On 4 May 2017, the Bombay High Court upheld a sessions court decision convicting 11 people of committing the gang rape of Bilkis Yakub Rasool, a 19-year-old pregnant woman often referred to as Bilkis Bano, and the murder of 14 members of her family, during the Gujarat riots of 2002. The sessions court had sentenced the convicts to life imprisonment, which the high court upheld. The court also set aside the acquittals of others who were accused in the case, including Gujarat police officers.
In Splintered Justice: Living the Horror of Mass Communal Violence in Bhagalpur and Gujarat, Warisha Farasat, a lawyer practising in Delhi, and Prita Jha, a legal activist and researcher based in Ahmedabad, closely examine the state’s accountability in two instances of mass communal violence. Farasat writes on the carnage in Bhagalpur district, in Bihar, in 1989, and Jha on the riots in Gujarat in 2002. In the following extract from the book, Jha recounts how the Hindu mobs attacking Muslim neighbourhoods used rape as a weapon against women—including the Hindu women they believed were guilty of associating with Muslims. “The struggles of Gujarat’s rape survivors were not, and still are not, limited to the courts of law,” Jha writes. “These women had to also fight for their dignity in their own communities.”
Widespread evidence of sexual violence is found in several reports brought out by civil society and concerned citizens’ groups, but data gathered by CES [The Centre for Equity Studies] through RTI queries suggested that few rapes were reported, and even fewer registered by the police. The reluctance of women, particularly in rural areas, to report their ordeal, stemmed from their fear of being ostracised by a society that looks down upon survivors of rape. The fact that impunity for perpetrators was the order of the day in the Gujarat of 2002 would have further persuaded the victims to not approach the police, in whom the Muslims had little, if any, confidence.
Bilkis Bano was one of the few rape survivors who came forward. She waged a historic battle to get justice, and, remarkably, secured the first conviction ever for rape during communal violence in independent India. It is well known that women have often been sexually brutalised during communal riots in order to humiliate and demoralise their men.
When she went to report her ordeal, at the very first instance she was confronted with the shameful system of impunity put in place to protect the perpetrators of the 2002 carnage. The police simply refused to register a FIR with the names of accused, and even threatened to inject Bilkis with poison if she insisted on including the rape charge in the FIR. Then, they repeatedly tried to scuttle the investigation and close the case. But when she managed to defeat all such attempts, the case was transferred to the Gujarat CID. It only got worse from there on, as she felt insecure and harassed by the very agency charged with protecting her and prosecuting her rapists. Bilkis, however, was lucky to get the financial, legal and moral support of a respected NGO, Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), and the National Human Rights Commission. Their support enabled her to move the Supreme Court, where she successfully applied to have the investigation transferred to the CBI, and for the trial to be held outside Gujarat. Eventually, a conviction was secured, despite the police and the first investigation team’s efforts, as proven in court, to protect the rapists. The conviction was made possible, in large part, by the meticulous investigation of the CBI, as well as the fair trial conducted in Mumbai.