Newsletter Jan - Apr 2006

The six years since the horrific violence unleashed against the Muslim community of Gujarat from 27 February 2002, have been a long and arduous journey for many who have struggled to come to terms with the vioIence, rebuild lives and seek justice. The centrality of sexual violence against women during this carnage has also meant that the struggles of women daring to speak out have been many times more complex. Among the few who have dared to do so has been Bilkis Bano, a (then) pregnant woman who was gang-raped, and who witnessed the brutal killing of her family members. Finally in January 2008, the special court in Mumbai, designated by the Supreme Court, to conduct the trial in some of the most gruesome incidents of communal carnage, sentenced eleven out of the twelve guilty to life imprisonment and, one police officer was sentenced to three years rigorous imprisonment on charges of complicity. The first known conviction against sexual violence on women in conflict situations in independent India.

As a Press Release issued by Prof. K. N. Pannikar, Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer, Prof. Ghanshyam Shah, Dr. Ram Puniyani, Digant Oza, Rohit Prajapati, Trupti Shah, Prasad Chako, Irfan Engineer; Uttam Parmar, Harsh Mander, Ajit Muricken and Shabnam Hashmi in New Delhi on 28 January 2008 stated, "The judgment in case of Bilkis Bano comes as a great relief in the times when justice is being denied to large section of society, more so to the victims of communal violence. Bilkis herself deserves lot of praise for her courage… We welcome this judgment whole heartedly and hope that similar justice is also given to innumerable victims of the Gujarat carnage.

While the Bilkis case shows that justice is possible, it also shows how difficult it is to get… it shows that elements of democracy are still alive, it also shows how much compromised they are becoming with the ascendance of communal mind-set of section of people and with the communalization of our state apparatus, police, bureaucracy, judiciary and polity… We urge upon all the concerned authorities to take up the cases of innumerable other victims of Gujarat carnage, reinvestigate if necessary, and set up special court to try the culprits, including Narendra Modi, whose role in the carnage was the most dangerous of all. The victims of Gujarat carnage are feeling helpless and are crying out for help for getting them justice, for getting them rehabilitated, for getting them the equal citizenship rights, which are due to all of us.”

Sexual violence in conflict situations, as in the case of Bilkis and countless other Muslim women in Gujarat, as well as instances like Khairlanji have become an all too common aspect of larger political projects that must be challenged with great urgency. Targetted as a symbol of the 'other' community, as reproducers of its future generations and carriers of its cultures, women have borne the brunt for far too long. And nothing could have reminded us more starkly of that fact than reports of how, on 24 November 2007, an adivasi woman activist, at a protest demonstration by Santhal adivasis seeking Scheduled Tribe status and other political rights in Guwahati, was stripped naked by 'local' youths. The newspapers and the internet featured terrifying pictures of a traumatised woman running through the streets of the city, with leering crowds of men taking photographs of her on their mobile phones! According to reports, it was a while before someone even stepped out to offer her some clothes!

If the judgment in Bilkis Bano’s case gives us a small ray of hope, the Guwahati case shows us how complex the struggle against sexual violence on women is. It also serves as a reminder that without organised and sustained campaigning, we can never hope for justice for women like Bilkis Bano, or for prevention of further such crimes against all women.