On May 8, television cameras were trained on Bilkis Bano and her five-year-old daughter. Each time the girl turned to her mother for a drink of water, a kiss or gesture of comfort, the cameras erupted in a frenzy of flashing lights.

In 2002, during the communal riots in Gujarat, when Bilkis Bano was 19 and pregnant with her first daughter, she was gang raped by men of her village and left naked and unconscious. Her three-year-old child was killed, as were 13 other members of her family.

Bilkis Bano survived – her story became the best known of the many unspeakable horrors from those riots, not just for the violence she endured, and for the threats against her family, but due to attempts by Gujarat’s police and doctors to manipulate and destroy evidence. On May 4, the Bombay High Court upheld the life sentence delivered to the 11 surviving convicts by a lower court, and also set aside the acquittal of these very police officers and doctors – securing a historic victory for Bano.

Now, as she sat with her fifth and youngest child – mother and daughter both dressed in an identical shade of iridescent pink – at a press conference in Delhi, her husband by her side, the press corps tried their best to eke out fresh grist for the mill:

“The prime minister has been speaking a lot about Muslim women’s rights lately, has he ever expressed his support for you?”

“Did any minister from the Gujarat government ever threaten you directly?”

“What do you think about the growing instances of communal violence in the country?”

“How do you feel about the fact that Nirbhaya’s case was completed in five years, and her rapists given the death penalty, while your case took 15 years? Are you satisfied with the terms of punishment?”

Things got so frenetic that a scuffle broke out between two reporters.

“F**k off, what are you doing? That was my question,” a reporter said, shoving a cameraman out of the way, before turning back to Bano: “What were you saying?”

“The same thing I have been saying all day,” Bano said, after a pause. “Today, I am thankful to the judiciary. I feel justice has been served. I do not want revenge.”

(Photo credit: Nishita Jha).
(Photo credit: Nishita Jha).

Ritual humiliation

The trial of Bilkis Bano, as Pratixa Baxi notes in her book Public Secrets of Law: Rape Trials in India, was marked with the ritual humiliation heaped upon most rape survivors, with one crucial difference – the narratives by survivors were treated as an attack on Gujarati asmita or pride.

As a consequence, the state machinery worked against Bano at every stage. The First Information Report regarding her case was manipulated, the medical reports and postmortem of the bodies omitted important details, the bodies of Bano’s relatives were beheaded, then buried by the police in unmarked graves filled with nearly 90 kg of salt to ensure they would decompose quickly. The body of Bano’s daughter, Saleha, disappeared.

In their gruelling, 20-day cross examination of Bano, defence lawyers insisted that if she had genuinely been gang raped, surely, she would have miscarried. They argued: She said she was raped by her neighbours? What had she done to evoke their lust?

The trial court that first heard her case suggested that her ordeal was incidental to the actual riot.

“Many join for looting the properties,” the judge said. “Some join for satisfying their lust and few join the riotous mob for killing and more often, the religious fervour is merely a cover for their secret agenda.”

But the instances of sexual violence during the communal riots of Gujarat, particularly that of Bilkis Bano, were not incidental to the riot. They were in fact, the riot itself. Raping pregnant women, forcing them to witness the murder and rape of their families, killing their children during politically motivated violence, is a ritualised pattern of violence that is repeated from Armenia to Congo to Gujarat.

In committing a “life force atrocity”, or targeting mothers, particularly pregnant or nursing women, perpetrators attack the victim community’s women because they are a generative force, held responsible for their community’s existence.

An itinerant life

After holding press conferences, Bano and her husband Yakub Rasool Khan have a familiar ritual perfected over 15 years. They hand out affidavits to reporters, permitting the use of Bano’s name in the press (disclosing a rape survivor’s identity without written permission is a punishable offence), Khan worries over what his wife has said to reporters, and as the crowds thin out, Bano packs their suitcases.

