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The tragedy of Bilkis Banu

By Sheela Bhatt
Last updated on: August 07, 2004 17:12 IST
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Bilkis Yakoob Rasool alias Bilkis Banu is a living tragedy.

When fellow villagers raped her during the post-Godhra riots she was five months pregnant.

In the accompanying violence, she lost 14 relatives, including her three-year-old child, mother and two sisters.

The first time I met her was in Godhra in the Sat pul (Sat bridge) area six months after her ordeal.

A local Congress leader had taken me to Maulvi Hussain Ibrahim Umarji who managed the refugee camp for riot victims in Godhra in Panchmahals district.

At that time, he was a respected figure in the local Ghanchi community and the Tablighi Jamaat. He also owned a small business in the town. Several months later, he was named as the key accused in the Godhra train burning case and arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

It was on Umarji's recommendation that Bilkis agreed to talk to me and let me record her heart-rending story.

She had just delivered a baby. Her husband Yakub was helping her look after the new-born. Her family was originally based in Randhikpur, a village nearby.

My first impression was that Bilkis was traumatized by the enormous tragedy that had struck her. Her face was expressionless and her talk listless.

She said she was tired of life and was subdued throughout our meeting. Only once did she get agitated; when I asked if she hoped to get justice.

Her husband and other community leaders were trying to prompt her to speak but she looked disinterested. She was dazed and silent for many months, her husband told me.

She found it difficult to understand the event that had devastated her. To her, the most incomprehensible and unbearable aspect was the fact that people whom she knew since childhood, who were like her brothers, had raped her.

Strangers are unknown entities but these were 'good people' of her village. When she was growing up, they were never suspect.

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She was the fittest example of India's 'cultural nationalism' because till she became one of the victims of the post-Godhra riots she had only one identity: Randhikpur gaam ni dikri (a daughter of Randhikpur village), to herself and to others in the villagers, both Hindus and Muslims.

To her, even the Muslims of Godhra were 'outsiders'. She did not know Umarji before she took refuge in the camp he managed.

She repeatedly spoke about Hindus in her village without bitterness. Her personality is more like that of a tribal from the Dahod area than of a Ghanchi Muslim. She is more comfortable with people who speak Gujarati in the tribal dialect.

Overnight, a simple, uneducated village girl was introduced to terrible complicated issues. When asked about Hindu-Muslim relations and other such socio-political issues, she gave me a blank look.

She had filed a complaint with the police accusing 14 men of rape, murder and rioting. It changed a lot of equations in her village.

Jaswant Nai, Govind Nai and Naresh Moriya, who she accused of raping her, are residents of Randhikpur. It meant her shifting out of the village for fear of reprisals.

After being threatened several times, she did not stay in one place for long.

In the last two years, she has shifted home almost 20 times, says her mentor Farah Deba Naqvi, a writer and social activist.

Initially, she was coerced into withdrawing her story. When she refused, the police delayed the investigation. Their laxity eventually resulted in the accused securing bail.

One of the reasons was that the police simply refused to believe her. Their investigation into the gang rape was not based on her complaint.

Eventually, the Gujarat government closed the case citing technical reasons.

Bilkis languished, uncared for and unheard of till social activists Huma Khan, Farah Naqvi and Malini Ghosh discovered her plight. They persuaded Harish Salve, a prominent Delhi lawyer, to take up her case.

The National Human Rights Commission's attention was drawn to her ordeal.

With support from various organisations and individuals, Bilkis moved the Supreme Court seeking a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation.

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The apex court sought a report from a senior police officer in Gujarat who pointed out several acts of negligence on the part of the local police. Eventually, the Supreme Court  ordered the CBI to probe the case.

The CBI discovered that local policemen had buried some of her relatives' bodies with salt to speed up decomposition. The agency exhumed the skeletons and sent them for forensic tests.

Later, six policemen were charge-sheeted for messing up the investigation.

All the 20 accused, including the six policemen, are in prison.

Their only hope is the discrepancies in the four statements Bilkis gave to the police at various stages.

In the meantime, taking cue from the Best Bakery case, Bilkis sought transfer of the case outside Gujarat saying that conditions were not suitable for a fair trial.

On Friday, August 6, the Supreme Court granted her plea and transferred her case to Maharashtra.

Farah Naqvi says Bilkis is delighted and feels relieved after the Supreme Court ruling.

But there is another aspect of this story.

When I visited Randhikpur in February, the CBI was still investigating the case and many of the accused were in hiding.

I visited their homes. The general feeling among their relatives was that 'Congressmen and Muslim community leaders' had ganged up against the Hindus. They claim that Bilkis has been tutored in the refugee camp.

Their argument: A daughter of our village would never do something like this (implicate fellow villagers in cases of rape, murder and rioting).

They were trying to paint Bilkis, the victim, as a hate figure.

A relative of an accused told me, "We do believe Bilkis. Some people of our village raped her and murdered her relatives. But local Congress leaders have asked her to 'fix' some Bharatiya Janata Party office-bearers. Her lawyers have selected the accused carefully. It's a political case. My children will curse her if she implicates my husband in court."

If you thought that was all, read about the threat that followed.

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The woman predicted greater trouble in Randhikpur if her husband and some other accused are arrested again. [At that time, they were still at large.]

Today they are in jail and one can imagine the impact of the Supreme Court's ruling in their homes in Randhikpur.

This is just a minor victory in the long journey that Bilkis has set out on. Securing justice is turning out to be an agonisingly slow process.

But, at least, her journey has begun.

The Gujarat Riots: Complete Coverage

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Sheela Bhatt