The twenty-two-year-old struggle of Bilkis Bano: A journey of hope, courage and camaraderie

Feb 01, 2024
By Kavita Srivastava

A question which defeats me every time I look at the struggles of the survivors of rape and sexual violence is why it takes decades for any woman who breaks the silence on rape to get justice ? 

Why does the process get subverted making justice elusive ? 

I have worked with Bhanwari Devi a gang rape survivor, along with a larger collective of women’s groups for over three decades and justice remains a far cry for Bhanwari, despite being a pioneer for the legal recognition of sexual harassment of women at the workplace. Mathura a tribal girl, whose case pioneered amendments in the rape law in 1981, never got justice herself, was also forgotten by most. Nirbhaya, Jyoti, whose gangrape (and murder) on December, 16 2012, initiated a massive country wide citizens anti rape movement, pioneered a sea change in the criminal law on sexual violence along with other changes in policy, did get justice in a shorter time period, but justice continues to elude most other cases that followed.

Which is why the judgment by Justice Nagarathna quashing remission to the convicts who raped  Bilkis is such a big achievement. More difficult in terms of the context of the above cases, as her gangrape and the murder of her family members  happened in the middle of the communal violence and genocide of 2002 in Gujarat. The criminal justice system took more than twenty-two years to finally ensure that in a situation of communal violence, the criminals who committed the most heinous acts of gangrape, murders of over a dozen adults and two children, were in accordance with the gravity of the crime as per the law.  Thus eleven of the accused were given life sentences for their crimes and seven policemen and doctors were also convicted for tampering with evidence. Eighteen months ago the life sentences were reduced, through illegal and premature remission orders, passed by the State government of Gujarat, and all the prisoners were released. However, in the beginning of the new year, the remissions of sentences of all the convicted were cancelled and the convicted were sent back to jail.

Very importantly, the apex court of the country exposed the complicity of the Gujarat state institutions with the violators in the case of Bilkis Bano, showing how at different stages of the investigation there was  delay and the denial of justice.  Action was taken against the doctors and policemen who committed irregularities in the investigation of her case. The state of  Gujarat was also indicted by the SC for colluding with the accused for the premature remission.

The Supreme Court decision quashing remission for the convicts showed that despite the institutions of the state, becoming increasingly communal minded and undemocratic, complicit in acts of injustice,  the Indian criminal justice system is not lost yet. There is hope for others too who are struggling for justice.

What was Bilkis Bano case and why is important to know about her struggle? 

The 2002 communal riot incidents which saw more than a 1000 people killed according to the official sources, were a brutal assault and what international law would be called a crime against humanity. All of us who went there were shaken by the scale of brutality. Despite cultural taboos and the forced silence on sexual violence, there were so many instances of sexual violence that were reported to teams which reached there, yet it was difficult to give a number to how many such incidents of sexual violence happened. According to the citizens initiative report called ‘Survivors Speak’, published in April 2002, “These crimes against women have been grossly underreported and the exact extent of these crimes — in rural and urban areas – demands further investigation. Among the women surviving in relief camps, are many who have suffered the most bestial forms of sexual violence — including rape, gang rape, mass rape, stripping, insertion of objects into their body, stripping, molestations. A majority of rape victims have been burnt alive. The right to an FIR was denied to most people, especially when reporting on sexual violence. It is in this context that the Bilkis Bano case stands out which was one of the few where FIRs got lodged and the case was taken to its logical conclusion.

Twenty-one year old Bilkis from Randhipukar Village, District Dahod, was five months pregnant. When Muslim houses in her village were attacked on February 28th, by a mob comprising upper caste people from her own village and some outsiders, she and several of her family members fled. For two days they ran from village to village. At a mosque near Kuajher, her cousin Shamim, delivered a baby. But there was no respite for them. They had to leave immediately, including Shamim who could barely walk, carrying her newborn baby. In her testimony, recorded by women’s groups from AIDWA and Anandi, Gujarat, published in the document: The Survivors Speak: How has the Gujarat Massacre affected minority women – Fact-finding by a Women’s Panel, April, 2002, Citizen’s Initiative, Ahmedabad [India], she said,

