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'Justice served', but saffron agenda continues to harm Bilkis Bano's life

Durga M Sengupta | Updated on: 9 May 2017, 15:23 IST
Bilkis Bano and her younger daughter (Photo: Manas Gurung/Catch News)

On 3 March, 2002, rioters gang-raped Bilkis Rasool (Bano) and murdered 14 members of her family in front of her. Her 3-year-old daughter was snatched from her, and her head smashed into a rock. Bilkis was the sole witness and survivor of this carnage.

On 4 May, 2017, the Bombay High Court delivered a historic verdict, where all the 18 accused were convicted – this including the 11 men who gang-raped Bilkis and murdered the rest of her family, and 7 police officers and doctors who tampered with evidence to try and undermine her case.

Today, Bilkis Bano sits quietly beside her husband, often turning her attention away from the ongoing press conference to attend to her toddler. The little girl in her arms isn't too pleased with the camera shutters going off in her mother's face, but a timely Five-Star chocolate appeases her.

After lawyers, activists, and other members of her wide support network finish speaking, Bilkis begins.

'Mujhe nyay chahiye, badla nahin.'

She often pauses abruptly while speaking, needing support from her husband, Yakub Rasool, to continue. A carefully transcribed press release quotes her as saying, “To fellow Indians, I appeal to all of you, at a time when we hear news everyday of people being attacked and killed because of their religion or community – please help affirm their faith in the secular values of our country and support their struggles for justice, equality, and dignity.

“For this verdict does not mean the end of hatred but it does mean that somewhere, somehow justice can prevail. This has been a long, seemingly never-ending struggle for me, but when you are on the side of truth, you will be heard, and justice will be yours in the end."

Bilkis Bano and her husband, along with human rights lawyer Vijay Hiremath, Retd Sr IAS officer NC Saxena, filmmaker Shonali Bose, and a bevy of women's right's activists held a press conference in Delhi earlier today, to discuss the justice Bilkis received after 15 long years.

Steering clear of the question of the death penalty for those convicted, Bilkis insists, “Mujhe nyay chahiye, badla nahin.” (I wanted justice, not revenge.)

But what really is justice? Is it that the police and doctors who tried to fudge her case were held accountable and must serve time? Is it that, today, Bilkis can look forward to her children's future without worrying about threats from higher ups? Or is it that a Muslim woman won a case like this in times of divisive politics?

The truth is that, while Bilkis is putting up a brave front, her husband is worried about their future.

Loss of livelihood

Yakub is one among the many in our country who have been put out of business by the saffron brigade's cow agenda. This hindutva reverence for the cow has resulted in, at best, joblessness, and, at worst, fear, hate, violence, arson, and even murder.

“My line of work, and my forefathers' line of work has been to rear and sell cattle,” Yakub says. “The laws in our country today – that we must not buy or sell cows, buffaloes – work against us. They look at us and think we're butchers, that we kill these creatures.”

'But cattle trading is all we've known, it's what my father and grandfather did.'

Yakub, fresh out of work, is now looking for new ways to earn a livelihood for his family. He doesn't wish to earn to just feed and clothe them, for he dreams of a better future for his daughters.

“It's been about a month since the government's new laws. I'm thinking of starting a new business, I don't know. I feel like we should start something new,” he tells Catch.

“But cattle trading is all we've known, it's what my father and grandfather did.”

Insisting that they're “not butchers”, Yakub quickly explains, “People don't understand our work. We don't cut animals, don't sell meat. We work with adivasis and others, sell them cattle for farming, milk, etc.”

Hoping to run a small business or to get a well paying job, Yakub insists that the education of his children is very important.

Dreams and reality

“Our elder daughter wants to be a lawyer,” Yakub shares proudly. “She's in Class X. We'll make her a lawyer, because what happened to Bilkis could find justice only through the very many lawyers and women's rights activists who worked with her.

“So while we can't fight cases for women like Bilkis in the future, because we're not educated enough, our kids should study hard and support them, just like we got support.”

But Yakub and Bilkis' dreams for their daughters is interrupted by a harrowing reality – fear.

'It's not just me, it's our community, families, our people, there's fear in our environment.'

Their loss of livelihood, after all, is due to threats of violence. Violence that is only too familiar to Bilkis.

“Fear has increased, a lot, in people,” says Yakub, adding, “It's not just me, it's our community, families, our people, there's fear in our environment.

“Even today, the problem of communal riots... that can happen. I look at it and wonder what would happen to our country.”

Referring to himself as “shikaar” or “prey”, Yakub says, “Whenever a community is attacked, be it Hindu or Muslim, they become a prey for the rioters. We were prey, we have been prey for 15 years. If it takes crimes like these over 15 years to find justice, then [violence like this] will never stop.”

Which fear?

“My family and I feel we can begin to lead our lives again, free of fear,” reads Bilkis' quote from the press release. But her husband's concerns reveal a different side.

While Bilkis and her family can now move past fearing the Gujarati nexus that threatened them, the increasingly communal climate in the country leaves them no respite.

For 15 years Bilkis and her kin lived in fear. “We were constantly shifting homes, trying to protect my children, and each time the accused were given parole,” she tells Catch.

'There should be a review on how paroles are handed out so easily.'

As women's right's activist Kavita Srivastava puts it, “The current environment of hate and violence against Muslim minorities, after all this time, is tragic, as Bilkis and her family still do not live in a country free from fear and hatred.”

On the subject of parole, Srivastava spoke about how it led to the survivor and her family repeatedly fleeing from their residences, moving over 20 times in 15 years.

“Judgement, on how long the sentence is, that's something the court decides. But parole is decided by the prisons and home department together. All those who were convicted in 2008 repeatedly got parole. Our current PM was the Gujarat CM, and Amit Shah was the home minister... You need to know that the repeated paroles were given by the Gujarat government.

“There should be a review on how paroles are handed out so easily.”

Who's answerable

According to Bilkis Bano's lawyer at the Bombay High Court, Vijay Hiremath, the one thing that sticks out like a sore thumb is the lack of compensation.

Given that the CM that governed Gujarat at the time of the 2002 riots is now running the country, there's more reason for them to do something about it. As Hiremath tells Catch, “There has been no compensation from the state.”

All there has been though, he adds, is silence.

First published: 8 May 2017, 20:54 IST
Durga M Sengupta @the_bongrel

Feminist and culturally displaced, Durga tries her best to live up to her overpowering name. She speaks four languages, by default, and has an unhealthy love for cheesy foods. Assistant Editor at Catch, Durga hopes to bring in a focus on gender politics and the role in plays in all our interactions.