The good new is that Bilkis only faced the media onslaught on January 21, when a Mumbai special court sentenced 11 accused to life imprisonment for the gang-rape and murders. Her case, for once, was intelligently handled and not allowed to degenerate into a circus. Away from the public glare, it moved slowly but consistently. Today, it appears quite a feat for a woman to have fought a case for six years against all odds, in the face of a hostile state government and police force. It requires nerve and resolve to face up to the men who brutalised you and your family, leaving everyone for dead. Bilkis managed this with a lot of support from individuals, the Muslim community, some activists (all of whom have chosen to keep a low profile), a high-profile lawyer, Harish Salve, who didn't charge a fee for arguing in the Supreme Court that her case be transferred out of Gujarat, and the CBI which made an exception in reinvestigating her case (the only Gujarat riot case where this happened). There was also the support of her husband, Yaqub Rasool Patel.
A mob on the hunt in Ahmedabad, '02
On March 3, 2002, the day her family was killed and she was left for dead, Bilkis hid in a cave. After 48 hours, she approached a tribal village in Dahod district and pretended to be a Hindu woman, raped by Muslims. They gave her water, food and clothes. She then went to a police station. The policemen wrote a complaint but refused to write the names of the accused (one of these policemen got two years' imprisonment in the verdict delivered last week). Bilkis, like several thousand other Muslims, then landed up in the Godhra relief camp. Twenty days later, she was lucky to find her husband Yaqub at the same camp (he was not at home when the family began their flight from their village in Dahod district).
Today, Bilkis and Yaqub are sitting in a Delhi home. Their children are playing. Hajra, the child Bilkis gave birth to a few months after the massacre, is smiling coyly—she is used to being treated as special. Bilkis and Yaqub laugh when they talk about people trying to attach their names to her struggle and give the impression that they were behind the verdict. Says Bilkis: "Those who helped me were quietly present at the Delhi press conference. They don't want publicity. But an impression is being created by better-known activists that they have helped me. I want you to tell everyone that I don't know these people who are talking about me on TV."
There is a legal lesson here for those who want to learn from the Bilkis case. Only two of the several thousand 2002 riot cases have till now been moved out of Gujarat. The Best Bakery case was the first—the verdict came in early 2006 and many of the accused got life sentences. But this was overshadowed by the spectacle of star witness 18-year-old Zaheera Sheikh being sent to jail for a year for turning hostile in court. Zaheera, for all her turnarounds, can be seen as little more than a victim whose family was burnt alive in the fire set to the Vadodara bakery of the same name. She finished her jail sentence in March 2007 and has since disappeared from the public eye.
The Bilkis Bano case was shifted out of Gujarat on its own merit and was not lumped together with other riot cases. But, unlike Zaheera who fell victim to her own image in the media, Bilkis was sheltered and encouraged to keep her goal in sight: get justice for her slain family whose bodies could never be buried. She moved from Mumbai to hidden locations within Gujarat and kept her identity secret through these six years. She plans to continue living this way as she appeals against the acquittal of seven of the accused.
|Zaheera has disappeared|
Meanwhile, the NHRC petition that first argued for shifting the Best Bakery and four other cases out of Gujarat—to which activists added other cases, taking the total up to 14—is stuck in a legal web. Although the Best Bakery matter was shifted and has since been disposed off, the other 13 cases, including some of the most horrific slaughters of 2002 like Naroda Patiya, Gulbarg society, Naroda Gaam and Sadarpura village incidents, are stuck in a no-man's land. The Supreme Court has yet to decide on individual cases and conclude whether it should be shifted out of Gujarat or not. Lawyers involved in the process admitted to Outlook that it is not possible to put a date on when the court will decide. So those who imagine that MP Ehsan Jaffri's murderers will be punished anytime soon may find their hopes dashed. The case is in a legal twilight zone.
Ironically, it is within Gujarat that half-a-dozen verdicts have been pronounced. For instance, in December 2007, in the midst of the assembly polls, a local Godhra court convicted 11 people on charges of killing seven Muslims in Eral village of the Panchmahals district. The key witness was Madina Biwi who witnessed the rape and murder of her 18-year-old daughter. Living and fighting in Gujarat, she was intimidated and attempts made to bribe her by the accused, known members of the VHP and BJP. But Madina had strong support from her community and stood her ground.
Like Bilkis, Madina Biwi had seen her own daughter being brutalised by the mob. Today, Bilkis smiles, then gets a few tears in her eyes: "I could not bury Saleha, couldn't even find her bones. But I know she's entered paradise."