On 4 May, the Bombay High Court held all 20 accused in the Bilkis Bano case as guilty.
- It rejected the appeals of 11 convicted accused in the case.
- It upheld the sentence of life imprisonment for the 11 convicts.
- It also quashed the acquittal of seven accused, pronouncing them as convicts; these seven had been previously acquitted by a trial court.
- The HC also convicted many doctors and cops for evidence tampering.
- The Court also dismissed an appeal by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to award the capital punishment to three of the 11 convicts.
The HC’s verdict marks a major legal and personal victory for Bilkis Bano, whose struggles and fight for justice captured the conscience of the nation.
Bombay High court dismisses appeals of 12 convicts in Bilkis Bano rape and murder case, upholds their life imprisonment
— ANI (@ANI_news) May 4, 2017
What is the Bilkis Bano case?
2002 witnessed violent communal riots in Gujarat – a Mumbai Court called it a genocide. It is estimated that over 2000 people lost their lives in the rioting; most of the victims belonged to the state’s Muslim minority.
In the midst of this violent vortex of arson, murder, and vandalism was 19-year-old Bilkis Bano. She lived in the village of Randhikpur, which was attacked by bloodthirsty mobs in the morning of 28 February. Consequently, the Muslims of Randhikpur fled the village in search of refuge elsewhere.
On 3 March 2002, a truck carrying 17 people – including Bilkis and her family – was fleeing the violence in search of refuge. While they were moving on the kachcha road, 35 people carrying weapons like swords, sickles and sticks came shouting “Aa rahya Musalmano, emane maaro, kaato” (these are the Muslims, kill them, cut them) in two white vehicles. The mob engaged in the acts of sexual assault, rape and killing of the people in the truck.
They brutally gang-raped Bilkis, who was at that time five-months pregnant, became unconscious. The assailants left her for dead.
Around three hours later, Bilkis woke up to found herself naked amidst the 14 dead bodies. 14 people – including four women and four children – were killed on 3 March 2002. Attackers crushed Bilkis’s three-year-old daughter’s head on a stone, while she herself was gang-raped and left for dead.
The entire chain of events can be read here (Page 4 to Page 9).
The events of 3 March were one of the countless human rights outrages during the Gujarat riots. The perpetrators of that day’s disgusting events would have remained unpunished had it not been for the long crusade for justice led by Bilkis.
Bilkis Bano’s long fight for justice
Despite being illiterate, economical, and all alone, and despite having lost most of her family, Bilkis gathered the courage to approach the police and lodge a complaint.
The first FIR was filed on 4 March 2002, at Limkheda police station.
- At first, local police refused to register a case.
- Then they did not mention the names of the rapists in the FIR even though Bilkis knew who some of them were.
- On many occasions, they threatened Bilkis with dire consequences if she decided to proceed with the matter.
- Policemen started fabricating false evidence and causing the disappearance of evidence, immediately after Bilkis lodged an oral complaint giving the names of the assailants and the details of the incident, with the intention of protecting the offenders.
One year later, police cited inconsistencies in her statements and the magistrate closed the case for want of evidence.
Bilkis then approached the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and submitted a petition in the Supreme Court, which directed the CBI to start a probe into the matter. Meanwhile, the Gujarat Crime Investigation Department (CID) had begun harassing Bilkis and members of her extended family.
The CBI’s investigation
In early 2004, the CBI began making arrests. In its report, the CBI severely indicted the Gujarat police and informed the SC that the security of the witnesses and Bilkis herself was under threat. Bilkis filed an additional petition asking for the case to be transferred outside Gujarat – the SC duly transferred the case to a Special Court in Mumbai.
The CBI stated that the depraved act of gang raping a pregnant woman and multiple murders, including that of an infant, amounted to the rarest of rare case. The CBI pitched for the death sentence for three of the convicts in the case. CBI counsel Hiten Venegaonkar submitted that in the present case the motive was to “harm and terrorise the members of the minority community by attacking, murdering and committing rape on the defenceless,” and that brutality of the crimes was proved as those killed included a three-year-old, a ten-year-old and a 12-year-old.
