By Abdul Bari Masoud
New Delhi: “It’s not about the money, it is about the message that “no citizen of India should have to suffer violations by the State and let us end this hate and fear.” This is what the Gujarat pogrom’s gang-rape victim Bilkis Rasul Bano said at a crowded Press Conference at the Press Club of India here on Wednesday after the Supreme Court yesterday ordered the Gujarat government to compensate her with Rs 50 lakh and a government job with accommodation.
While thanking the apex court for this historic verdict which has set a new precedent and would discourage the State from taking side in communal violence, Bilkis Bano said with wet eyes that it has been a very painful period of 17 years for me who had sought exemplary compensation from the state government, refusing to accept its offer of Rs 5 lakh.
“I kept my faith in the constitution and in my rights as a citizen, and the Supreme Court has stood with me. For that I am truly grateful to the honorable Judges.’
On April 23, while passing severe strictures against the BJP- led Gujarat government in its ruling, the apex court directed the state government to pay a compensation of Rs 50 lakh as well as a government job and accommodation as per rules to the victim.
It is to recall that during the Gujarat pogrom -engineered allegedly by the ruling party- while feeling from the violence on March 3, 2002 Bilkis Bano was sexually assaulted in Randhikapur village near Ahmadabad. She was then 21 years old and five month pregnant. She was gang-raped and 14 members of her family, including her 3 and half year old daughter, murdered. Several female members of her family also raped and murdered. Bilkis is the only adult survivor and eyewitness to the horrific massacre who stood like a solid rock to fight her case despite all odds and continued intimidations to withdraw the case. As many riots victims buckled under the alleged pressure of the state and perpetrators of the crime and withdrew their cases. Zahira Shaikh’s case was prominent among them.
Speaking about her 17 year long struggle for justice and seeking accountability from the State, she said, ‘It has been a journey of a million steps, first seeking criminal conviction of those who destroyed my life, my child, my entire family.
“But today the State has been convicted in a court of morals and constitutional principles. The Supreme Court’s order to me is not about the money. It is about the signal it has sent to the State and to each citizen of this country. We have rights that no state can be allowed to violate,” she added.
When asked what she planned to do with the money, Bilkis Bano said she wanted to finally give her children a stable life. Perhaps see her eldest daughter grow up into a lawyer who can defend others.
“I also want to use part of the money to help other women survivors of hate and communal violence seek justice. I want to help educate their children, in whose lives the spirit of my daughter Saleha will live on,” said an emotional Bilkis, with her husband Yakub Rasul solidly by her side.
Flanked by her husband and her advocate Shobha and other activists, Bilkis Bano said it is historic day for women’s rights and state accountability as it is for the first time in India compensation of this magnitude has been awarded to a survivor of gang-rape and mass murder during communal and targeted violence.
When asked whether she was contented with the apex court’s the judgment? she quipped she was not after the money but wanted a respectful and fearless life.
“I always maintained that I want justice not revenge when you people asked me whether you want convicts get capital punishment”.
On the occasion, here Advocate Shobha paraphrased portions of the Special Leave Petition seeking action against the convicted Gujarat Police officials, and listing multiple, horrific counts of violation of constitutional rights for which Bilkis sought exemplary compensation from the State of Gujarat:
* ‘For damages to her Constitutional right to life; right to bodily integrity; right to be protected by the State; and right to seek justice for wrongs suffered by her.
* For damages to her Constitutional rights, not merely those inflicted by perpetrators of murder and gang-rape, but in the Constitutional scheme far worse, because these violations were willfully and criminally and with malafide intent with support of State actors who went to the criminal extent of orchestrating beheading of bodies and burying them in hidden graves to deny the petitioner means to seek justice.
* For loss of her first-born 3½ year old daughter whose body was never found and to whom the petitioner and her husband could never fulfill their duties as parents, and perform her last rites, and bury her in a grave with basic human dignity because of criminal action by State police officials.
* For moral damages include the physical suffering, mental anguish, loss, shock to the petitioners and society’s moral compass … more so because it was enabled by the State actors mandated to protect her, and the petitioners expectation as a citizen was to be protected by them.
* For the physical damage to her body in suffering brutal aggravated gang-rape, and rape and murder of members of her family, for which State actors should have protected and helped her seek justice.
* For mental trauma and a lifetime of depression, anxiety, loss, fear, to have to live with the unspeakable trauma of watching her first born child murdered in front of her eyes by her head being smashed on a rock, while the mother is helpless to protect, and is being gang-raped.
* For financial loss, that she and her husband suffered, in their permanent internal displacement of fleeing their home, and losing all sources of income; and for 15 years of bravely seeking justice; for having to shift over 20 locations, and homes with all their children.
* For loss of her fundamental and human right to love, affection and emotional support system – she lost 14 family members including all women members of her immediate family. Her children have grown up, denied all female nurturing and support from extended family.
* For, this she seeks an exemplary compensation that signals restitution of her constitutional, familial, social rights as an equal citizen of this country who deserved and still deserves full protection of the State and of this Hon’ble Court.”
The Press Conference was packed with citizens from all walks of life, including women’s rights and human rights activists who said they were there to salute Bilkis’ courage, and at this dark time in India, when hate crimes and hate speech were on the rise, to celebrate this historic moment of hope for equal justice for ALL citizens of India, and for the victory of constitutional values.
The press conference was organized collectively by many concerned citizens including Farah Naqvi, Dipta Bhog, Gagan Sethi, Madhavi Kuckreja, Malini Ghose, Huma Khan.