Thursday, September 10, 2009
IMPORTANCE OF BEING BILKIS
It took exceptional courage for Bilkis Bano to walk up to the police station and file a complaint, and persist with it.
Rare courage: Bilkis Bano at a press meet after the verdict.
It is one of those horror stories from the Gujarat carnage of 2002 that few can forget. A young Muslim woman, six months pregnant, runs for her life from her village when rampaging mobs attack it on February 28. She has 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 field hoping to escape. Instead, the next morning they are confronted with a mob of 20 to 30 men carrying swords and sickles who assault and gang rape the four women, including Bilkis and her mother, kill many of the 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.
The horror does not end there. Bilkis pretends 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 trudges to a police station to register a complaint. On the way she borrows some clothes from an Adivasi woman to cover herself.
At the police station she receives little sympathy. Instead the policeman on duty pretends to listen to what she is saying but writes something completely different in the First Information Report on which he gets the illiterate Bilkis’ thumb impression.
Two days later, local photographers find eight bodies of the massacred family. This forces the police to act and post-mortems are conducted. Again, instead of recording the truth, they conduct what has now been termed a “shoddy” post-mortem and bury the bodies. Some years later, when the bodies are exhumed as part of a fresh investigation, none of them have skulls. It appears that they were decapitated after the post-mortem to prevent identification. In addition, salt was sprinkled on the bodies so that they would disintegrate.
Need to intervene
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’ 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’ 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.
But above all, it is Bilkis’ courage in going to the police station in the condition in which she was after a gang rape and after seeing her infant daughter being brutally murdered that clinched the case. Most women hesitate to go to the police. If you are poor, a Muslim, and living in a situation like the one that prevailed in Gujarat in 2002, the chances of turning to the police are even more remote. This is what makes Bilkis’ action so exceptional.
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.
Seeing photographs of this diminutive woman, one wonders from where she got the courage at that terrible moment to make the journey to the police station. If she had not done so, the story would never have been told. This ordinary woman has to be saluted for her extraordinary courage