"For the last 17 years, I was not able to vote as I was scared. This time I voted and my vote is for the unity of the country. I have faith in the democratic system of the country and the election process."
Saying this with an ink mark of polling on her left index finger was Bilkis Bano, after casting her vote in Devgadh Baria of Dahod district in Gujarat. She became a fighting - and victoriou – heroine in a legal battle in which she not only won the court's sentence on the diabolic murderers who threw some of their fellow natives to death and threw asunder the lives of the survivors. She also wrested a compensation amount, home and job from a government that had colluded with the perpetrators. For her this election was also a victory celebration of translating from the script to reality the concepts etched in the preamble of the constitution such as equality, fraternity, freedom and justice, after a fight lasting a decade and a half.
Bilkis was a housewife, and six months pregnant, during the period of Gujarat genocide, when on 3 March 2002 the sangh parivar communalists subjected her to mass rape and threw her alive mistaking her to be dead among 14 others of her family, including her own three-year old child, her mother and sister. But when she emerged from the heap of dead bodies, rising there was a woman fighter. And in the country that made democracy and justice its slogans, the spirited struggle she made to make them a reality, with the support of social activists, did not go futile. Finally, the Supreme Court decreed that the Gujarat government, held responsible for the incident, should give her half a crore of rupees as compensation and give her a house and a job.
The struggle became necessary since the local police was not even prepared to register a case and turned their face away from her. That set her on legal combat mode and she did not budge till winning her victory. In December 2003 she filed complaints with National Human Rights Commission and the Supreme Court, but what marked a turning point was the SC granting her demand for a CBI enquiry. In January 2004, the CBI arrested all the culprits mentioned in the complaint, and the trial of the case was shifted from Gujarat to Mumbai for security reasons. In January 2008, the court found 13 of the accused guilty and sentenced 11 of them to life imprisonment. Seven were acquitted. Though the accused appealed before Mumbai High Court, that was of no avail, and in addition the court struck down the trial court's acquittal of the seven accused.
Bano had pleaded with Supreme Court to increase the compensation of Rs 5 lakh granted by the Gujarat government, and the apex court's order is in consideration of that too. None of this will suffice to compensate the losses she suffered later. But Bano's case will find a place in the annals of legal battles following communal riots in the country as a case in which the victim and the courts chased the matter and came to a conclusion giving solace. This judgement also proves that with the help of court, justice is still possible in the country. For that very reason, the gratitude Bano has expressed for the court carries with it the endorsement of every seeker of justice and fairness in the country.
It is not Bilkis Bano alone who made a fight, while swimming in the stream of blood of Gujarat killings for justice. There are several others - like Zakia Jaffri and Yasmin Sheikh – who, in spite of their frequenting the courts, did not gain much other than the skin under their feet getting worn out. Cases are aplenty like those of Best Bakery, Gulbarg Society and Naroda Patia in which the small fries got booked and the big sharks escaped. Even as the Supreme Court itself expresses anxiety about pending cases, most of Gujarat riot cases, in which bigwigs are accused, get dragged on without end. In Gujarat, the usual method of probing into the background mass killings, and then taking action againt the culprits, was overturned at the very beginning.
In the communal killings carried out with the collusion of the sangh parivar government, each case is being handled separately. And in each, the party criminals involved get caught and the instigating plotters come out scot-free. There were also instances of using the rod of power to dissuade those who were chasing the 'high criminals'. Many who tried to win justice for the victims of Gujarat genocide, were booked under specious cases by the government. It is amidst such attempts by the forces of darkness who fear the daylight of justice and truth, that Bilkis has clinched this victory. This win is the result of a collective drive by those right from the tribal woman who first lifted her from death to life, to the women social activists who stood by her in her legal crusade. Even as the wicked forces try to lead the country to darkness, it is such vigilant collectives vowed to keep aflame the light of justice and truth who save not only Bilkis Bano but the very country from failing.