NEW DELHI — Seventeen years after she was gang raped during the Gujarat riots in 2002, Bilkis Bano thanked the Supreme Court for ordering the state government to pay her compensation worth Rs. 50 lakh — the highest compensation given to a rape survivor in India.
Addressing a press conference in New Delhi on Wednesday, Bilkis said, “The Supreme Court has acknowledged the pain that I have endured for 17 years. That is important to me.”
“This was a long fight but I have never lost faith in the Constitution and the justice system,” she said.
Nearly 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in the 2002 Gujarat riots, which was then governed by the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
On 3 March, 2002, Bilkis was gang-raped in Randhikpur village near Dahod in Gujarat.
Fourteen members of her family, including her three-year-old daughter, were murdered. Other female members of her family were also raped.
The state government did nothing to bring the perpetrators to justice. On the contrary, state government officials threatened her and attempted to cover up the crime.
Fearing for her family’s safety, Bilkis moved from place to place for over a decade.
In 2003, a judicial magistrate accepted the closure report filed by the state police. The Supreme Court, however, rejected the closure report and asked the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to take over. In 2004, the case was transferred to Mumbai.
In 2008, a trial court in Mumbai convicted 12 men for raping Bilkis and murdering her family members, sentencing them to life imprisonment.
In 2017, the Bombay High Court convicted seven others - five policemen and two doctors - for failing to discharge their duties and attempting to cover up the crime.
Bilkis’s lawyer, Shobha Gupta, said that the Supreme Court has canceled the pensions of three retired officials and has proposed demoting Indian Police Service (IPS) officer R.S. Bhagora, who is serving as Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) Traffic, by two ranks.
The compensation, Gupta said, reflects how hard Bilkis has struggled to get justice, the toll it has taken on her life, and the failure of the state.
“The Supreme Court reflects on why this needs to be exemplary compensation,” she said.
Gupta said that the highest compensation granted to a rape survivor before this case was Rs. 10 lakh in 2017.
Bilkis, now 36-years-old, spoke of Saleha, her three-year-old daughter, whose head was smashed with a rock before her eyes.
“We did not find her body. We could not even give her a burial. We hope this will give her some peace,” she said.
Bilkis and her husband, Yakoob Rasool, are planning a fund in Saleha’s name. They intend to use part of the compensation to help rape survivors and educate their children.
Bilkis, who was five-months pregnant when she was raped in 2002, told reporters that the baby in her womb is now 16-years-old.
Her name is Hazra.
“My daughter will study and be a lawyer,” she said.
In addition to the Rs. 50 lakh compensation, the Supreme Court has ordered the Gujarat government to give her accommodation at the place of her choice and a job.
When asked if she intended to take up the offer, Bilkis said, “I want to live and I want my family to live.”
Her husband, Yakoob, who has stuck by Bilkis during her 17-year-long fight for justice, said that she would prefer to stay at home with her family, and asked that the job offer be extended to a family member.
Yakoob said that they want the house to be built in their village.
Human rights activist Farah Naqvi said that the judgment was significant in the present environment of “enormous hate, hate speeches, violence and lynchings.”
“Communal violence has given way to public brutalities of another kind. Muslims are feeling insecure,” she said. “This is telling Muslims that you are equal citizens of this country.”