She was just 20 when it happened. The incident that changed her life in a way most woman can never imagine, and should never have to experience.
On March 3, 2002, 20 year old Bilkis Bano, 6 months pregnant with her second child, was at her village, Randhikpur, when marauding mobs attacked it. The post-Godhra communal violence which was to rock Gujarat, India and redefine religion based politics in India was underway, and Bilkis with her 3 year old daughter, her mother and some relatives hid in a field, hoping to escape under cover of darkness.
The next morning, they were surrounded by a rampaging mob, 14 members of her family killed. Her daughter, all of three years old, snatched from her and smashed on the ground. She was stripped and gangraped until she fell unconscious. The perpetrators? All people from her village. Familiar faces. They raped her, her mother and her cousin. When she regained consciousness, she walked down the road, borrowed clothes off a tribal woman, went to the Limkheda police station and tried to file an FIR.
In her deposition she says, “On regaining consciousness, I found myself naked. I saw dead bodies of my family members lying around. I got frightened. I looked around for some cloth to cover myself. I found my petticoat… I was carrying fear in my heart. I felt that I was saved by God. I went sitting and squatting up the hill. As I proceeded, I saw the dead body of [my cousin] Shamim’s newborn daughter. Many dead bodies were there. I did not try to know whose dead bodies were lying there. I stayed at the top of the hillock the entire day and night…”
Two days later, the local photographers found eight bodies of her relatives. The police conducted shoddy post mortems and buried the bodies. When exhumed later, the bodies had no skulls; to prevent identification, they were decapitated and salt sprinkled over them to hasten the rotting process.
The police wouldn’t file an FIR. The sub-inspector refused to register the case, the policemen harassed her, the post mortem reports of the mutilated bodies of her relatives were fudged. She persisted.The case which began in Ahmedabad was shifted to Maharashtra in August 2004 by the Supreme Court. The investigation was handed over to the CBI and 20 accused were arrested on Nov 22 of 2004. The trial finally began in Mazgaon in a special court on Feb 21, 2005.
It was a tough long fight for Bilkis Bano. She moved locations. Her life was in danger, she still lives in an undisclosed location. She resisted greed and fear and remained steadfast in her fight unlike the other victim in the Best Bakery Case.
Her fight for justice ended with udge U D Salvi of the special court in Maharashtra giving 12 of the accused a life sentence for the gang rape of Bilkis Bano in 2008. It took her six years to get justice. Just recently, the Bombay high court on Thursday rejected the bail pleas of the seven convicts in the 2002 Bilkis Bano gangrape case
Her determination to get justice for herself is an example of what fortitude in a woman can do, despite undergoing the most horrific of gender related assaults, and being left for dead. She seems small, frail, in her photographs, too tiny to have such reserves of strength. But she did. She stood up. She fought for justice. And she did get witness protection from a network of activists and NGOs which made it possible for her to continue the fight.
She won her fight but continues to be in hiding. Continues to live in fear.