Dressed in pink, with her youngest daughter in her lap and her husband by her side, Bilkis Bano had the air of a woman reborn. And the 34-year-old woman from Gujarat said as much while speaking to the national media on Monday. "We are getting ready to start life again," she said.
Later, her husband Yakub Rasool told HuffPost India that he was more in love with his wife than ever before. All he wanted to do now was to build a good home for her and their five children. "In all this time, I never articulated in words what happened to Bilkis. There was never ever need to between us," he said. "Our love grew because we had to support each other. Bilkis needed my strength and I needed Bilkis' strength."
On 3 March, 2002, religious violence had consumed parts of Gujarat, and Bilkis, then 19-years-old and pregnant, was desperately trying to find refuge after having fled from her village. However, she was gang raped and left for dead by a mob. Her three-year-old daughter was murdered along with 13 other members of her family. The Gujarat state police went to shocking lengths to cover up the crime. Local policemen buried the dead bodies with salt in order to speed up decomposition. Eventually, the Supreme Court asked the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to conduct an investigation and moved the trial from Gujarat to Maharashtra.
Last week marked a major milestone in the struggle for justice that Bilkis has waged for 15 years. Not only did the Bombay High Court uphold the sentence of life imprisonment for the men who had raped her and killed her family members, it also convicted the policemen and doctors who had connived and tried to cover up the crime. As Hiten Venegavkar, special counsel for the CBI, pointed out, this was the first time that police officials had been convicted in any case related to the Gujarat riots. And, human rights lawyer Vijay Hiremath pointed out that this was the first time that policemen had been convicted in a case of sexual violence.
In a conversation with HuffPost India, Yakub spoke about what was next for his family. Even as they take a moment to celebrate their tremendous achievement, there are harsh realities that Bilkis and Yakub must confront on their own. While human rights activists have helped them in their legal battle, there is only so much that civil society can do for the couple as they try to rebuild their lives. Even though 14 members of her family were killed, Bilkis has not received any support from the Bharatiya Janata Party run Gujarat state government in the past 15 years. They do they expect anything in the future.
"Today there are cameras around us. We feel safe. We feel happy about the judgment. But what happens tomorrow? There are weeks and months when we are on our own," said Yakub.
Even though they have won a major legal battle, Bilkis and Yakub fear going back to their family village which they fled in 2002. They don't intend to go back ever. The couple has moved at least 20 times in the past 15 years, terrified that they will be attacked by one of the defendants who were repeatedly given parole by the Gujarat government. In fact, Yakub does not want to disclose where exactly they live in Baroda now. "There is so much violence that I don't want to say where I live. Anything that we say or do, we are afraid what would the fallout be not just on our immediate family but also our relatives," he said. "But I want to find a new place where I can start a new life and a new business. We want to stop running."
We want to stop running.
When I asked him what violence he was referring to, Yakub said, "There have been instances of communal violence in the country since 2002. There has been nothing as big as 2002, but smaller instances. But one can feel the separation between Hindus and Muslims and that feeling is growing. Even today, Hindu families and Muslim families don't live together. I have seen that even in Baroda, Hindus won't buy a house in a Muslim area and a Muslim does not want to buy a house in a Hindu area. We live in a country where Hindus and Muslims no longer want to live next door to each other. Is that not a form of violence?"
We live in a country where Hindus and Muslims no longer want to live next door to each other. Is that not a form of violence?"
When I asked him why they feared going back to their village even after so many years, Yakub said that the fear that something could go wrong never leaves them. "You and I are sipping tea and having a conversation. Would you not be surprised if I were to attack you? The men who attacked Bilkis were no strangers. They were our friends, our neighbors of many years. But suddenly after the train in Godhra was burnt, they started saying 'kill Muslims'. We did not burn that train. We don't understand it but the trust is gone."
"How can we take a risk by going back when there is still fear in our hearts," he added. "We are always afraid."
When I asked Yakub whether he missed their family village, he shrugged and said, "Everyday."
How can we take a risk by going back when there is still fear in our hearts.
Making A Living
Given Gujarat government's crackdown on cow slaughter and the prevailing mood of vigilantism in the state, Yakub has no idea how he will make a living. For generations, Yakub and his relatives have been cattle traders, selling cows to farmers who wanted milch cows. However, the bulk of their business was with cattle skinners. "Everything has gone in the past two months," he said. "We only do the buying and selling, but the adivasi community isn't buying anymore. Everyone is afraid."
With the Gujarat Assembly elections scheduled for later this year, Yakub expects increased polarisation not less. "Everyone knows how politics is played, votes are taken on the basis of caste, votes are taken on the basis of Hindutva, votes are taken by orchestrating communal riots," he said. "I'm not political but all I can say is that we should bring an end to the tensions between Hindus and Muslims."
At the press conference, Yakub had announced that his eldest daughter wanted to be a lawyer. I asked him whether this was her dream or his dream for her, considering she was only in Class 9. "She knows what her mother has gone through," he said. "I think that it would be the best profession for her."
But whether that dream will ever become reality now depends on Yakub finding a job. "We could never send our children to good schools," he explained. "First, we were always moving around and then we didn't have the money. If I can find a new business with steady income, I will spend the money on their education."
While the Bombay High Court judgement has come as a huge relief to Bilkis and Yakub, it is not the end of their legal battle. They must now prepare themselves for the Supreme Court where the convicted men are bound to appeal the High Court's decision.
Yakub also wants to appeal the three-year sentence handed down to the policemen who destroyed evidence and tried to cover up the crimes of rape and murder. Three years is the maximum punishment on under Indian Penal Code sections 201 and 218. "It isn't enough for what they did," he said.
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