During the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, 19-year-old Bilkis Bano witnessed the mob slaughter 14 members of her family, including her infant daughter. The mob then attacked and gangraped Bano, who was pregnant. Although there were hundreds who were victims of rape, torture and murder during those horrific days of rioting, activists said Bano’s case stood out for its sheer brutality on a single family.
In a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court directed the Gujarat government to pay Bano Rs.50 lakhs in compensation, give her a job and a house of her choosing. It also directed the government to withdraw the pension benefits of the three police officers charged in the case. In 2017, the Bombay High Court upheld the sentence of life imprisonment of 11 persons convicted in the case. The S.C.’s directive brings a closure to one of the nine riot cases probed by a Special Investigation Team. Among them, this is the first case where a huge amount has been awarded as compensation.
Bilkis Bano’s case is a powerful story of a poor and unlettered Muslim woman’s heroic struggle for justice against all odds. “It has also reinstated our faith in the legal system,” says Moisin Ahmed, a lawyer closely associated with the communal riots cases in Gujarat. Ever since the riots Bano has been dependent on non-government organisations to meet her family’s daily needs. She has moved home several times because of financial distress, but never once has she wavered in seeking justice for herself and her slain family.
“The Supreme Court judgment has proved that justice has finally been served, even if the compensatory amount could have been higher. It needs to be loud and clear, so loud that it should resound in people’s ears,” said Shobha Gupta, the lawyer who represented Bilkis Bano.
Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, who headed the bench that also comprised Justices Deepak Gupta and Sanjeev Khanna, said the need of the hour was to rehabilitate the victim, who, according to her lawyer, is living a nomadic hand-to-mouth existence, having lost everything. “In today’s world, money is the best healer. We do not know whether it can heal all, but what else can we do for her.... Ask for whatever compensation you want and we will pass orders accordingly,” said Justice Gogoi. He directed the Gujarat government to pay the compensatory amount within two weeks of the judgment.
Addressing the media soon after the Supreme Court order, Bano said “Justice and not revenge was my aim. Throughout I kept my trust in the law, my rights as a citizen, and the Supreme Court has stood by me.” The Gujarat government had offered Bano Rs.5 lakh as compensation in keeping with its policy of providing assistance to victims of rape and violence. However, she refused to accept it and instead sought exemplary compensation from the State government.
“Compensation can never bring back lives. However, it will help Bilkis start a new life and towards that I think it is a good judgment. However, until the apex court points out the State government’s role in the crime, full justice has not been served,” says Shamshad Pathan, a lawyer based in Ahmedabad who has worked closely on the riots cases. “The other good thing is that at least these cases have not been destroyed like in the case of Sohrabbudin. The victims are getting justice.”
Bano, like many thousands of Muslims, had to flee her home when communal riots broke out across Gujarat after the Sabarmati express was set on fire at Godhra station on February 27, 2002, in which 59 kar sevaks were killed. The incident triggered the most brutal violence unleashed on a minority community in recent times.
Tracing reports on Bano’s case, the victim said Muslim homes in her village, Randhikpur, in Dahod district, 200 kilometres from Ahmedabad, were attacked by ravaging mobs. Several Muslim families escaped by hiding in nearby fields and eventually taking shelter in mosques and homes of compassionate farmers. In an attempt to seek a safe spot, they were told by the local people to reach Pannivel village. Unfortunately, while walking on the highway, mobsters moving on trucks attacked them.
Bano has said time and again that she recognised many of her neighbours in the mob. According to her report, a group of men snatched her child and smashed its head on a rock nearby in front of her. The men, who were shouting slogans, then came for her. Tore her clothes and raped her. Calling them her brothers and uncles, she begged them to stop saying she was pregnant. Eventually, she was thrown by the road side and left to die. It was an Adivasi woman who gave her shelter, clothes and food. When she went to the police station, they would not record the crime. Bano finally found herself at a relief camp from where her husband rescued her. She had witnessed eight gangrapes and the slaughter of at least 25 people, 14 of them in her family.
Her story was exposed when a few local journalists stumbled upon the massacre while covering the riots. Although Bano was terrified, she continued to go to the police about the massacre of her family. When the journalists connected the dots they took her to see the bodies, where she identified eight from her family. Bano was then examined at the civil hospital, and samples were taken. Yet, the rape was not registered. It was only in 2004, when the Central Bureau of Investigation and the SIT began their investigation that the case was given importance.
Bano’s case was filed in the Ahmedabad Special Court. Apprehensive about a trial in Gujarat, Bano’s legal team requested that it be shifted to Maharashtra. In January 2008, a Special Court in Mumbai convicted and sentenced 11 men to life imprisonment for raping Bano and murdering seven members of her family. The court acquitted seven people, including five policemen and two doctors, who were charged with not recording evidence and tampering with and destroying critical evidence. Bano challenged this judgment.
In May 2017, the Bombay High Court convicted the seven. The court dismissed a plea filed by the convicts that the evidence gathered by the CBI was fabricated, that Bilkis gave birth to a child soon after and so she could not have been raped, and that not all her family members’ bodies had been found so they could not have been killed. It can only be hoped that Bilkis Bano can find some peace in the recent judgment.