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.
The rioters of 2002 did not limit their acts of depravity to Muslims; they targeted even fellow Hindus who had any association with Muslims. Gauri was in love with a Muslim man and was living with him when the violence began. When the Hindu mob attacked her village, Gauri said, she persuaded her partner to leave the house and hide in the fields, believing that since she was a Hindu, the rioters, her co-religionists, would not harm her. If only.
Gauri was gang raped by seven Hindu rioters, in front of 30-40 fellow villagers, none of who even tried to help her. Her ordeal was also witnessed by her minor daughter, who later testified in court; the only eyewitness to depose even though her mother had been gang raped in full public view. Going through the trial process was traumatic, Gauri said. She had to attend two sets of proceedings, one for the rape case and another for the case of her daughter’s abduction. She said she got angry when the defence lawyer suggested in the court that she had not been raped. “I shouted back that the rape did take place,” she said, adding that Bhanubhai, the activist supporting her in her struggle for justice, then helped to calm her down. She felt the entire court was hostile to her and that the judge did not believe her.
Another rural woman from Panchmahal district told us she was gang raped and left for dead in some bushes outside the village. When she regained consciousness, she found herself naked. She walked for miles without a shred of clothing to cover herself before she found a relative. Though she managed to get an FIR registered with the help of a local NGO, her case was heard in a court in another town far from her village, and she could not afford to go and see her lawyer at all. So, she was unaware of the status of her case. She felt the state should give financial assistance to rape survivors so that they have the means to secure justice.
That said, the struggles of Gujarat’s rape survivors were not, and still are not, limited to the courts of law. In a culture that virtually ostracises victims of sexual violence—and often their families—and blames them for their suffering, these women had to also fight for their dignity in their own communities. No surprise then many of them did not report the crimes committed against them. Take Khanbhai’s case. Legal papers suggest an attempted sexual assault on two young girls of his family—the rioters tried to disrobe them – but the family denies this happened. As for the girls, they were all but ‘disappeared’ from legal proceedings, along with the three women eyewitnesses, and made to bear their trauma in silence even though the assault took place in public. It was left to the sole male eyewitness, Khanbhai, to wage the legal battle for his daughters’ honour. This conspiracy of denial and silence, of course, benefitted the accused. And it was hatched, a local activist alleged, with the help of both the defence and prosecution lawyers. They made Khanbhai believe that if his daughters turned up in court, they would be cross-examined by the defence lawyer about the sexual assault, which would destroy their marriages.
It is no secret that during the mass murders in Gujarat, scores of Muslim women were raped and murdered. Five witnesses of the Naroda Patiya massacre gave heartbreaking accounts of such atrocities, and of the layers of social, cultural and legal impunity that were put in place for the rapists and murderers. The rioters raped Haiderbhai’s wife and butchered three other members of his family. It has been over twelve years since, but Haiderbhai is still tortured that he could not get her justice. He did not let us speak with his wife, fearing it would bring back painful memories of the horror she was subjected to. He spoke in a slow, monotonous, lifeless voice. He constantly blamed himself for his wife’s ordeal, cursing his luck that he could not give the police the names of the rapists. He knew them and where they lived; they were customers who would buy food from his wooden handcart, which is colloquially called a laary. And every time he saw them roaming free, he felt wracked by guilt and shame.
Given the discourse of shame that surrounds sexual violence, victims rarely, if ever, talk about it. So, often, the only people who can give reliable information about these atrocities are the witnesses. Januben knew of five women who had been sexually assaulted in Naroda Patiya. Three of them were burnt to death, and of the surviving two, only one received compensation of Rs 5 lakh.
Another eyewitness to the horror of Naroda Patiya, Mumtazben, recalled that the orgy of murder, rape, looting and arson continued from the morning of 28 February 2002 till late night. She said: “Humari nazron ke samne maar diya, humari nazro ke samane balatkar huwe. Tola dor-dor ke aa raha tha, yahan mat jao, wahan par us gali me balatkare ho rahi hain, us gali me lashain padi hui hain, is tarah se maar rahe thay. Aisse hadse guzarte gaye, subah se raat tak” (People were murdered and raped before our eyes. Mobs were running around and shouting, “don’t go in that street, women are being raped there; don’t go into that street, bodies are lying there.” Tragedy upon tragedy was taking place from morning till night).
Mumtazben said the rioters did not spare anyone; they raped married women, young girls, and even children, whenever and wherever they could. Some women were raped in full view of the public, some were dragged away elsewhere.
Did any of the victims receive any monetary assistance, medical attention or counselling? “Camp me logon ne socha ki agar hum bata den ki humari beti ke saath, humare bibi ke saath, humare rishtedar ke saath, humare mohallah ki mahilaon ke saath balatkar huwa hai to humen puri zindagi sharmindgi rahegi. Kitne insanon ne itne bade zakhm aise hi sah liye (People who made it to refugee camps thought if we reveal our daughters, our wives, our relatives, women from our neighbourhood have been raped, we will be condemned to live in shame for ever. So many people just had to live with such great wounds),” Mumtazben said.
She added that some victims who needed medical attention were treated privately, lest their ordeal be revealed and, thus, their families shamed. There is no information available on whether the rape survivors of the Gujarat carnage received counselling in the camps or afterwards.
In 2007, a courageous sting carried out by Ashish Khetan, then working for Tehelka magazine, revealed that RSS and VHP leaders had encouraged attacks on Muslim women. For long before the 2002 carnage, the Hindutva brigade had run a not-so-secret hate campaign against Muslims, effectively projecting them in the collective Hindu consciousness as the “hated other.” This served to justify the dehumanising sexual assaults on Muslim women when the riots broke out. In the video of Khetan’s sting, Babu Bajrangi, one of the architects of the Naroda Patiya massacre, boasted that he had raped Muslim women in front of his wife. The video was later used as evidence to incriminate Bajrangi in the case.
The Naroda Patiya trial was historic, in that it was first case of the Gujarat carnage where the court accepted that Muslim women had been subjected to sexual violence, and ordered the state government to pay compensation to the victims.
This is an extract from Splintered Justice: Living the Horror of Mass Communal Violence in Bhagalpur and Gujarat, by Warisha Farasat and Prita Jha. It has been condensed.
Prita Jha is a legal activist and researcher based in Ahmedabad. She works on justice for survivors of mass violence and violence against women. She has co-edited, with Surabhi Chopra, On Their Watch: Mass Violence and State Apathy in India.