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'If you meet Bilkis, you'd feel she has become a stone'

February 14, 2024 11:50 IST
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'She had the courage to not cow down before the entire law and order apparatus, to remain sane and human despite inhuman suffering meted out to her and her family.'

IMAGE: Bilkis Bano at a press conference.

The Gujarat government has filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking a review of the court's verdict that quashed the remission granted to 11 men convicted of raping Bilkis Bano and murdering seven of her family members during the 2002 riots.

"Bilkis's is an amazing saga of courage," her lawyer Shobha Gupta tells Prasanna D Zore/ in an exclusive interview.

Supreme Court Advocate Shobha Gupta, who unwaveringly and fearlessly stood by Bilkis Bano -- the survivor of a gruesome gang rape perpetrated by people in her village in the wake of the 2002 communal riots -- for two decades, recounts Bilkis Bano's struggle for justice since 2003, the obstacles she had to cross to succeed in her fight for justice, what kept Bilkis sane and human all these years, and how she is trying to find peace after the Supreme Court order of January 8, 2024 cancelled the remission of 11 people convicted of gang rape and murder granted to them by the Gujarat government on August 15, 2022.

"She said, 'They have been punished for their wrong. They have been sent to life imprisonment. Now let me just live. My children are growing up and I just want to be at peace'," Advocate Gupta recalls.

What kind of ordeal, pain and suffering did Bilkis Bano go through ever since she became the victim of a heinous crime in March 2002 during the Gujarat riots and what role did you play in helping her get justice?

My role in this whole battle or whole judicial process of justice is truly limited. This is Bilkis Bano's story, not anybody else's.

Bilkis, as far as her struggle is concerned, suffered the worst; it was nothing less than a barbaric, inhuman act.

Unconsciously, consciously, knowingly, unknowingly, but as an immediate process of survival, an individual (after seeing her cousins and minor daughter being killed in cold-blood), gets up after having been brutally raped and maimed, wears clothes of the dead bodies around her.

Then finds out (how many were actually dead), waits for the whole night on a hilltop till morning and then goes to the nearby village looking for a woman, to narrate her story, to get the clothes, and then comes back to the hilltop, hoping against hope, to look out for survivors.

Fortunately, she met a policeman over there who took her to a relief camp.

The group (of which Bilkis Bano was a part when they first started from her father's house in Randhikpur village on February 28, 2002) parted in two. She was the only person left alive in that group.

Her husband, her father --- who she met later -- and others were in a separate group.

But at that moment, she was all alone, and had lost everybody accompanying her in the most barbaric way. And from there the process started.

She had to narrate her story to everybody who asked her about it until finally, but after lots of scuttling, the FIR was recorded.

Unfortunately, no medical was done (by the police even after she said she was gang raped). She was not even taken for identification of the dead bodies or for the last rites of her relatives, including her own daughter and mother, brother and sister.

On top of it, there was a constant and concerted effort to tamper with (evidence) and completely distort her version (of the events that took place with her and her entire family on the evening of March 3, 2002).

To say that there were 400 to 500 people (the narrative spun by the government officials and police) who (committed all the atrocities against her and murdered her family members) attacked her group on that night (was a blatant lie).

When her narration was recorded, she said, there were 20-25 people who had arrived in two jeeps.

When they were running from one place to another place to save their lives, one of the women in the group, her cousin, who was full-time pregnant, delivered a baby.

And even she (the one-day infant baby) was killed. The cousin was killed and her one-day old child was also killed by the mob. 20-25 people who were in that mob, they killed 14 of them (the people in Bilkis's group that night).

Bilkis's own daughter of three-and-a-half years was also killed by the mob in front of her eyes. That girl was her first ever child and the only child she had then. She was pregnant with her second child (when she was gang raped).

Her mother was gang raped and murdered. Her three cousins were killed. At least one, the evidence says, was gang-raped and murdered. That is the one day old mother, and her child.

Her cousins, Bilkis's two minor brothers, two minor sisters, were also killed. And her fufa, fupi, mama (uncles) were also killed.