Since the riot, Bano and Khan have packed and unpacked these suitcases often, as they moved homes at least 20 times, in Mumbai, Pune, Ahmedabad and Vadodara. They have changed their children’s schools as they shifted cities, taking the babies with them every time they had to make a court appearance in Mumbai, where Bano’s case was shifted once the Central Bureau of Investigation found evidence of the Gujarat state police’s complicity in covering up the crime. They told their older children that their mother had been “tortured and then cheated”, her family killed by a mob.

Living in the shadow of danger has taken a toll on the family. Their eldest daughter was born at the riot relief camp. The second was born when Bano’s case was handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation, the son when the sessions court gave its judgment.

Time is marked in court dates, life is the thing that happens in between. The years are punctuated by struggles faced by every young couple with a growing family. Khan has tried to find jobs and set up businesses, failing each time they had to pack and move again. Bano, unlettered and raising young children, wished she had studied so she could help her husband run their home.

(Photo credit: Atul Yadav/ PTI).
(Photo credit: Atul Yadav/ PTI).

There are also the deep recesses of a grief that only Khan and Bano can explain. When the memories of that day in the village return, Bano cannot stop the waves of fear and anxiety from washing over her.

“My triggers are not court dates, but anything to do with families,” she said. “When people get married, and they are surrounded by large, celebrating families, it reminds me of my own. When I hear some news of my village, a child being born into a family, it returns. I cannot ever forget those faces, my uncles and cousins and the children.”

She recounts the names of every family member she lost, as though she is reciting a litany. But she maintains her composure.

“When I begin to cry, I cannot stop,” she said.

On those days, it is only Khan who can bring her back.

When Khan looked for his wife after the riots, he found her sitting silent, alone, and buried in her grief in the darkest corner of Godhra’s riot relief camp.

He had heard of what had happened to her through everyone else at the camp – death, murder, rape – were the words all around him as he looked for Bano.

“I put everything aside – the riots, the family we had lost,” he said. “I spoke to her with love, I tried to bring her out of the pain she had endured.”

He added: “Since then, I have heard Bilkis testify a million times, to NGO workers, to lawyers, to journalists, but I have never asked her – what happened to you? Who did what? You have heard the words too, but every time, I have felt them in my heart.”

Bilkis Bano addresses a press conference in 2008. (Photo credit: HT).
Bilkis Bano addresses a press conference in 2008. (Photo credit: HT).

Over the years, people from within the community have sought to convince Khan that standing by his wife is not worth the trouble, that Bano would have been safe had she been a better Muslim, had she been wearing a hijab or stayed by her husband’s side. Others have said that she should start wearing a hijab now.

Then there are the fears of constantly being on the run, trying to keep their family safe, living with the feeling that they could be attacked at any moment.

“Sometimes, the accused were held in jail, or out on parole in the same jurisdiction that we were living in,” said Khan, turning to his wife. “Remember that time when we were in Baroda? They were at jail 15 minutes from our house. I don’t tell you everything because I don’t want you to worry.”

What the future holds

In court, victory and justice are never absolute till all appeals are exhausted. Bano’s lawyer, Vijay Hiremath, said the accused police officers are likely to appeal their sentence, meaning more court dates.

Khan, meanwhile, is in search of ways to support his family of six.

“My forefathers have all been cattle traders, we deal in meat,” he said. “Our livelihood has become dangerous – people are being lynched under suspicion of killing cows or selling beef. What other work am I supposed to find?”

Bano and Khan are determined to live in Gujarat, where they can be close to their families should the need for help arise. “The air is still poisoned in Gujarat,” said Khan. “Hindus and Muslims no longer live with each other in the same neighbourhoods, everyone wants to keep their own as close as possible.”

But Bano looks to the future. Her struggle has inspired her eldest daughter, who wants to become a lawyer when she grows up. Bano too wants to work. “I could counsel other women who have been assaulted,” she said. “I finally believe in justice. If they fight long enough and refuse to give up, maybe they will too.”