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Monday 29 May 2017
News updated at 1:05 PM IST

Bilkis: how a riot victim stood up to her rapists

Geeta Pandey, International New York Times, May 14 2017, 22:38 IST

The attack on Bano and her family was one of the most horrific crimes during the Gujarat riots.

A strong soul: Many have since asked whether Bilkis Bano's case did not merit the death penalty for her attackers. Bano, however, says she does not believe in revenge. 'I just want them to understand what they've done,' she says. PTI

A strong soul: Many have since asked whether Bilkis Bano's case did not merit the death penalty for her attackers. Bano, however, says she does not believe in revenge. 'I just want them to understand what they've done,' she says. PTI

Bilkis Bano was gang-raped and saw 14 members of her family being murdered by a Hindu mob during the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat.

Her 15-year battle for justice finally bore fruit last week, when the Bombay high court confirmed the life sentences of 11 men found guilty of rape and murder. The court also convicted five policemen and two doctors, who were earlier cleared by the trial court, of destroying evidence.

The landmark ruling, Bilkis Bano told the BBC in Delhi on Sunday, had finally given her hope of peace. “I always had full faith in the judiciary and I’m grateful to the Bombay high court for the order. It’s a very good judgement and I’m very happy with it,” she said.

“I think the state government and the police were all complicit in the crime, because the accused were given full freedom to rape and pillage,” she said. “I feel vindicated that the court has convicted the police and the doctors too. I feel I’ve received justice.”

Bano’s fight for justice has been long and nightmarish but, she says, giving up was never an option. It has been well documented that some police and state officials tried to intimidate her, evidence was destroyed and the dead were buried without post-mortems. The doctors who examined her said she hadn’t been raped, and she received death threats.

Despite the gravity of the crime and the fact she identified her attackers, the first arrests in the case were only made in 2004 after the Supreme Court handed over the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation. The Supreme Court also accepted her plea that the courts in Gujarat could not deliver her justice and transferred her case to a court in Mumbai.

The battle has been disruptive for her family. In the past 15 years, she and her husband Yakub Rasool have moved home 10 times, moving in and out of Gujarat with their five children. “We still can’t go home because we’re afraid. The police and the state administration have always helped our attackers. When we are in Gujarat, we still cover our faces, we never give out our address,” Rasool said.

The attack on Bano and her family was one of the most horrific crimes during the riots, which began when a fire on a passenger train in Godhra town killed 60 Hindu pilgrims. Blaming Muslims for starting the fire, Hindu mobs went on a rampage, attacking Muslim neighbourhoods and destroying their property. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was then Gujarat chief minister, was criticised for not doing enough to prevent the carnage.

He has always denied any wrongdoing and has not apologised for the riots. A Supreme Court panel also refused to prosecute him in 2013, citing insufficient evidence. But he’s never been able to shake off the criticism completely, with many holding him responsible for the killings on his watch.

Over the years, the courts have convicted dozens of people for their involvement in the riots. In 2012 an ex-minister and aide to Modi was jailed for 28 years. But many other people are still waiting for justice. Bilkis Bano was visiting her parents, who lived in Randhikpur. She was 19 and the mother of a three-year-old daughter, and she was pregnant with her second child.

“It was the morning after the train fire. I was in the kitchen, making lunch, when my aunt and her children came running. They said their homes were being set on fire and we had to leave immediately,” she said. “We left with just the clothes we were wearing, we didn’t even have the time to put on slippers.”

Within minutes, all the Muslim homes in the neighbourhood had emptied. The 50-odd families that lived there had gone, looking for safety. Bilkis Bano was in a group of 17 people that included her three-year-old daughter, her mother, a pregnant cousin, her younger siblings, nieces and nephews, and two adult men. “We first went to the village council head, a Hindu, seeking his protection. But when the mobs began threatening to kill him too if he gave shelter to Muslims, we were forced to leave.”

For the next few days, the group travelled from village to village, seeking shelter in a mosque, or subsisting on the kindness of Hindu neighbours. But then their time ran out. On the morning of March 3, as they set out to go to a nearby village where they believed they would be safer, a group of men stopped them. “They attacked us with swords and sticks. One of them snatched my daughter from my lap and threw her on the ground, bashing her head into a rock.”

Bilkis Bano had cuts on her hands and legs. Her attackers were her neighbours in the village, 12 men she had seen almost daily while growing up. They tore off her clothes and several of them raped her. She begged them for mercy and told them she was five months’ pregnant, but her pleas fell on deaf ears.


Extraordinary grit

Her cousin, who had delivered a baby girl two days earlier, was raped and murdered. Her newborn was killed too. Bilkis Bano survived because she lost consciousness and her attackers left, believing she was dead. Two boys — seven and four — were the only other survivors of the massacre. When she came to, she covered her body with a blood-soaked petticoat, climbed a nearby hill and hid in a cave for a day.

“The next day I was very thirsty so I came down to a nearby tribal village to find some water. The villagers were initially suspicious of me and came out with sticks, but then they helped me. They gave me a blouse and a scarf to cover my body.” She spotted a police jeep and they took her to the police station, where she narrated her ordeal. “I’m illiterate so I asked the policemen to read out the complaint once they had written it down, but they refused to do that. They just took my thumb impression and wrote whatever they wanted. I knew all my attackers and I’d named them. But the police did not write down any names,” she said.

The next day, she was sent to a camp in Godhra set up for those displaced by the riots. That’s where her husband was reunited with her 15 days later and where they lived for the next few months. Her unborn child survived the rape and she later gave birth to a daughter.The past 15 years have been “very difficult,” but the couple say the high court order has brought them some closure.

In the past few days, comparisons have been drawn between Bilkis Bano’s case and that of the 2012 gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old student on a bus in Delhi. A day after the Bilkis Bano judgement, the Supreme Court confirmed the death sentences of the four men accused of the crime. Many have since asked whether Bilkis Bano’s case did not merit the death penalty for her attackers. Bano, however, says she does not believe in revenge.

“Both the crimes were equally horrible, but I don’t believe in taking anyone’s life. I want them to spend their lives in jail. I hope they will one day realise the enormity of their crime, how they killed small children and raped women. I’m not interested in revenge. I just want them to understand what they’ve done.”

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