So there were 14 who were killed and total 15 casualties when you include Bilkis as a pregnant woman, who was gang raped.

Now when she was narrating this story, the constable who recorded it, mentioned that there was a mob of 400-500 people (who committed these atrocities).

And when Bilkis was giving names, the constable told her not to give the names. She even says in her evidence that she was threatened that she would be poisoned with an injection if she insisted on recording the names (of people who gang raped her). All this while, the people at the relief camp were listening to this conversation.

IMAGE: Protests at Freedom park in Bengaluru after the Gujarat government granted remission to 11 convicts in the rape case on August 15, 2022. Photograph: ANI Photo

When she is saying 'I have been gang raped' there was no medical examination done (by the police officials). She was not taken to the site; she was not taken for identification of the dead bodies.

Luckily for her, when everybody was visiting the relief camps, the then district collector Jayanti Ravi (of Panchmahal district) also visited the relief camp with a subordinate.

She noted everything by hand. She directed her subordinate to note whatever Bilkis was narrating by hand. So Bilkis had one very concrete narration that was officially recorded.

Ever since then she was categorical and stood firm with her narration each time she was asked to narrate her ordeal, despite all the mental and physical trauma and coercion suffered by her.

The district collector Jayanti Ravi played a vital role in getting Bilkis's narration recorded.

This (the gang rape) happened on the evening of March 3, but even on March 4, when she was taken to the relief camp, no medical examination was conducted.

No medical even on the 5th of March, but on the 6th evening or afternoon when the district collector (Jayanti Ravi) met Bilkis.

When she inquired why no medical tests were conducted the officials had no answers and then she directed that her medical examination has to be done for the purpose of investigating whether any rape has been committed.

Ms Jayanti Ravi then sent requisitions to the concerned DCP and others asking why no proper FIR had been registered till then.

It was on her insistence that the FIR was registered and now Bilkis had a very strong piece of evidence on official record which mentioned everything that Bilkis said and was noted by an officer, a bureaucrat or somebody from the system.

However, the investigation proceeded as if there was no name given (by Bilkis of her perpetrators who belonged to her father's village Randhikpur and were known to her).

Despite all these efforts the investigating officer submitted the investigation for closure. But once the magistrate court reprimanded and ordered a proper reinvestigation and resubmission of the report, it was again resubmitted for closure.

The magistrate accepted the closure report the second time, but luckily by then the National Human Rights Commission team had already visited the camp, they spoke to Bilkis and noted her submissions.

In fact, the moment this closure happened (for the second time) some social workers who were helping Bilkis sought the help of the NHRC, which intervened and called upon Bilkis.

The NHRC chairperson wanted somebody who would not succumb to pressure and so he suggested my name. I was a young counsel then with just five-and-a-half years in the Supreme Court. I met the then chairperson Justice A S Anand who asked me to draft an appeal against the wrong closure of the investigation.

When I collected the papers, I realised that it was a shoddy job and there was complete non-application of mind. They had closed the investigations without calling the witnesses, without calling the victim.

When the matter was brought to Supreme Court, Mukul Rohatgi, who represented the state of Gujarat, kindly submitted that a fresh investigation was needed. Fortunately, the investigation was given to the CBI and the CBI did a fabulous job.

The CBI investigation was ordered by the Supreme Court in December 2003 by when more than 18 months had passed by.

The CBI started the investigation in 2004 and filed a solid chargesheet.

They found that deliberate attempts were made to frustrate Bilkis's story in all possible manner and tinker with the evidence.

Like, the dead bodies (of those killed on the evening of March 3, 2002) were displaced from the place of occurrence to some other place, a far off place near a river body.

The dead bodies were taken there and hurriedly buried into a pit, one on top of the other, among which seven were beheaded bodies. They beheaded and stacked the dead bodies one over the other.

Then they poured 90 kg of salt over the bodies and buried them so that nobody could actually ever find out the truth behind these deaths.

