What the Bilkis Bano Judgement Means for the Rights of Rape Survivors in India

Social Commentary

What the Bilkis Bano Judgement Means for the Rights of Rape Survivors in India

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Bilkis Bano is an Indian citizen. She is 36 years old. Yet for the past 17 years, Bano – a gang-rape survivor of the 2002 communal pogrom in Gujarat – had been denied the chance to fully exercise her rights as a citizen. Until this week.

It was only on April 23 that she cast her vote for the first time since 2002. Emerging from a polling booth in Devgadh Baria, a town in Dahod, where she now resides in a one-room house in a relief colony, Bano was accompanied by her second husband Yakub and her four-year-old daughter. Bano was a portrait of unwavering resilience: In photographs from that day, she is raising her index finger to the cameras, flaunting the familiar mark of someone who has just exercised their franchise. “I could never exercise my right to vote because we were constantly on the move,” she told reporters. “Today, I have cast my vote and my vote is for the unity of the country… I trust the democratic system of our country and I trust the election process.”

Bano has reason to be hopeful – although anyone in her position would have long left that emotion behind.

On the same day as Bano voted, the Supreme Court delivered a long-overdue but landmark judgement in her favour. The highest court of the country instructed the Gujarat government to pay ₹50 lakh as compensation – the highest amount provided to a rape victim – to Bano, as well as give her a job and accommodation. It’s an order that stands out, for Bano’s almost two-decade-long, public fight for justice.

The group killed her family members, including her husband, her mother whose throat was slit and her three-year-old daughter, Saleha, whose head was smashed with a rock.

Public memory is short and victims of violence are usually the first casualty to slip through the cracks. But Bilkis Bano is no ordinary woman. She survived, first, the severity of the violence that was openly committed against her: When she and her family of 14 hid in a truck to escape the Godhra “riots”, an armed mob intercepted the truck near a village in Dahod. The group killed her family members, including her husband, her mother whose throat was slit and her three-year-old daughter, Saleha, whose head was smashed with a rock. Another group of 11 men took turns to rape Bano while attacking her with knives for an hour, eventually leaving her to die. At the time, Bano was five months pregnant.

Bano then survived the long struggle to cope with her loss. In May 2002, when journalist Rana Ayub visited relief camps in the state, she was met with grieving, battered women who would hesitate to talk. But all of them would whisper about the one woman in Dahod who was gang-raped and witnessed her family being killed in front of her eyes. “The women would cry and then talk in awe of the brave woman who had filed a complaint with the police,” Ayub recollected in a piece. That brave woman was Bano.  

Next came the state machinery. As can be expected for anyone who willingly decides to take on those in power, Bano was made to suffer for her courage. For the past 17 years, she and her family of five, have been forced to live a nomadic life, moving intermittently between Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Lucknow, and Delhi, to escape the constant threats directed to their family. The Gujarat police hurriedly shut her complaint, tampering with evidence, and citing inconsistencies in her version of the events.

And yet she soldiered on. Today, Bano is a symbol of victory for not just the victims of Gujarat violence, she is also a symbol for survivors of aggravated sexual assault. The order of compensation for Bano, recognises not just the state’s inaction but also its obligations to survivors of horrific acts of violence. For the Supreme Court didn’t just acknowledge Bano’s fight for justice, but it also accepted what the Gujarat police had worked in tandem to cover up: That Bano was a victim of state injustice.

Bano who had frequently claimed that her case was about “the shameful failure of the state in protecting its people” announced that she felt vindicated with the judgment. The SC also directed each of the other 11 convicts to pay ₹55,000, which will also go to Bano as compensation. At its heart, the judgment remains, a striking example of the judiciary coming through for a citizen who displayed faith in it.

The historic culmination of Bano’s long-drawn-out case, also guarantees that her personal fight for justice occupies a deeply universal position: A rape survivor’s trauma being acknowledged by the country’s legal mechanism is symbolic for the rights of Indian women. In that context, it is important to view Bano’s quest for justice and judgment, as a social triumph – it’s a living, breathing embodiment of democracy itself.

Bano, who said that the judgment had “reaffirmed her faith in the judiciary and the Constitution” has announced her plans to use the compensation money to help women survivors in memory of her first husband and her dead daughter Saleha. At a time in the country when a young woman is taking on the highest judge of the country for sexual harassment, survivors could do with all her blessings.