC)under the stewardship of Justice J. S. Verma, received her petition in 2003 and conducted its own independent inquiry and supported her case. On behest of the NHRC, India’s then, top-most lawyer then Harish Salve represented Bilkis in her appeal to the Supreme Court. In 2004, the case was 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 (she does so even today!). In 2008, the Special Court sentenced eleven 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 upheld the sentencing and also found the doctors and 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. It was also the highest ever compensation paid to a rape-victim in the history of Indian judiciary. 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 then Independence Day 2022 unfolded: and it is 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 (like Teesta Setalvad, R. B. Sreekumar and Sanjiv Bhatt are today languishing in jail) and for many millions of others. On the other hand, the rapists and the murderers, were felicitated by the ‘hindutva’ brigade with ladoos and garlands and treated like ‘heroes’ when they were released. Interestingly, the moment their remission order was received, they were out of prison. They all seem to have had enjoyed their ‘sentence’: fatted, well-dressed and groomed as the photos show! Most prisoners in India are certainly not as privileged as these henchmen of hindutva. Meanwhile, 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 eleven 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. Top legal luminaires are also of the opinion that Section 435 in the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) clearly stipulates that the State must necessarily consult the Centre before any remission of sentence is given. It would have been impossible for Gujarat State to have taken such a unilateral decision without the total approval and support of the Central Government. So, Modi’s talk about ‘nari shakti’ is not only hollow but sheer humbug! If he was serious about such a crucial matter, he would have ordered the State Government to put the eleven back behind bars immediately! Will the CBI, the NHRC under Arun Mishra or for that matter Harish Salve, take a stand for Bilkis today?
The BJP and their ilk have consistently been advocating the death penalty for rapists! Ironically, there is not a whimper of protest from any of them-particularly from their women parliamentarians like Smriti Irani, who go high-decibel screaming and screeching on other matters – particularly on those issues, which are of no consequence to the people of India! CK Raulji, was one of the two BJP MLAs (Sumanben Chauhan from Kalol was the other one)— who was part of the 11-member jail advisory committee of the district that unanimously recommended remission for the eleven convicts. In an interview to a news portal, he had the termity to state that the criminals “could have been framed intentionally”. What he added has shocked the soul of the nation. “I don’t know whether they committed the crime or not. But their conduct was good; the activity of the family was very good. They are Brahmins. Their sanskar (values) were very good”!
In a public statement on 17 August Bilkis 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”.
People from all walks of life, have bonded together to condemn the ignominy heaped on Bilkis and on her family; most regard this ‘remission’ as an affront to the dignity of Indian women. The voice of all is loud and clear: this act is a blatant travesty of justice. Legal experts are unequivocal about their stand on this particular remission. Retired Justice U.D. Salvi, who had sentenced the eleven men to life imprisonment said that “the one who suffers knows it better.” Leading print media have had editorials and op-eds taking a strong stand against this remission. Interestingly, even some of the ‘godified’ electronic media have even named the RSS and the VHP in their reportage. There have also been physical public protests all over the country. In Ahmedabad, a public protest on 19 August, organised by some civil society groups of women, was not granted permission by the police. When a group of activists defied the police and still protested, they were immediately detained but then released! A nation-wide protest has now been planned on Saturday,27 August 2022!
Powerful statements of condemnation have come in from eminent citizens, intellectuals, politicians, activists, platforms, movements and others. The People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) state, “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 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.
Leading intellectual Pratap Bhanu Mehta in an incisive op-ed ‘Is this how justice ends?’: Bilkis Bano’s question should haunt the Indian republic’ (Indian Express, 19 August 2022)writes, “the Bilkis Bano case was so horrific that even hearing about it produces a deep cognitive and imaginative loss, and an emotional disorientation. The crime was so graphic, the facts corroborated so many times. But we still recoil at the thought of the kind of brutality that involved rape of a pregnant woman, smashing a child to death, massacring a whole family, all by your neighbours. “Mehta concludes his must-read peace with, “so the answer to Bilkis Bano’s question — “Is this how justice ends?” — may be a disquieting one. Her perseverance got her a measure of justice, and allowed us to cling on to the illusion that justice was still possible. But as it turns out, as the winds of communalisation and impunity once again grow, those slivers of justice will once again be blown away. This is not how justice ends, since perhaps real justice had never started”.
Seventy-five years ago, our committed freedom fighters with their many sacrifices, gave India her freedom! Bilkis Bano, today, with her relentless fight for justice and the suffering which she is still going through, has come to symbolise India’s latest struggle for freedom. The choice then is, before the people of India: to urgently reclaim the democratic values, the pluralistic fabric of our nation and to ensure that ‘real justice’ starts today or to succumb to the whims and fancies of the fascists allowing for rapists and murderers to rule our nation!
(Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ is a human right, justice, reconciliation & peace activist/writer. Contact: email@example.com )