15 years ago, the 2002 Gujarat riots, was a three-day period of inter-communal violence in Gujarat. Following the initial incident there were further outbreaks of violence in Ahmedabad for three months; statewide, there were further outbreaks of communal riots against the minority Muslim population for next one year. The burning of a train in Godhra on 27 February 2002, which caused the deaths of 58 Hindu Pilgrims’ Karsevaks returning from Ayodhya, are believed to have triggered the violence.
According to official figures, the riots resulted in the deaths of 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus; 2,500 people were injured non-fatally, and 223 more were reported missing. Other sources estimate that over 2000 people died. There were instances of rape, children being burned alive, and widespread looting and destruction of property. The Chief Minister of Gujarat at that time, Narendra Modi, has been accused of initiating and condoning the violence, as have police and government officials who allegedly directed the rioters and gave lists of Muslim-owned properties to them. It is one of those horror stories from the Gujarat carnage.
Six months pregnant, young Muslim woman runs for her life from her village when rioting mobs assaulted her on February 28. She was with her a three-year-old daughter, her mother and other relatives. They move out of their village under cover of darkness and hide in a meadow hoping to escape. But what happened next morning was very brutal, they were confronted with a mob of 20 to 30 men carrying swords and sickles who gang raped the four women, including Bilkis and her mother, kill many others, and kill her three-year-old daughter by “smashing” her on the ground. Of the 17 who left the village, only three survived, the bodies of eight were found and six are still missing.
Meanwhile, Bilkis pretended as she is dead and waits till the mob leaves. Then with the help of a home guard, and with her six-year-old nephew and a three-year-old boy who have survived, she marches to a police station to register a complaint. On the way she borrows some clothes from tribal woman to cover herself. The 19-year-old approached the local police station to register a case against the assailants. However, the police rejected her case and threatened her with dire consequences if she proceeded with the matter. She then approached the National Human Rights Commission of India and petitioned the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court directed the CBI to probe into the matter. In the meantime, she along with her family was issued threats, which forced her to request the SC to move the case outside Gujarat. The SC then shifted the case to Mumbai.
In the Mumbai court, charges were filed against 19 men, including 6 police officers and a government doctor. In January 2008, 11 of them were sentenced to life imprisonment for gangrape and murder. The CBI however had asked for death penalty for Jaswantbai Nai, Govindbhai Nai and Radhesham Shah, who were charged for having played a significant role in planning and execution of the entire incident. The 11 convicts had however, filed an appeal to the High Court challenging their conviction.
The case of Bilkis Bano has all the elements of the worst kind of horror including the indifference and complicity of the State in covering up the truth. But it also illustrates the kind of intervention that is needed in such situations to ensure that some justice is done. For, it is now evident that the case would not have moved if it had been tried in Gujarat where it was first filed. In August 2004, the Supreme Court ordered that the case be tried in Mumbai. At this stage, the CBI took over the investigation and ordered that the bodies of the eight people from Bilkis Bano’s village be exhumed.
In just over a year after taking over the investigation, the CBI gathered enough evidence to arrest 20 people including six policemen. On February 21, 2006, the trial began in Mumbai. On January 18, 2007, the trial court held 12 of the 20 guilty including one policeman, sub-inspector Somabhai Gori, who “suppressed material facts and wrote a distorted and truncated version” of Bilkis Bano’s complaint, according to the CBI. While Gori was given only two years imprisonment, the other 11 were given life sentences.
Apart from hearing the case in Mumbai, the decision to hold the trial in camera has also made a difference as it encouraged witnesses to testify without fear, something they would not have done in an open court. The policeman’s conviction, for instance, was made possible because three witnesses heard Bilkis give her report and what they said they heard differed substantially from what the policeman noted down.
Even today, fear dominates Radhikpur village. In anticipation of the judgment, the 60 Muslim families who still live there apparently quietly left the village, as they feared a backlash from the families of those convicted, most of whom are from the same village.
Even after filing the complaint, she could have given up, been intimidated, allowed herself to be bought off, decided it would be simpler to forget about it. Yet, she persisted even though the personal price she has paid is hard to imagine. Nor can we fully comprehend what is her future, whether she will ever be able to live in peace in her village, or whether she will forever be a refugee hiding from those waiting to teach her another lesson. But amazingly, she has gone on record to say that she will not give up and continue to pursue the case until the five policemen who were let off for lack of evidence are also convicted. Finally, the verdict came out and all got lifetime imprisonment, but none got death, as it happened in Nirbhaya case. On May 5, a Supreme Court bench upheld the death sentences of all four convicts in the Nirbhaya gangrape case.
Whereas, Bilkis Bano’s life is still a question just because she is alive and there is not any outrage.
Moreover, the rapists were hired goons with deliberate purpose.
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