Do not be surprised if you never heard the name of Bilkis Bano. Much of the world is unlikely to have heard her name. From a conventional standpoint, she has absolutely no claim on the world’s attention. She is a Muslim woman of little education and from a working-class background. She commands neither looks nor wealth. It is all but inconceivable that she would ever have a “wardrobe failure”, if only because she has barely enough to wear. If all this were not enough to make her into a non-entity in a world that is dazzled only by riches, the inanities of ‘celebrity culture’—ask the Kardashian sisters, and they could write a modern-day epic with their thousands of mindless exploits, still counting—or “achievements” as these are usually understood, Bilkis Bano is also “damaged goods”.
The year was 2002. Muslims were being slaughtered in Gujarat. Its Chief Minister at the time, Narendra Modi, later claimed before a special investigative team that he was unaware of the hundreds of killings that were taking place practically under his nose. Thousands of people were injured, killed, maimed, wounded in spirit; few suffered as much as Bilkis Bano, a 21-year old who on March 3 was gang-raped in her village home near Ahmedabad while she was seven months pregnant. Bano’s 3-year old was also killed before her very eyes. Altogether 14 members of her family were murdered. Bano was left alive, as the killers thought, to nurse her wounds—and, more importantly, to serve as a palpable reminder to members of her community of how they should mind their place in a predominantly Hindu society.
In January 2008, nearly six years after Bilkis Bano was abandoned by her rapists as among the living dead, a special court convicted 11 men of murder, rape, and criminal conspiracy and sentenced them to life imprisonment. I then argued in an editorial piece, “Mother Courage”, for the Hindustan Times (4 February 2008) that Bilkis Bano be awarded the Bharat Ratna [literally, “Jewel of India”], which is the highest civilian honor available to an Indian citizen and had thus far only been conferred on fewer than 40 people since its inception in 1954. “In the loud din being heard these days over the emergence of a new, young, and confident India, typified as much by India’s cricketing triumphs as by the launch of a dream car for the ‘common man’ and brash talk of India as a global power,” I wrote at that time, “Bilkis represents a genuine ray of hope that there is something to live for in the idea of Indian democracy.”
My argument would have seemed bizarre to those who are aware that the Bharat Ratna is supposed to be conferred on those who have rendered exceptionally meritorious public service to the nation or whose accomplishments do the nation proud. Many of its recipients have doubtless been worthy of this supreme civilian honor, among them eminent practitioners of the arts such as Satyajit Ray, M. S. Subbulakshmi, Lata Mangeshkar, and Ustad Bismillah Khan. Close to half of the awardees of the Bharat Ratna, including six former Prime Ministers, held high political office. It is understandable that the luminaries so honored should include Jawaharlal Nehru, who served as the country’s first Prime Minister for seventeen years but whose formidable place within the struggle for independence is equally indisputable. One need not even speak of his large and rather rich corpus of writings and his mastery of English prose. Nevertheless, it is worth asking why the notion of “public service of the highest order” has been so narrowly defined as to preponderantly favor those who, as holders of elected office, were perforce performing their duties—and sometimes, to be candid, abusing the privileges of their office. The real question is not whether all recipients of the Bharat Ratna honored for “public service” have been worthy of the honor, but whether holders of office, who are getting recognition enough, should at all be rewarded.
So what might qualify Bilkis Bano, an illiterate woman, for the Bharat Ratna? Where most others in her situation would have succumbed and fled to safety, Bano filed a First Information Report (FIR), something that people in her position are rarely able to do so, and thus compelled the police—and, later, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI)—to open an investigation against the suspects. We must weigh her remarkable resolve against the fact that the middle class in Gujarat would, just months after the pogrom against the Muslims, vote Mr. Modi back into power, which he would certainly have interpreted as an endorsement of the chilling culture of authoritarianism and militant Hindu nationalism which he encouraged in his home state and which he has since then carried over into the rest of India. Mr. Modi has spoken of the Gujarat “model of development”, but the state which gave the world Mohandas Gandhi has in the last two decades become India’s laboratory for seeding new modes of barbaric hatred. Some portions of India, judging from the news in last few years, seem intent on emulating Gujarat’s model of hate. In her quest for justice, Bano received not an iota of assistance from the state government; to the contrary, since her life was under constant threat, she had to move more than a dozen times, and her apprehensions that witnesses could be harmed and the evidence tampered with were doubtless well-grounded. Her lawyers successfully had the court case, which commenced in Ahmedabad, shifted to Mumbai.
The trial dragged on but Bano was not one to be intimidated. Few would have thought her likely to have such resilience. I have already spoken of what transpired in 2008: though her rapists and the killers who snatched members of her family from her were convicted, the court found the evidence inadequate to convict either the policemen who characteristically failed to come to her aid or the doctors who tampered with the medical evidence. Yet Bano persisted: finally, in July 2017, a court convicted seven policemen and doctors of criminal negligence in the performance of their duties.
Bilkis Bano is now, this week, once again in the news. Her quest for justice, it appears, has finally come to an end. The Supreme Court of India has directed the state government of Gujarat to pay her Rs 50 lakhs (nearly $72,000), provide her with a job, and furnish her accommodation. For every Bilkis Bano who has prevailed, there are tens of thousands of ordinary women and men in India whose sufferings have not even entered the history books. While the ruling in the Supreme Court might justly be celebrated, dozens of other cases languish in the courts. Nevertheless, for the moment we must be focused on how we might understand the singular achievement of Bilkis Bano. Though Bilkis is not a lettered woman, she recognized that the communal outlook is so deeply entrenched in Gujarat that no institution of either state or civil society can be said to be free of its grip or reach. She did not wilt under rigorous and aggressive cross-examination by the defence, unflinchingly identified all the accused in court, and could not be cowed into abandoning or contradicting her testimony.
Remarkable as all that is, there is still something more exceptional about Bilkis Bano. The rich in India have been opting out of the state over the course of the last two decades, except of course in the matter of receiving subsidies in the form of tax breaks, easy access to credit lines, and so on. They certainly have no use for the Constitution of India. Bano’s courage, dedication to the truth, and faith in the judicial system offer a faint glimmer of hope that Indian democracy is not entirely moribund. It appears that her husband and lawyers stood by her through the long dark years while she struggled for justice, but the greater marvel is that Bano sustained her faith in the Constitution of India when all the odds were stacked against her. The Constitution is the only document that every Indian can stand by, and perhaps that may one of the many reasons why so few are willing to put their trust in it. The educated in India should take some lessons from Bilkis Bano.
There is not the remotest possibility that Bilkis Bano will receive even the slightest recognition from the Gujarat Government or even the Government of India. It will be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of an needle than for her to be conferred the Bharat Ratna. I would not be surprised if the Gujarat Government, which has abandoned the slightest semblance of decency or moral probity, found some way to dodge, dilute, or desecrate the orders of the Supreme Court. But, whatever the outcome, it is more than a minor relief to know that at least one Indian citizen, and that too a person who is unlikely to appear on any one’s mental horizon, is prepared to defend the Constitution of India with her life.