He said, “Bilkis Bano and her mother were gang-raped in front of each other … It is not disputed that persons from one particular community were assaulted, murdered and raped.” These factors, according to CBI constituted “aggravating factors” meriting capital punishment.
The Special Court’s verdict
In January 2008, the Special Court sentenced 11 accused to life imprisonment and a fine of Rs 2000 on each count in the Bilkis Bano case. The Court also ruled that this was not the rarest of rare cases to warrant the death penalty.
An appeal was filed by the convicts against the Special Court’s verdict in the Bombay High Court. Nine years later, the Bombay HC upheld the Special Court’s verdict and rejected the appeal.
And with that, Bilkis Bano’s 15-year-long crusade for justice ended with victory for her. The rapists can now move the Supreme Court against the High Court’s verdict, but it is highly unlikely that they will be freed by the SC.
Bilkis Bano’s statement following the HC’s verdict
Bilkis Bano’s statement to the press:
“Through all of you, friends in the media, I wish to say to all my fellow Indian citizens, my fellow Gujaratis, my fellow Muslims, and to women everywhere – I am grateful that this verdict delivered by the Honorable Judges, has, yet again, vindicated my truth, and upheld my faith in the judiciary.
My rights, as a human being, as a citizen, woman, and mother were violated in the most brutal manner, but I have trusted in the democratic institutions of our country. Now, my family and I feel we can begin to lead our lives again, free of fear.
I am happy that the State and its officials who emboldened, encouraged, and protected the criminals who destroyed the life of an entire community, are no longer unblemished, but today stand charged with tampering of evidence. For officers of the state, whose sworn duty it is to protect citizens and enable justice, this should be their great moral shame, to bear forever.
To fellow Indians, I appeal to all of you, at a time when we hear news everyday of people being attacked and killed because of their religion or community – please help affirm their faith in the secular values of our country and support their struggles for justice, equality, and dignity. For this verdict does not mean the end of hatred but it does mean that somewhere, somehow justice can prevail. This has been [a] long, seemingly never-ending struggle for me, but when you are on the side of truth, you will be heard, and justice will be yours in the end.
The close friends, who have stood with me through it all, know how much me, my husband Yakub and my family owe to them for their … support and love throughout this battle. For journeys like mine cannot be made alone. I am deeply grateful both to the CBI and to my lawyer who represented me during this appeal process in the Honourable Bombay High Court.”
The Logical Indian take
“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” – Benjamin Franklin
In the Bilkis Bano case, Bilkis’s courage and the CBI and the Special Court’s swift actions are truly commendable. The Bombay High Court took eight years to green-light the Special Court’s verdict, which is a long time, but the final verdict was in Bilkis’s favour. The Court also moved to punish the policemen who tampered with evidence.
There are many among us who are disappointed that the rapists and murderers were not awarded the death penalty.
The death penalty debate is a serious one. However, what we must take away from the Bombay HC’s verdict is something more important than that.
15 years ago, 19-year-old Bilkis Bano, who was also five-months-pregnant, was gang raped by at least 11 men. These men were part of a group of 35 men who were in turn part of a larger group of vandals and murderers and rapists who terrorised rural Gujarat in 2002. The 35 men who attacked the truck Bilkis was fleeing in murdered 14 people and raped the women. 14 people – including four women and four children – were killed on 3 March 2002. Bilkis’s three-year-old daughter’s head was crushed on a stone, while she herself was gang-raped and left for dead.
For 15 years, Bilkis Bano fought for justice. And she personified not only the victims of 3 March 2002. Bilkis Bano also personified the 2000+ victims of that year’s communal hatred. She was a victim in 2002, but she was also a victim in the years since.
She was also a victim of policemen who refused to register her FIR. She was also a victim of authorities who threatened her for seeking justice. She was also a victim of people who fabricated false evidence so that the accused would not be convicted.
Bilkis Bano was also a victim of a lengthy judicial process. The wheels of justice are sinfully, painfully, maddeningly slow. There is no doubt that, as is evident, this process was thorough and convicted the rapists and murderers in the end. But for 15 years, the survivor of the horrific attack of 3 March 2002 continued to be a victim in many ways. They say that justice delayed is justice denied. In this case, one cannot say that justice was denied. Justice has been delivered, yes, but at what cost?