Bilkis Bano is an exception and a rule. Ruling out capital punishment for the crime committed on her, the court held that the violence perpetrated on her, though inhuman and unacceptable did not fall in the rarest of the rare category. The judges were uncannily right. It was not an exception, or rare, even if looked in the context of the anti- Muslim violence in Gujarat of 2002. It was , however not a momentary rage which engulfed Bilkis. It was part of a well thought out strategy, as a team of women activists from different countries like France, Germany, U.K., The Netherlands, Sri Lanka and India found out nearly two years after the Gujarat pogrom of 2002. After a visit to Gujarat and a painstaking research , the group wrote a report titled Threatened Existence- A Feminist Analysis of the Genocide in Gujarat.
One of the team members wrote, “Many doubts arise in your mind [about the erosion of citizenship] particularly when you come face to face with women who have undergone brutal sexual attacks and mass rape. For first time married women broke their silence on the sexual attacks they suffered. A mother spoke of her two daughters but did not say that she herself was a victim….testimonies were often given with young children looking on, punctuated with long silences…”
Bilkis Bano was one of those married women. But there were others too. Saba, one of them told the team, “I cannot forget those girls [who were raped]. We have to try and arrest them [the rapists]…We ran in different directions and hid in the field. But the mob found some of us and started attacking….I recognised two people from my village Gano Baria and Sunil – pulling away my daughter. She screamed, telling the men to get off her and leave her alone. The screams and cries of Ruqayya, Suhana, Shabana, begging for their izzat [honour] could clearly be heard. I could do nothing to help my daughter from being assaulted sexually and tortured to death.”
Bilkis is a Muslim woman. So were Saba and Ruqaiyya, Suhana and Shabana. The court is right: you cannot say that the case of Bilkis falls in the exceptional category. She is a rule.
Let us move to from Gujarat to Muzzafarnagar and listen to other sisters-in-injustice of Bilkis:Within half an hour, a group of men from the village entered the compound and attacked us. They hacked my husband right before me.They stripped several of us. Took our honour.
Another woman:´ ‘There were loudspeakers, Bollywood songs blaring, while they raped us. Some boys were also playing the dhol (a local drum), outside the gate….Two men held me by my arms as they bit several parts of my body. Three men raped me then, one after the other,
These are gang rapes: ‘They first pulled my elder daughter and stripped her. Two boys dragged her to the ground and took turns raping her. Then they grabbed my second daughter and hit her private parts with batons. She started bleeding and was pushed to a corner. They then proceeded to assault the other girls.’
All of these incidents would be called gang rapes. But they are normal or rule under the circumstances when Hindus feel outraged on some pretext and take revenge on the women of the Muslim community. How can one conspire when he is blinded by rage! To treat all these as the rarest of the rare would mean hundreds of hangings!
These rapes or cases of sexual violence are genocidal in nature. Why is there no moral uproar in such cases? Because they are committed on behalf of the distant onlookers. The aim is to defile and destroy Muslim wombs who would bear enemy Muslims.There has been a long campaign against Muslim births,a possibility of a Muslim life has been painted as a threat to Hindu existence.
So, Bilkis is a rule in India. But she is also an exception. A woman of exceptional courage, strength and determination. She did not allow herself to remain imprisoned in the lamentation of victimhood. She knew that to remain human she has to claim justice for herself. And it comes with a cost. She paid it. Along with her stood her husband, changing houses and places, again an uneducated, non-modern, cattle trader Yakub. He did not divorce her. He shared not only her pain but also her yearning for justice.
Securing justice in the state of Gujarat was an exceptional dream. A state, where the chief minister went around telling people that no wrong was done to Muslims,that all these stories of looting, burning, murder and rape were wicked fiction concocted by the anti-Gujarat forces to defame the peace-loving Gujaratis. A state, where Hindu doctors refused to treat Muslims victims and destroyed evidences of crime and police sided with the criminals.
Bilkis, despite her grit and determination would not have secured justice had it not been a network of friends, who remained anonymous, arranging shelter for her and her family, odd jobs for her husband, medical support for Bilkis,education for her children and most importantly lawyers. To make sure that she reached courts safely for hearings and remained alive for the next dates!
All this demanded meticulous planning and unwavering commitment for the values of humanity and justice and also solid trust of friendship. These people,who are the most abused and hunted tribe in the nationalist India ,spread all over India, from Ahmadabad to Mumbai to Uttar Pradesh to Delhi,ensured that despite the horrors that Bilkis had gone through, she did not view all Hindus as enemies of Muslims. Feminist women led this battle assisted by their feminist men friends.
“What have we proved with this victory?”,a friend who stood with Bilkis though these 15 years asked with a wry smile.That not all Muslims can achieve it, for the cost is too heavy for each for every wronged to even think of it when the state and the society conspire against you. Who knows it better than Bhanwari Devi, who after 25 years of the gang rape she was subjected to, is still fighting for justice?
The fight for justice is a fight to regain citizenship. It is also a fight to restore civility. “I want justice and not revenge”, these words of dignity do not arise in the spur of the moment. The struggle stretching over two decades has been a great educator for Bilkis. She still is haunted by the nightmares of 2002, cannot sleep without pills but does not disappoint her friends in this moment. She smiles looking at their joyous faces. Justice, citizenship, democracy, friendship, civility and humanity: these words gain meaning and shine only in the light of each other.Let us thank Bilkis, her husband Yakub and her friends for teaching us this seemingly simple and yet difficult lesson that to know the meaning of these words, you have to remember another word: struggle.
- Tribune, May, 2017