Twenty years on, rape survivor Bilkis Bano is still fighting for justice
*Content warning: this article contains descriptions of violence and sexual assault.*
In 2002, during a spate of anti-Muslim riots in the western state of Gujarat in India, a violent mob attacked Bilkis Bano and her family. 21-year-old Bano, then five months pregnant, was gang raped and left for dead, while 14 members of her family including her 3-year-old daughter were killed. More than 20 years later, the 11 men responsible have still not been brought to justice, symbolic of the way patriarchal India views women and minorities, writes Guni Vats.
The final hearing in the Bilkis Bano case had been scheduled for May 2023, but it has now been adjourned till July. The woman waiting for justice for two decades has been left in the darkness yet again. The patriarchs fuelled by hate against a minority have worked out minor loopholes in the legal system to keep the case from reaching its just end.
On August 15th 2022, while India celebrated 75 years of Independence, the 11 convicts of the Bilkis Bano gang rape paraded outside jail, showered with garlands and sweets. The men responsible for one of the most horrific incidents in the history of independent India were remitted by the Gujarat Government, as per the dated remission policy of 1992.
Seeking justice and trying to assert her dignity, Bano filed a complaint in the Supreme Court challenging the Gujarat Government’s decision. She has fought a long and arduous fight, reliving the atrocious details of her rape and the murder of her family at every hearing. The system, plagued with insensitivity and designed to serve the patriarchy, often forgets the human cost behind the delay in dispensing justice.
In the years of her fight for justice, Bano has pushed through exhaustion, fear, pain, and the burden of being the only survivor able to bring justice to her family, who were brutally attacked on March 3rd 2002. She has had to change address 20 times in 20 years, the last time when the government decided to free the attackers. The constant paralyzing fear has made it hard for her to revisit her home.
The 21-year battle has made it impossible for her to forget her worst memory, aware of societal judgments that can harm her legal standing. In an interview with Radhika Bordia, she recounts, “Sometimes when I smile, I feel guilty…people will say, look at her laugh, Bilkis might have lied about the hadsa (the incident).”
Humanity at its lowest
The infamous Gujarat riots of 2002 led to mass destruction. This was humanity at its lowest, when the beasts shouldering the responsibility of ethnic cleansing were let loose. A suspected governmental nod and compliance from the authorities allowed the riots to burn the city.
A fire that started on February 28th reached Bano’s family home three days later. Having been discovered in hiding, her family of 14 were brutally murdered – her cousin was stabbed, her mother killed, her 3-year-old daughter thrown to the ground and beaten, while Bano, five months pregnant, was left to die after being gang raped. She later gained consciousness and went on to give birth to a daughter.
Banos was reunited with her husband in a camp and swore to fight for justice, but just when she thought she could rest, the government responsible for enabling the riots decided to remit the 11 convicts held responsible for the violence and murders.
Her unwavering belief in the Indian justice system led her to the Supreme Court to challenge the decision, and the court heard her plea. In April this year, the court questioned the Gujarat government over its decision to prematurely release the men.
Supreme Court delays
The case was heard by justices K M Joseph and B V Nagarathna, who questioned “whether the government applied its mind and what material formed the basis of its decision to grant remission.” Justice Joseph added, “Today it is this lady, tomorrow it can be you or me.”
Justice Joseph, paving the way for how empathetically such cases must be treated, said that “The way the crime was committed was horrendous… A pregnant woman was gang raped and several people were killed. You cannot compare the victim’s case with a standard Section 302 (murder) case.” He added, “unequals cannot be treated equally.”
Scheduling the final hearing for May 2023, he concluded, “No state can escape the contours of law.”
May’s hearing of the Bano’s case was supposed to be the last, but it has been deferred after the lawyers representing the 11 convicts used legal loopholes to adjourn the case. They claimed that Bano filed a false affidavit, and accused her of “serious fraud” since the official records showed that the convicts were out of the station when the postal department went to serve the notice to them. To this claim, the court remarked, “It is obvious, rather more than obvious, that you all do not want the hearing to be conducted by this bench.”
Justice Joseph had wanted to conclude the hearing of this case before his retirement in June, even offering to continue the hearing during vacations, which the Solicitor General refused.
While senior advocate Siddharth and advocate Rishi Malhotra, appearing for the convicts, could not understand the need for a “tearing hurry” in the case, Justice Joseph remarked, “It is apparent from the way counsel is appearing for convicts that they do not want this hearing to take place. Every time the matter will be called up, one person or the other will come and say that he needs time to file a reply. It is more than obvious.”
Political signalling and the patriarchy
In a nation built in a patriarchal hierarchy, women’s bodies are treated as sites of desire. This desire could be pleasure, power or revenge. If a riot breaks and the patriarch is blinded by his rage, the ideal way he seeks to avenge this is by assaulting a woman’s body. Rape is not a physical need, but it is a political assertion of your status in the sociocultural knit of society.
Bilkis Bano’s gang rape is not just a horrendous crime but a commentary on the decades of communal hatred that this country has harbored. From raping a pregnant woman who belongs to a minority to denying her justice, it is just the politico-legal assertion of her social place as designed by the patriarchy.
The deferring of the case and the calculated dragging of the date is just political signaling of a crime the majority approves of. Muslim women have historically been subjected to violence by patriarchs’ thirst for the assertion of power. Neglecting her pain depicts who we have become as a society, however Bano is determined that she will get justice one day.