Waquar Hasan | Caravan Daily
On 23 April, Supreme Court of India ordered the Gujarat government to grant a compensation of Rs 50 lakh to Bilkis Bano, the survivor of the terrifying ordeal which took place 17 years back. Bano, then an 18-year-old pregnant lady was escaping with her family from their residence in Randhikpur in a truck when her entire family including her three-year-old daughter was killed before her eyes. Bano was then gang-raped and left on the streets to die during the worst episodes of communal riots in 2002 when the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the chief minister of the state.
Backed by human right activists, Bano, fought a legal battle for 17 years, until the court recently directed the state government to provide a job and house in a place of her choice. Eleven men have been given life imprisonment in this case, while six police officers and two doctors have been convicted for covering up the crime and tampering with the pieces of evidence in this case.
Sobha Gupta, the lawyer who represented Bilkis Bano in the Supreme Court asked for exemplary compensation for Bano. In an interview with our correspondent Waquar Hasan, Gupta talks about the case, role of the state in the case, rape in communal riots and Bano’s courage to get justice.
Bilkis Bano’s 17-year-long legal battle was difficult. But tell us, how difficult was the fight for you as her lawyer?
To be honest, my job as her legal expert in the apex court was a little easier than that of the lawyers who were working for her case in the trial and high court. That’s because they were working at the grass root level. So many people have been asking how difficult it would have been. It must be difficult for them. Like I know the NGOs were keeping her out. They were not keeping her at one place for a long period of time.
Normally, it is the duty of the state to provide justice but this case, the state was hostile towards Bilkis Bano. How do you look at the role of the state in this case?
It is not the case of the state’s failure to provide justice to her. On the contrary, it is a case where the state instrumentalities were working together as a team to deny justice to her and to protect the accused. And for that, they were doing everything to completely destroy the pieces of evidence and also to completely botch up the investigation. All that had been done with the help of police personnel and doctors. They are the functionaries of the state. Through home, their functions (investigations) have to be imparted.
An investigation forms the foundation of any criminal case. Courts can’t do justice if the investigation is completely biased. The high court has observed in the judgment that the investigation was the villain in the case. So, you can imagine to what extent the investigation had gone wrong and for that purpose, the police personnel including the doctor had done every unethical thing to suit their agenda.
What does the hostility of the state against Bilkis Bano show? What does it reflect?
As a lawyer, if I had been arguing before the trial court or the high court, maybe I would have said it in so many terms. But why would state functionaries do this? It’s no secret that why would they do it. That was their job to do the investigation in a very fair manner. More than anybody else, it should have been the state to ensure that the guilty are brought to book. If they are doing something completely contrary to it, then what could be the purpose – to save them and why they wanted to save certain people? They must answer.
I have heard someone in another interview that it is not just in Bilkis’s case that the Supreme Court had to constitute SIT but also in many other rape cases. In our case, it was referred to CBI and the CBI brought up a completely different case. Following which the matter had to be transferred from Gujarat to Bombay court. All these things say a lot, about the agenda that was being followed.
Earlier, Bilkis Bano was given compensation Rs 5 lakh that she rejected…
That is not what the trial court or the high court had granted. This is what they have stated in the affidavit filed in the Supreme Court stating that the petitioners had filed a petition seeking exemplary compensation. So, they came out with an affidavit saying that because Bilkis’s case is an exceptional case, hence we are granting her more than normal or exceptional compensation that in their terms was Rs 5 lakh.
How do you look at Rs 5 lakh as compensation in such a horrific case?
I would say that in place of taking that 5 lakh from the state as a compensation for her case, I would as a lawyer sign a check of that amount for her. That is a mockery. Compensation here means, not just providing monetary compensation to Bilkis. Here it also means a form of punishment for the state for failing badly or rather acting in a certain manner through their police officers. There had to be a precedent set, which could be an example for all state governments and all police persons who are supposed to do their job without bias or prejudice, which they often fail to do in a deliberate manner. It had to be a symbolic amount as well.
If you look at the case of Bilkis Bano, she fought her case despite having lost her entire family. She neither had the support of her family nor the state.
Unfortunately, she lost all her emotional support system. Women in the family are your strong support system. She lost each and every woman member of her family. Not a single woman in her family left alive including her first-born child. She is an illiterate lady hailing from a downtrodden family, hailing from rural Gujarat. She still collected all her courage to fight the legal battle. I guess she had the courage to do so, as she had nothing left to lose. She had been completely destroyed and denied all her rights.
But fortunately, she got the support system, not from the state or the investigating agency till it was with the Gujarat police, but from the judiciary and NGOs. Jayanti Devi, the IAS officer who was posted there, visited the relief camps. She was again one of the heroes in this case. Because of her intervention, Bilkis was made to undergo the medical examination for the rape and other things were put in shape. Her intervention helped both Bilkis and is in making out a case, demanding for a fresh investigation by the CBI. But this matter has to be remembered not for anything else but for the constant courage kept intact by Bilkis within her.
You must have interacted with Bilkis during the proceeding of the case. How do you describe her present state?
I’m not sure whether she will ever be comfortable with a person in uniform in her life or restore her faith in the police. But yes, since she is a brave and a positive person, I hope that sometime later in her life she will also start smiling. She has endured a lot of pain. If you meet her if you talk to her then you will notice that she barely smiles. Now, that her pain has somehow reduced, I hope that she starts leading her life normally. She has immense courage. Given the economic background economic strata that she comes from, Bilkis deserves every bit of the compensation that she has been granted by the court. Still, she wants to use some part of that amount for the welfare and betterment of people who have suffered. This shows she is a little different from others.
What would you like to suggest to the court or a democratic country when they deal with cases like that of Bilkis Bano who had no support?
I wish that the judgment of Bilkis’s case in the trial court as well as the high court when it comes to the investigation part, the court uses terms like tainted investigation, badly done investigation, intentionally derailed investigation and other such terms. They maintained that they gaged the mouth of justice and Bilkis. These terms have been used by the court for the investigation and police personnel. My advice is that may this judgment be read by the state government and the police personnel so that they can be taught about things that should never be done by those in power. The state has to ensure that the police department maintains law and order and instills the confidence in every single citizen that when they are there, to protect them. The police should make the common man believe that they are there to book those guilty of crimes. This is the basic concept of criminal law and based on this the state fights the case for the complainant. Here, unfortunately, it was the other way around.
There are a lot of cases of sexual violence against women in communal riots. They have also lost their family. What would you like to say to them in the light of Bilkis’s case?
They must learn from Bilkis. I know that our judicial system has plenty of scope to be bettered as it is failing to provide justice at the fastest possible pace. In Bilkis’s case, her case was a closed case. There was a closure report. Had the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) not intervened, and challenged the judgment at the Supreme Court, then the case would have died, thanks to its 2003 closure report. Following the NHRC intervention, the Supreme Court interfered and directed CBI investigation, then the network transferred. The trial took a good long time of over five years. The appeal took nine years from 2008 to 2017. If we shorten up these periods, we impart speedy justice in cases of communal riot or rape cases. We have fast-track court for rape cases. But if you make a special court for communal violence cases and rape cases committed during riots, as in case of the Gujarat riots, where rape was used as a tool to demean people belonging to a certain religion. I don’t actually understand the mentality. I believe that if there were some special courts (fast-track court as well), then victims like Bilkis won’t have to wait for 17 years to get justice, for then she can get justice in three years or four years. That would have helped her. But look at the fate of Bilkis’s case today. My request, advice and suggestion to all of them who are still waiting for justice would be to keep the fire alive, keep the spirit alive and push it hard and make sure justice is delivered to you finally. Just don’t lose hope.