What happened during the Gujarat riots of 2002 could neither be forgotten nor forgiven. The massacre ended with thousands dead, several of them missing and injured and quite a lot attained irreparable psychological damage.
One such sufferer was Bilkis Bano, who survived the massacre and fought for her right to citizenship till she got it after 17 years, this month. Her story symbolized the horror and brutality of the communalism prevailing in India. She was gang-raped by men of her own village and left to die after which she has been trying to get justice and the right to life that she deserves. Her entire family was squashed to death in front of her, including her three-year-old daughter. She has been revisiting and telling her narrative in front of several NGOs, journalists, and media houses, to the police at different points of time, waiting to achieve her rights. To call it a victory, would be an understatement of her fight for justice.
In the book, Between Memory and Forgetting: Massacre and the Modi Years in Gujarat, Bilkis Bano recounted her memories that the communal riot has given to her. During the 2002 Gujarat riots which were the most terrifying communal riots after independence, houses of Muslims were set to fire in Randhikpur village, 200 kilometers from Ahmedabad. In order to move to a Muslim majority settlement, Bilkis Bano and her family fled the place.
During this horrific journey and on the other side of the communal divide (Muslims being the minority), were shielded and taken care of by many compassionate people. While they were on their way to what they thought of to be a safe haven, two trucks loaded with 20-30 sworded men obstructed them. These were men from the same village as Bilkis Bano.
Men, who she had known since childhood; son of a medical practitioner who treated Bilkis Bano’s father and lived right across the street, a man who owned a bangle shop at the village, an owner of a nearby hotel and another was the husband of an elected member of the Gram Panchayat. They hoarded the truck and 14 members of her family were raped to death in front of her by these men. She herself was holding her three-year-old daughter in her hands when one of them snatched the child and banged her head on the ground, killing her on the spot. They assaulted Bilkis and raped her even when she pleaded them that she was pregnant, so much so that she became unconscious.
How could the men she had known since her childhood were the ones who brutalized her with no mercy? Later when she regained her senses only to see corpses of her family members including her daughter and herself naked, she went away from the place in search of help.
Who failed and betrayed whom?
Searching for help, Bilkis went by a policeman who took her to the station but the Head Constable refused to take her statement and sent her to a rescue home immediately. The Police allegedly said to have manipulated the FIR. In the rescue home, she met her worried husband and she was taken to the hospital four days after she reached there. There, she was medically examined and her biological samples were taken to the lab.
Two days after the killings, two photographers found eight dead bodies at the same spot. They were Bilkis’ family, including her daughter. It was this public outrage that forced the police to take action. The doctors, who were made in-charge for the postmortem, did not take any biological samples of the corpses and let them rot.
Even though they knew how crucial was it to get the evidence of the murder. It was later in 2004 that CBI had started a fresh investigation of the bodies, it was discovered that the bodies were buried in unmarked mass graves on the orders of the police and that none of the bodies had skulls. The purpose was, to not help Bilkis identify the bodies. According to a report by The HuffPost, Bilkis’s daughter’s body was not found in the investigation. The police personnel tried all they could to manipulate her complaint. This made the reasons obvious to surrender.
In his book, Harsh Mander starts off by writing why it is important for people to know about the massacre and the hardships, other carnages under Modi’s rule and what follows after that. In a conversation with Qweed, Harsh said that,
“It was important to write about how the Government took Bilkis Bano’s case because it all happened under the eyes of someone who is our present Prime Minister. A lot of other incidents that are happening in India can be considered to understand what happened with Bilkis under his watch on the state.”
Questions that need to be answered.
There are few Why’s and But’s which might be sitting in our minds. Why was it problematic for the policemen to record her complaint in a horrific situation of murders and crimes everywhere? What did they get out of this? Manipulating the report, changing the corpses’ positions, beheading them. To what extent could a common woman like Bilkis Bano have disturbed their comforts? Why were the doctors involved in corruption? Someone surely from the authoritative post took charge of all the misleading information.
Why do these police officers prioritize deceit over humanity? Had they helped the woman right at that time, they could have saved the lives of one full family from getting disrupted. They could have saved a family from physical and psychological trauma for life.
Did she get Justice?
Bilkis and her family was granted a compensation of Rs, 50 Lakhs, a house and a job, on 24th April this year. Supreme Court finally after 17 years of her struggle asked the Gujarat government to provide the said compensation to Bilkis Bano and her family as justice. The 11 men found guilty in the case were given a life imprisonment sentence by the court.
Expressing gratitude towards the Supreme Court, Bano in an interview, said that she will create a fund in the name of her daughter who was brutally killed by the mob in front of her eyes. She said, “The apex court understood my pain, the suffering and my struggle to regain the constitutional rights that were lost to me in the violence of 2002. No citizens should have to suffer at the hands of the state whose duty is to protect us.”
When asked whether she is satisfied with the life sentence given to the 11 men convicted, she said: “My fight was never for revenge, but for justice.” Bano’s lawyer has already expressed her dissatisfaction with the amount of compensation Bilkis Bano is receiving. Her lawyer has said that “The compensation you are granting should be monumental. It should be loud and clear. So loud that it resounds in everybody’s ears. For the victims, it would say don’t worry we are here. For the perpetrators, it would say don’t you dare to do it again. For all the state governments, it would be a note of caution.”
Meanwhile, Harsh Mander expresses, “It is sure higher than any other compensation ever granted to a rape survivor in India, but a notion of reparation is much larger than transferring a certain amount of cash. The state should recognize that it is due to their failure that it took so long for her to get justice. You can never get back the lives of people someone has lost or the trauma they’ve faced, but you can rebuild their lives to a position that is better than what was in the past.”
This story had many levels to give a thought upon. Foremost being her struggle for 17 years and the psyche that she and her family have lived with, and will be living for the rest of their lives. Secondly, how the state failed in an attempt to give her justice for a long time. Did she really win? Was it her victory, or just compensation for her scuffle?