But then CBI did a fab job; they started everything from the scratch and unraveled everything that was hidden from them or dumped with the aim of destroying evidence.

The CBI, with the help of their sniffer dog could reach to that place (where the dead bodies were buried) and because the salt was so excessively used, it worked as a preservative and many of the articles Bilkis's relatives were wearing, like chappals, bangles, clothes remained intact and they could be identified, matched with the photographs which were clicked on March 4. So the salt helped in preserving the bodies or vital evidence.

In the CBI investigation it was revealed by the witnesses that policemen went to the local shops and purchased the salt which was later dumped over the dead bodies.

Then the cops came up with the explanation that they had done their last rites, but then there were so many gaping holes in this entire charade.

When the CBI filed the chargesheet, it had named 12 of these perpetrators who were the rapists and murderers. The six police officials, including the one who deliberately recorded a wrong complaint, and others who were instrumental for completely frustrating the investigation and destroying evidence were also chargesheeted.

The two doctors who botched up the post mortem were also chargsheeted. Their post mortem report said nothing about mutilated dead bodies, gang rape, or fatal injuries on the dead bodies. It was as if not much had happened.

Even the panchanama which was done clearly stated that the bodies had brutal injury marks caused due to heavy stones put on the bodies, resulting in compressed chests in some cases and then there were also several head injuries. The heads were so badly smashed that all the matter came out which was very clearly captured by those photographs.

How come the doctor would miss out all of it? So therefore the doctors were also chargesheeted.

While the trial court did not sentence eight people for lack of evidence, the Bombay high court, after the CBI chargesheet was filed with all the details, put 20 of them in the accused column -- the 12 perpetrators, the six cops who tried to destroy evidence, and the doctor couple who gave a botched up report of the post mortem.

Then we filed an application for transfer of the trial from Gujarat to some other place because Bilkis had started receiving death threats. The Supreme Court then directed the trial to be transferred to the Bombay high court. So it was transferred to a special court in Mumbai.

The public prosecutor, who fought for Bilkis Bano, did a fabulous job. The social workers did a fabulous job by keeping Bilkis's morale high. Every effort was taken to keep Bilkis safe.

Ever since the trial began (in Mumbai) she and her family had to live like nomads. They had no house, nothing. No source of income.

Out of 12 perpetrators of gang rape and murder, one person died during the trial, and 11 of them were sentenced to life imprisonment. One policeman, who had deliberately recorded evidence to scuttle the case, was convicted and punished by the trial court.

The CBI appealed against the acquittal of others before the Bombay high court. The remaining officials and both the doctors were punished for distorting evidence by the high court in 2017.

Later when their appeals came in the Supreme Court they were dismissed. Bilkis continued her battle in terms of not losing her faith in the judicial process.

IMAGE: Members of various women organisations protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi against the remission of sentence granted to 11 convicts in the Bilkis Bano case by Gujarat government. Photograph: ANI Photo

What kept Bilkis Bano alive and sane for all these years since March 3, 2002, the day her modesty was ripped apart and when her daughter, mother and cousins were butchered before her? What kept her spirit to fight for justice alive?

I always believe, as we say in law, that whosoever commits a sin or a crime leaves evidence behind which sooner or later catches up with that person. I believe there is always some divine intervention, when the Almighty steps in. Like in Nirbhaya's case, she died only after giving her statements to the police.

Similarly in Bilkis's case, she could not have survived all this when she was only 21. She still had the courage, the conviction to continue to live and have her perpetrators brought to justice.

She could have died of shock after witnessing such gruesome murders and her own rape. She could have also been killed that day (March 3, 2002) but she fell unconscious and they (those who raped her and killed the others in her group) thought that she had died and left her.

Possibly that was the first divine intervention. I wish the divine intervention had taken place before that too (and saved her family and Bilkis from the barbarity).

Yet she survived. She became unconscious and her fight for justice became the reason for her to survive.

When she regained consciousness, you're seeing all your family members dead, killed brutally, maimed, raped and their bodies and heads smashed. She was a witness to this shocking barbarity.

