Fight goes on

Published : Feb 15, 2008 00:00 IST

Bilkis Yakub Patel with her husband and child at a press conference in New Delhi on January 21. - R.V. MOORTHY

Bilkis Yakub Patel with her husband and child at a press conference in New Delhi on January 21. - R.V. MOORTHY

The Mumbai special court verdict in the Bilkis rape case raises the question whether riot victims can get justice only outside Gujarat.

Bilkis Yakub Patel

BILKIS YAKUB PATEL has got justice, but she is imprisoned by fear. The men who raped her have been convicted for life by a special court in Mumbai. Yet Bilkis remains a fugitive. She lives in hiding, under threat for testifying against them in the court.

Bilkis had to flee her village, Randhikpur, in Dahod district when Muslims were attacked during the communal pogrom in Gujarat in March 2002. She and her family picked up their children and ran to the hills nearby.

Bilkis was then four months pregnant and had her two-year-old daughter, Saleha, with her. Her sister Shamim was in an advanced stage of pregnancy. They walked for three days, seeking shelter for a few hours in peoples homes on the way. Shamim gave birth to a baby at a mosque, but they had to leave soon, before they could be traced.

At Panivela, a remote village in the hills, their Hindu neighbours caught up with them. They gang-raped the women and killed them. They beheaded little Saleha. Bilkis was the lone survivor. She lay unconscious and woke up to see 14 bodies around her.

After walking for at least six hours, she stumbled on a police squad from Limkheda. It took her to the police station, recorded her complaint and arranged treatment for her injuries. From there she was taken to the Godhra relief camp, where she found her husband. Miraculously, her unborn baby survived the ordeal.

The Gujarat Police tried to hush up Bilkis case. They closed it with the note that it was true but undetected and that there was not sufficient evidence.

But Bilkis was stubborn in her fight for justice. Though she was being threatened, she appealed to the Supreme Court pleading for a proper investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

A CBI team found that police officials and local doctors had hidden the bodies of Bilkis family. The Supreme Court transferred the case to Mumbai as Bilkis felt she would not get a fair trial in Gujarat. After a gruelling trial, the court finally convicted 12 of the 20 accused. All the members of the mob were held guilty of rape and murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. One of them died during the trial.

One police constable was held guilty of destroying evidence. Five other police personnel and two doctors who helped hide the bodies were acquitted for lack of evidence though the CBI inquiry details their role in trying to conceal the evidence.

Though her attackers are behind bars, Bilkis is not free. She still lives in exile. Since the night we fled our village, I have never returned home. I have changed houses at least 20 times. I cant tell you where I am living now. There is still fear, Bilkis told Frontline.

The atmosphere of fear in Gujarat has not ended even though my case has ended. After the verdict, Muslims in my village had to run away. This fear and hatred should stop, Bilkis said. I knew these people. I used to sell milk to them in the village. I never imagined they would kill my family.

For Bilkis, the fight for justice is not over. The policemen and doctors who hid the bodies should also be punished. I will fight further for it, she said. What happened to me has happened to many other Muslim women in Gujarat. They should also get justice as I have.

But justice is elusive in Gujarat, where the State government machinery works to protect the accused and further marginalise the minorities. That is why witnesses such as Bilkis have filed cases in the Supreme Court asking for a CBI investigation and a fair trial beyond the State borders.

Besides Bilkis case, only one other the Best Bakery case has been tried outside Gujarat. That case, too, resulted in punishment for the accused.

Ten cases dealing with the worst massacres during the Gujarat pogrom, including the Godhra case, are still pending in the Supreme Court for more than four years. We are asking for a CBI investigation and trial outside Gujarat. Bilkis verdict vindicates our stand that justice is only possible outside, said Tanvir Jafri, son of the late Ahsan Jafri, the Member of Parliament who was brutally killed in the Gulbarg Society massacre in Ahmedabad.

The verdict in Bilkis case is heartening, said Tanvir Jafri. But the policemen should also be punished since they consciously tried to derail the investigation. It will send out a message to other police personnel that they cannot defy the rule of law and get away with it. The people from the mob were mere pawns. The true culprits Chief Minister Narendra Modi, powerful politicians and policemen remain unpunished.

Tanvir Jafris mother, Zakia, filed a case against the Chief Minister and 69 others for conspiring and planning the pogrom in 2002. The police took no action, and the Gujarat High Court asked them to file a case in the magistrate court.

Some public prosecutors, supposed to fight for the victims, are Sangh Parivar members. A detailed sting investigation by Tehelka magazine has interviews with several Sangh Parivar leaders who spoke about how they formed a panel of advocates to defend the rioters.

For instance, the senior government pleader in Mehsana district is Dilip Trivedi, the Vishwa Hindu Parishads general secretary. He leads a team of public prosecutors in the district.

A public prosecutor in Sabarkantha district told Tehelka that it was his sacred duty to shield the Hindus even if he is arguing against them in court. Babu Bajrangi, the main accused in the massacre at Naroda Patiya in Ahmedabad, told Tehelka that Modi changed judges thrice to get him out on bail.

The police, too, have hidden evidence and not recorded testimonies properly. The Gujarat Police have closed more than half of the cases as true but undetected. Later, the Supreme Court ordered the Gujarat Police to re-investigate all the cases. Now, all the cases, barring 59, have been reopened.

Theres very little hope of justice here in Gujarat, says Navaz Kotwal, a human rights activist. Judges who convict the accused are transferred. Court hearings are a nightmare for witnesses. They are harassed, made to appear 20 times without being called to testify. The police escorts accompanying the witnesses go and hug the accused in court.

Witnesses are unsafe either way, says Kotwal. If the accused are acquitted, they threaten the witnesses. If they are convicted, they manage to get out on parole on the most flimsy grounds. When they are back in the village, they harass the witnesses.

In the two years from 2005, several convicts in Panchmahal district were out on parole for 200-250 days, says Kotwal.

The reasons cited for granting parole are the same for most convicts and are as ridiculous as their wives have pelvic inflammatory diseases or their houses are flooded.

It is an ironic twist of justice that several of the criminals convicted in riot cases can visit their homes though they are supposed to be in jail, but several victims still cannot return to their old homes. Many like Bilkis remain exiles.

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