The Supreme Court on Tuesday, April 23, ordered the Gujarat government to pay 2002 communal riots victim Bilkis Bano Rs 50 lakh compensation within two weeks; it also directed the state to give her a government job and a house in her area of choice.
During the violence that followed the Godhra train burning, a 19-year-old Bano, then pregnant with her first daughter, was gang-raped by a right-wing mob and 14 of her family members were killed in Randhikpur, a village near Ahmedabad.
The bench headed by CJI Ranjan Gogoi noted the emotional and physical trauma Bano suffered on March 3, 2002, when she bore witness to the violence inflicted both on her and her kin, including an infant daughter, who was “smashed against the wall” before her eyes.
The SC asserted that the need of the hour was to rehabilitate the victim who has had to constantly be on the move out of fear and has been living a hand-to-mouth existence for the lack of a stable income.
At the time of the attack, Bano was fleeing the village like thousands of other Muslims, who became unwitting targets in one of the most horrific instances of communal violence in contemporary Indian history. And yet, 15 years on, justice still eludes in most of the 2,000+ cases registered in the aftermath of the riots.
Bano’s struggle for justice began 15 years ago, and it was a road fraught with tremendous obstacles. Trying to ensure punishment for her rapists led her towards near penury and many perils.
According to a 2017 report by Scroll.in, she had to change homes 20 times in 15 years, and was bombarded with death threats and political intimidation for pursuing her quest for redressal; her family wasn’t spared either.
The Gujarat police tried to close Bano’s case as it had done with so many others. The SC finally intervened to reopen a few of those and placed them under court-monitored special investigation teams (SITs).
At one point, there was also a concerted attempt by Gujarat’s police and doctors to destroy evidence. Every document—from the FIR to medical reports and post-mortem of her relatives’ bodies—was manipulated. The bodies were even found beheaded and buried in unmarked graves to ensure quick decomposition, while that of her daughter disappeared.
During defence’s cross-examination, there were attempts to thwart her narrative. Lawyers implied Bano would have miscarried if she was indeed gang-raped, and that she must have “evoked her rapists’ lust” if they were her neighbours.
But Bano survived them all, just like the brutalities of 2002. She has run from pillar to post, approaching the local police, an NGO, the CBI, and numerous courts, for justice.
In due course, her experience became the best known among the many unspeakable horrors from those riots. By speaking out and resolving to fight it legally, she exposed more systemic flaws, like the ritual humiliation reserved for rape survivors in court and pro-government media narrative, the need to recognise rape as a weapon of war, and how law enforcement authorities often obstruct justice.
Bano, unlettered and raising five children, one of whom was born in the riot relief camp, also became emblematic of the state government’s support for the violence that was extensively documented but never punished.
Then president K R Narayanan had famously noted “there was governmental and administrative support for the communal riots in Gujarat”. Journalists Rana Ayyub and Manoj Mitta have, over the years, tried to plug the holes on part of the SIT that probed PM Narendra Modi, who was Gujarat’s CM then.
When rape becomes a weapon of war
The pattern of raping pregnant women, making them witness violence on family members during politically motivated violence is universal. It is rampant in the Middle East, Africa, Myanmar, and even Kashmir and the Northeast.
It is also a “life force atrocity” that views pregnant women/mothers as a generative force for the victim community and are thus held responsible for the community’s existence. Earlier this week, the US has threatened to veto a UN resolution tabled to designate rape as a war crime.
In 2017, the Bombay High Court upheld the conviction and life imprisonment of 12 people in Bano’s case, the first time a case of rape during a communal riot had come to justice.
It also set aside the acquittal of seven of the obstructionists. The trial court, while sentencing 11 people to life imprisonment in 2008, had earlier acquitted five police officers and two government doctors accused of tampering evidence, giving them the benefit of doubt.
Last month, the apex court further asked the state government to complete disciplinary action against the police officers convicted by the Bombay High Court. On Tuesday, the court further ordered it to withdraw the pension benefits of three police officers involved in the case.
Bano had earlier refused to accept Gujarat government’s compensation of Rs 5 lakh. The triumphant culmination this week, while restoring faith in the judiciary, also serves as a reminder for the thousands still awaiting compensation today.
Some of the cases that eventually got justice include the 17 people convicted in 2016 of the Sardarpura massacre, in which 33 people were burnt alive, and the conviction of Bajrang Dal leader Babu Bajrangi in 2018 for the Naroda Patiya massacre in which 97 people were murdered. But there were lapses in these verdicts as well.
Zakia Jafri’s case, seeking justice for her the slaughter of her husband (who was an MP) with a plea that questions the SIT’s clean chit to PM Modi, is pending review at the SC.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius
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