Still, when you have gotten up, you regained your consciousness, you picked clothes from dead bodies of your own people, got up to the hill, waited for the sun to rise, still alive, going to a nearby village, explaining them, coming back, waiting for help, going to a nearby village.

She has a very firm demeanour, she is somebody who speaks the least. I met her initially when we had to file a petition in 2003.

It's not as if something was shaking her. How can anything shake her? She had lost everything and was surviving for justice. Her purpose was to survive and fight for justice.

None of us would know what a person goes through after bearing such pain and suffering, when your own police who was there to help you turned up against you.

Your neighbours, on whom your dependence is next only to your family, who you look up to, with whom you were born and brought up, would gang up so brutally and mercilessly against you.

She was at her father's place (Randhikpur village in Dahod district of Gujarat) at that time (when riots broke out in Gujarat in March 2002). So they (the people who gang raped her and murdered her family members) were the people with whom she was brought up.

Can you imagine what she must have gone through during those moments? Like, those people who are always around you are doing all this (raping her), and she's pleading with them, 'I am like a sister to you. I'm like A daughter to you. I am pregnant. Please don't do all this to me.'

And still all that happened.

Then you go to the police, and the police did all their best to make sure that they destroy the evidence, frustrate her attempts to seek justice, to break her spirit.

For Bilkis, all possible support systems created by humans, society, the law, or the Constitution were breaking down in front of her; actually all these institutions were making a concerted effort to break her spirit, to subjugate and humiliate her instead of helping her in her fight for justice.

Unless she is a resolute person, or perhaps, all that happened to you makes you a resolute person, she wouldn't have come this far.

If you meet Bilkis, you would feel she has become a stone. But she is a rock solid person. She doesn't speak much. Her pain is not reflected in the words she speaks. But when it comes to seeking justice, her eyes speak for it; and she pursued it (till she got justice).

How many people, suffering like how Bilkis did, mentally and physically, would continue to fight for justice this long?

Nothing ever favoured her when she started her fight.

Justice Gogoi, the then Chief Justice of India, in his judgment where the highest-ever compensation was awarded to Bilkis, noted that she lived a life of nomad for 17 years.

The three-judge bench on April 23, 2019 awarded Bilkis the highest-ever compensation in the history of this country to a victim of gang rape and murder among other things.

Justice Gogoi noted that it was an unparalleled crime. It goes far beyond any normal crime which can happen to someone.

Living that trauma without having any assurance from your own state (Gujarat) which would admit 'yes, a few individuals have done this wrong to you. But don't worry, we are with you.'

All criminal cases are fought as the state versus the accused. State appears for you (in your defence). State stands behind you. State protects you. State fights for you. State prosecutes for you. But in the case of Bilkis, the investigation was transferred to the CBI.

The police and the locals who you had known for so many years were making every effort to scuttle the evidence produced by her.

But then you are still resolute to survive, to fight for justice. The entire law and order machinery was against her.

Thanks in huge measure to her indomitable, unparalleled courage, her husband's courage to stand by her, the determination of the social workers who teamed up around her in her fight, the exemplary role played by the then district collector (Jayanti Ravi), an exceptional role played by the prosecution lawyers, who did a fabulous job in the trial court, she could finally see the perpetrators sentenced to life imprisonment.

It requires huge spirit to fight the state when the law and order machinery of the state is against you and you're still fighting for 17 long years against all the odds.

Bilkis's is an amazing saga of courage. I can vouch for this.

She had the courage to not cow down before the entire law and order apparatus, to remain sane and human despite inhuman suffering meted out to her and her family.

If you meet her today and talk to her she won't come out as somebody who would vent out poison. She is a very humble soul, a very peaceful person. Having very least of the words to express herself.

That's why she doesn't come for interviews. That's why she doesn't come for press conferences.

That's why when the remission happened and they (the 11 convicted of gang rape and murder) came out (of jail) I said that we failed her as a society. That was my first reaction. I did not do any wrong, but I had no courage to face her.

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