The morning of 22 February, 2002 the Sabarmati express train, enroute from Ayodhya to Ahmedabad was attacked and burnt near Godhra railway station killing 59 Kar Sevaks. This resulted in an outbreak of the communal riots in all over Gujarat, mostly Hindu community targeting Muslim Community. Over 2000+ deaths have been officially reported in Gujarat riots.
During the time of riots, Randhikpur village in Dahod district witnessed much arson and looting from the morning of 27 February, 2002. Distressed by the violence, many Hindus and Muslims started moving to safer locations. One of them was Bilkis Banu’s family, which survived to fight for justice.
BILKIS BANU’S TRAGEDY
In search of refuge, the 19 year Bilkis and her 17-member family were travelling in a truck. After their Stay in Sarpanch house, Chunnada, Khawaja and Khudra villages, the family was attacked by a mob of 35 on Katchacha road on the 3rd March 2002. In the subsequent horrific massacre, 14 members were killed and Bilkis banu was gang-raped. At that point of time, Bilkis was in her fifth month of pregnancy. Bilkis Bano’s daughter Saleha‘s head was smashed on the ground. Saleha was 2 years old. It was absolute breakdown of humanity. The rioters who were carrying sticks, swords, sickles came shouting “Aa rahy hai musalmaano, emune maaro aur kaato” and attacked the truck.
Saleha-her daughter, Halimaben, Mumtaz and Munni-her sister, Aslam and Irfan-her brothers, Majid and Yusuf Musa Patel-her uncles, Sugraben and Aminaben-her aunts, Shamimben, Mumtazben, Madinaben-her cousins, Hussain -son of Shamimben, Saddam- son of Aminaben, were killed.
The convicts gang raped 4 members of the family, including Bilkis Bano’s mother and Bilkis was left naked to death. After 3 hours, Bilkis banu who regained her consciousness saw 6 year old nephew Sadam and 3 year old Hussain alive. She then covered herself with her petticoat lying nearby, climbed the hill, and stayed over the top of hillock for the rest of the night.
THE CASE AND THE VERDICT
Next morning Bilkis managed to get odhani (a cloth that women use to cover in India) and blouse from Adivasi woman while tapping water. Thereafter she approached a home guard on bike and went to Limkheda police station. At the police station, her statement was falsely recorded and she was threatened with dire consequences if she proceeded with the case. With the intention of protecting the culprits, the local police tampered the evidence during the postmortem of those who were killed during the massacre.
A year later, the police cited the inconsistencies in the statement and magistrate closed the case due to the lack of evidence. An absolute travesty of justice.
However the courageous Bilkis then approached the National Human Rights Commission and petitioned the Supreme Court, which then directed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to start the probe in this matter. Within an year, the CBI gathered enough evidence to arrested 20 criminals including six policemen.The CBI regarded that the three convicts – Jaswant Bai, Govind Bai and Shailesh Bhat be hanged for raping the women.
On request from Bilkis, the Supreme Court ordered the trial to be transferred to Mumbai from Gujarat, as the then State Government of Gujarat was influencing the investigation. On 27 February, 2006 the trial began in Mumbai’s special court. In 2008, the special court found one sub inspector Somabhai Gouri and 11 others guilty and sentenced them to life imprisonment. The sub inspector was sentenced to two years of imprisonment.
Later the convicts filed an appeal in the High Court challenging the court’s verdict.
With Bilkis’s persistent fight for justice, finally on 4th May, 2017, the Bombay High Court rejected the plea and upheld the life sentence of the 11 convicts. Furthermore, the court also quashed the acquittal of the 7 convicts who were earlier set free by trial court. It also convicted the doctors and cops for tampering evidence.
However, the Bombay court refused to award death penalty to three rape perpetrators as suggested by CBI.
NOT A DESERVED JUDGEMENT FOR THE GROSS VIOLENCE
To some, the High Court verdict may seem as a victory for Bilkis. As tweeted by Human activist Teesta Setalvad: “We had in any case argued against death penalty. The fact that the court has upheld the conviction and also convicted five policemen is a welcome judgement. Law goes by book and not by religion or political correctness.”
But soon after the Nirbhaya’s 2012 case verdict was pronounced on May 5th, many compared the two cases and argued as to why Bilkis banu’s incident does not qualify in the rarest of rare category. “Justice given to Nirbhaya. but what about the villainous incident of the victim Bilkis Banu? Should not the breast, who raped the pregnant Bilkis and killed 14 family members brutally including her 2 year old daughter deserve the harshest punishment of execution?” commented Sharmistha Mukherjee.
Voicing the same opinion, Brinda Karat, CPM Politburo member pointed out that: “The Supreme court was taking double stands on the same nature’d case. In the light of Nirbhaya verdict, will the judiciary call for the file and reverse the Bombay court verdict and hang them?”
The CBI in 2016 argued before the Bombay court that
- The horrific act can only be treated as ‘rarest of rare’ given that they had not even spared two year old infant, other children and raped 5 months pregnant Bilkis
- Condemning the acquittal of 7 convicts, CBI Counsel, Venegaonkar said; the Gujarat police fabricated evidence to protect the culprits.
- The present case was to harm and terrorize the members of minority community by attacking, killing and committing rape as the perpetrators shouted anti- religion slogans.
- Proposing enhancement of punishment for Govind bhai, Jaswant bhai and Shailesh bhat, he said; “Bilkis and her mother was gang raped in front of each other and left naked to die. They deserve capital punishment”.
The judgment has “vindicated my truth and upheld my faith in the judiciary”, describes relieved Bilkis. However, encouraged by the people, it remains to be see, whether determined Bilkis may fight further to get death penalty for her culprits or not.