“On March 3rd we had started moving towards Panivela village, which was in a remote and hilly area. Suddenly we heard the sound of a vehicle. A truck came with people from our own village and outsiders too. We realised that they had not come to help us. They stopped us and then the madness started. They pulled my baby from my arms and threw her away. The other women and I were taken aside and raped. I was raped by three men. I was screaming all the time. They beat me and then left me for dead. When I regained consciousness I found I was alone. All around me were the dead bodies of my family, my baby girl, the newborn baby, their bodies were covered with the rocks and boulders used to kill them. I lay there the whole night and most of the next day. I do not know when I was conscious and when unconscious. Later I was found by a police squad from Limkheda police station. I was taken to the hospital and then brought to the Godhra Camp”. Testimony as given to Anandi and AIDWA,

Bilkis not only lost 14 members of her family, it took a while for her to locate her father, brother and others. 

In the FIR which was lodged on the 4thof March itself, the police refused the write the names of the accused, though  Bilkis Bano named them as residents of her own village. The investigation which followed was  very poor and tried to show the rape as a molestation. A year later by March end 2003 the Limkheda police closed the case.

In this one year, other cases of sexual violence and murder of several Muslim women were brought to the fore by various reports. It was clear that sexual violence and rape was used as a strategy for terrorising and brutalising Muslim women in Gujarat, a classic tool used in conflict situations world over, was also used here too. As noted by  the International Initiative for Justice in Gujarat in their report, ‘Threatened Existence: A Feminist Analysis of the Genocide in Gujarat’. ‘……During our visit, we have been struck by the explicit use of male sexuality as the mechanism and mobilising tool for recruiting members for the ‘cause’ and as a means of imposing ‘Hindu’ dominance upon the Muslim community. We find chillingly unique the incitement to sexual violence as a means of proving the masculinity of the ‘Hindu’ man, as reflected in the political propaganda of the forces of Hindutva prior to, during and after the violence in February/March 2002 and as carried out through patterns of men stripping and exposing themselves to women in an aggressive and threatening manner, and committing acts of mass rape and burning of victims.’

 Apart from the above two reports the others who came out strongly on the use of sexual violence as a tool in the Gujarat communal violence included that of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, ‘Violence in Vadodara: A Report’; Concerned Citizens Tribunal, ‘Crime against Humanity’, Medico Friend Circle,Carnage in Gujarat:A Public Health Crisis’,  along with others.

Despite the horrific violence unleashed against the Muslim community of Gujarat since February 27, 2002, in which women were a central target, the National Commission for Women refused to intervene.

It was the reports of the various citizens groups and their advocacy measures including supporting  Bilkis in her unequal fight led the NHRC to file a case in the Supreme Court for the reopening of investigation in 2003 argued by India’s top lawyer Harish Salve. Post the favourable order of the Supreme Court, the case was reopened and finally transferred to the CBI for investigation. The CBI arrested the accused, including the doctors and policemen, who committed irregularities in investigation and filed a charge sheet against twenty persons by April 2004. The CBI sought witness protection for Bilkis Bano and also established state complicity and therefore sought transfer of the case to Mumbai. It was in a sessions court in Mumbai that the trial happened. After the deposition of more than 73 prosecution witnesses, life sentence was awarded to  12 of the accused by the Mumbai CBI district court in January 2008. The court also convicted one policeman for lodging a false FIR and seven police and doctor functionaries were acquitted.

Appeals were filed by both sides. In May 2017, the Mumbai High Court convicted 19 of the 20 accused, one died during the hearings. It upheld the life sentence against 11 of the accused for gangrape and murder and 7 police and doctor functionaries who were acquitted by the trial court were convicted for tampering with evidence.

Bilkis Bano, moved the Supreme Court for enhancement of compensation. In April 2019, the court directed the Gujarat Government to give her Rs 50 lakh rupees, suitable accommodation, and a job. She had to move a contempt petition six months later and finally by December 2019, the compensation was given to her along with a piece of land. Since Bilkis was not in a situation to accept the job offer and since the job could not be transferred to her husband, they decided to let go of the job offer.

In a surprise move the convicted moved an application in the SC praying for remission of their sentence, arguing that the competent authority to grant remission was Gujarat since that was where the offence happened. The Supreme Court, in a surprising decision,  negated  the law laid down by itself and granted permission to the Gujarat Goverment to decide on remission.  The Gujarat Goverment granted remission on  15th August, 2024, when all the convicted were released. What shocked the world was that these eleven convicted for rape and murder were welcomed back in public and called sanskaris (cultured) by an  MLA of the ruling BJP. Their presence in the village was a direct threat to Bilkis Bano and her husband and children.  

