Bilkis, of the indomitable spirit!
The landmark conviction of police officers and doctors in a sexual violence case sets a historic and glorious precedent
Gajanan Khergamker Delhi
“All I wanted was justice, not revenge,” said Bilkis Bano on the landmark Bombay High Court judgment upholding the life imprisonment of the 12 accused of raping her and setting aside the acquittal of seven, who included police officers and doctors. Bilkis, who was pregnant at the time and also lost her three-year-old daughter in the Gujarat riots of 2002, is hoping that the judgment will help her lead “a good life”.
The judgment, 15 long years after the crime was committed, is a milestone of sorts. It brought under the spotlight the role of police officers and doctors in the crime as the Bombay High Court overturned their acquittal, holding them accountable for covering up the incident. “My elder daughter wants to be a lawyer. I will make sure all my children study and chart a new path,” added Bilkis.
Despite social ostracism and pressure from community members, her husband, Yakub, stood by her side all through these 15 years. Even as they changed ‘homes’ over 25 times in 15 years, they faced threats from convicts who were frequently out on parole. Yakub broke down when asked about the family’s ordeal, at a press conference after the judgment. “I want women, across the board, to get justice like Bilkis,” he said.
Even as the law prevails finally, it is often the journey through its motions, which was a 15-year one for Bilkis and her family, which breaks the victim. Hence, the conviction of police officers and doctors in a case pertaining to sexual violence, probably for the first time in India’s legal history, will serve as a precedent to pave the way for similar cases in future. The presumption of public servants ‘acting in good faith’ has single-handedly stalled due process of law over years and needs to be examined purely on merit. In Bilkis’ case, the doctors’ and police officers’ omissions, being “grave and obvious”, and their mala fides and intentions seeming “apparent”, have been placed on record.
In view of the social pressures and stigma associated with sexual violence and crimes against women, Bilkis shines as an example. The woman not just stood tall against her oppressors, brave and uncowed, she stood without concealing her identity: an identity that the law has rightly retained.
In her fight against the system, the one weapon that Bilkis used and with aplomb was her identity. She came out in the open and offered her name and story, complete with images, to be placed in the public domain. Bilkis fought the stigma that the perpetrators always attempt to use in order to silence a victim. She went public with her story: This, despite the law offering provisions for a victim of sexual violence and rape to maintain privacy.
And, while the option of going public or maintaining privacy rests solely with the victim, Bilkis has dealt a blow to her perpetrators by refusing to stay silent or cave in to the pressures of time and trial, and remain anonymous. Similarly-affected victims may need the protection of the law to remain anonymous in order to safeguard their interests, yet a lot of care will need to be taken in order to ensure that the system is not manipulated by players proficient in dodging the system.
Besides the perpetrators who continued to manipulate the system and its parole facilities to intimidate, threaten and try to coerce Bilkis into submission, it was the police officers and the doctors whose “grave and obvious” inactions stalled the due process. In that, Bilkis’ is a lofty precedent that provides the much-needed relief for the overloaded legal system in order to achieve justice. It’s these factors, ‘motivated’ police officers and ‘corrupt’ doctors fudging medical and post-mortem reports, that thwart the legal system.
‘Acts in good faith’ committed by police officers and doctors will now be examined on merit as their conviction in Bilkis’ case exposes the complicity and culpable involvement of a section of ‘motivated’ public servants. The case has also emphasised the need to “go public” in order to counter shaming tactics and for strict re-examination of serving criminals misusing “parole”.
Bilkis Bano has kick-started the process of socio-legal reforms in India across machineries, which are being grossly misused and need an urgent overhaul failing which the rule of law risks being quashed. The world’s largest democracy needs to address this and soon.