Bilkis along with several eminent people moved the Supreme Court , asking for the remission to be cancelled and the convicted to be sent back to jail to serve their  sentence as per law.  The petitioners included former MP Subhashini Ali, Former VC of Lucknow University, Professor Roop Rekha Verma, Senior journalist Revati Laul, MP Mohua Moitra and former DG Police Maharashtra Meeran Borwankar. Later Bilkis Bano also moved the Supreme Court and on the 8th of January the remission was cancelled by the Supreme Court. The convicts finally surrendered on the 21st of January and are now lodged in Godhra Jail of Gujarat.

A few issues stand out starkly.

It was Bilkis Bano’s resolve and determination and her husband’s camaraderie and courage to break social taboos that made the duo engage with the social, political and legal system, without caving in. This was  despite threats, setbacks, seemingly insurmountable challenges like the loss of her entire family, closure of the FIR without investigation, premature remission and the rapists and murderers coming back to the village to stay. However  the two persisted calmly and patiently, without giving up on hope.

Without the support of women and other citizens groups locally and nationally over the past  twenty-two years, this struggle would not have reached fruition. Right from bringing in centre stage the dimension of sexual violence as a tool of brutalising and terrorising Muslim women in a communal situation, to assisting survivor women to lodge FIR’s and providing full support in engaging with the criminal justice system at every step, this struggle would never have achieved success. When the prisoners were released prematurely and Bilkis was deeply upset and did not wish to engage anymore, it was representatives from the women’s movement and conscientious members of Parliament and ex Government officers who stepped in and filed PILs in the SC challenging the illegal remission. 

In Mumbai a campaign of writing appeals consisting of a group of women, moving daily around the city, motivating people to write appeals against the release of the prisoners resulted in more than 8500 people writing appeals to the Chief Justice of India to intervene. Several petitions and open letters were written, including 40,000 people writing from 29 districts of Karnataka to express solidarity to Bilkis and appeals to  the authorities to right this injustice.

This was the first case where the state had to recognise the use of sexual violence in a communal violence situation. The Supreme Court gave recognition to the nature of violence that Bilkis was subjected to and recognised that she had lost her entire family, along with the loss of her home, her stability, kinship and that her battle was not just against the gang rape, it was also against the social and cultural taboos which inhibited the survivors struggle for justice.  The process of rebuilding of her life, required monetary compensation. For the first time in history in India, reparation was taken seriously, and Rs 50 lakh rupees compensation was given to her, despite deep resistance by the State Government. IT was argued that this would set a wrong precedent as other women would also demand similar compensation amounts. Yet the Supreme Court did not dither from its decision of ensuring that she be provided the amount by the State Government.

Perhaps this was also  the first case when premature remission was granted in such a serious offence and this injustice was righted by the courts who sent the convicted back to Jail.

The role of the NHRC and CBI also needs to be acknowledged in the case of Bilkis Bano. The NHRC moved the Supreme Court when the State of Gujarat and in particular the police were being criminally negligent in their duty towards addressing the crime that Bilkis Bano and her family had been subjected to. The closure of the case by the police and magistrate would not have been reopened perhaps, had the NHRC not filed its petition in the Supreme Court. The role of the CBI which was ordered to investigate the matter by the Court also needs to be appreciated as the CBI officers did a fair and just investigation. Despite the political complicity in the violence and complete protection sought to be provided to the accused,  the NHRC and the CBI worked objectively, implementing the law of the land.

With this victory by our side, it is important that we urge the concerned authorities to take up the cases of numerous other victims of Gujarat carnage, reinvestigate if necessary, and set up special courts to try the culprits. The Supreme court should monitor these trials and ensure that justice for Bilkis becomes justice for all the Gujarat 2002 victims. 

It bears noting that the investigation, must identify the role of the key person under whose leadership, the carnage happened. In a saga of continuing injustice,  several hundred victims of Gujarat carnage are still not rehabilitated. They too deserve the recognition of equal citizenship rights, which are due to all of us.


Featured Image Credit: The Wire