The Gujarati Women Who Taught This Reporter Courage
'Sahib this is mini-Pakistan''
Bilkis Bano is in the headlines again after the travesty of justice in 11 of her rapists being freed from jail on Independence Day to a hero's welcome. The developments simply show the level of sickness to which society has stooped.
But Bilkis symbolizes courage as she once again seeks her "right to live without fear and in peace" along with the safety of her family. She has fought all adversities from the day when she, five months pregnant, along with several others was assaulted sexually and physically by a mob of men.
They killed 14 persons ncluding her three and a half year old daughter in the attack that was one of many in the anti-Muslim pogrom unleashed in Gujarat after the Godhra train burning incident of 2002.
Although her assailants had left her for dead Bilkis survived somehow. She is among the many brave women of Gujarat who stood up to get justice for themselves as well as others. These women bore the worst of trauma caused by efforts to deny them justice or to prevent them securing justice for the others.
As I read about Bilkis Bano almost every day after the release of the 11 convicts in her case, the mind is once again shuttling back to the days spent meeting many of these brave women.
I can recount how I never had the guts to look her in the eye while interviewing her for a radio story as she narrated, "When I was taken for the medical examination, one of the health department personnel whispered in my ear what could I do if they injected me with poison?" The statement had a chilling impact sending shockwaves.
There was another occasion when outside the Central Bureau of Investigation court in Ahmedabad where her case was to be heard, one could see right wing footsoldiers encouraging the accused, "Someone has to make sacrifices for the cause of religion. Your sacrifice shall not go to waste."
The case was eventually moved out of Gujarat as Bilkis Bano faced threats, and resulted in some convictions.
Memory also goes back to Bibi Bano of Naroda Patia in Ahmedabad where mass killings were performed. She survived the massacre in which her husband, an eight year old daughter and six other family members were killed, only to be burnt to death by her lover wanting the money she had received as compensation.
Bibi Bano had deposited Rs 3.5 lakh that she received as compensation for riot widows in a bank and was stitching clothes to make ends meet using the sewing machine that had been provided as a part of rehabilitation package.
Her voice still rings in the ears as she related the horrors she had witnessed in her deposition in the autumn of 2003 before the Justice GT Nanavati and Justice KG Shah Commission probing the Godhra and post Godhra incidents.
She spoke at length between uncontrollable sobs about what she had been through. The words she had related in an interview, "Tanha nange aaye the bahut log Civil Hospital tak… (Many had come naked to the Civil Hospital)," still gives me goosebumps. And she was burnt despite having been provided with police protection as an eyewitness in an important case. The episode had thrown light on men trying to lure widows looking for their compensation.
Another name that cannot be missed out is that of Mehrunissa Mansuri who was managing a widow home in Juhapura at that time. 'Mehru aapa' as she was fondly called had provided so many widows and their young children with food and shelter till they got dwellings of their own. She was the one who had taken up the plight of the 2002 riot affected women with former president Abdul Kalam when he had gone to visit Ahmedabad after the pogrom.
I have to relate the episode of my first visit to the widows' home for you to understand the atmosphere where Mehru aapa was carrying on with this unparalleled work.
It was somewhere in February 2003 that I decided to visit the widow home Juhapura that can easily be described as one of the biggest Muslim ghettos in the world. Initially named Sankalit Nagar and later Juhapura, the place had come to be known as 'Mini Pakistan' among the majority community. The auto or taxi drivers would apply their brakes to tell their passengers with glee, "Sahib, this is mini Pakistan!'' to be followed by the choicest of abuses reserved for describing the residents.
Since I happened to take an auto to the locality from the exclusive Hindu colony where I resided, I was shocked when the auto driver stopped at the tip of Juhapura telling me that I had arrived at the 'border' and would have to hire an auto driven by a Muslim from the other side of the road to reach the destination.
Crossing the road the feeling was that of crossing a no man's land between two borders. At the widow home there were two psychiatrists involved in the social cause of rehabilitation who were on a routine visit to attend to the children of the victims who had seen murders at their tender age.
An interesting case they discussed with me was of a seven year old who was suffering from tuberculosis. It was a demonstration of what violence can do to the psyche of a child.
The two psychiatrists, after some small chit chat, had asked the boy to make a drawing. The boy enthusiastically started off on blank paper but after drawing a line he seemed to have been lost somewhere. All one could see was blankness engulfing his face.
After a few minutes, life returned to his face and he quipped to me, a stranger to him till then, "You know my Abbu had a big gun!"
This was enough to invite a shrill voice from the adjoining room. The voice belonged to his mother who screamed, "That is why he was sliced in front of you into three pieces."
As I recovered from the shock, I was told that the boy's father used to sell toys and amongst those toys was a gun, a favourite of his son's !!
Such were the cases Mehru aapa was attending to. "Even listening to their plight makes you humane. Your conscience rattles you when you think what these women are going through. I had no option but to take up the matter with the President of India hoping something could be done for them," she said.
I was witness to her consoling and encouraging so many widows to pick up the shards of their lives and move ahead while seeking justice. She passed away some years ago.
Another brave lady who deserves special mention is Latifa Geeteli from Godhra. A lady with a silken voice and grand demeanour, Latifa Geeteli was instrumental in setting up a relief camp in Godhra for the riot victims. She continued to work incessantly for a long time even after the violence was over to bring the two communities of Hindus and Muslims together in the face of communalists who tried their best to create hurdles for her.
The women of the area would often fondly recall the henna-applying competitions she would organize from time to time. She carried out her work despite her husband having been framed in a case and arrested only to be released later. Sources say that Latifa, now an old lady, leads a quiet life in Godhra as she battles the health issues that come with old age.
Talking about bravery, who can fail to recall Zakia Jafri, who led a legal battle in the aftermath of the pogrom and is widow of the former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri who was brutally murdered in the Gulberg Society massacre? Her fight for justice has been unparalleled.
One can recount how the old lady who was also unwell was hounded by right wing elements including Babu Bajrangi who is a convict in the Naroda Patia killings. They had resorted to shouting her down, hurling abuses and banging her car when she tried to talk to the media after deposing before the Nanavati-Shah Commission.
Alongside has been the fight of Rupa Mody, who along with her husband Dara has continued to wait for their son Azhar who went missing on the day of the Gulberg killings. Rupa along with her daughter was among those who had taken refuge in the Jafri household when the attack began while her husband had gone to work.
The name of Meera Rafi is another that comes to mind. She had continued working from her burnt-down office on the fifth floor of a building in the Shah Alam area of Ahmedabad to remove misgivings among Muslim and Dalit youth while trying to get them to sink their animosities. An interesting project she had started was to send pairs of youngsters from both communities asking people to donate their old newspapers and magazines, which were sold to pay the fees of some of the poor students of schools run by local civic bodies.
"There are hundreds of women who have shown unparalleled grit to survive and fight for justice over all these years. It is not easy to fight day to day battles of survival in the face of all sorts of hostilities. We are told not to talk about what happened in 2002. My question is why not?
"The question becomes all the more important in the light of what has happened in the case of Bilkis. Several women from different organizations held a demonstration only to be detained on Friday and released later since permissions are not granted to hold protests," said Noorjahan who has been working with riot survivors continuously over the last two decades.
"There are very few cases where charges of rape came up against those accused of perpetrating the violence. This was because many of the victims refrained from lodging FIRs under these charges on account of societal pressure or because of the lack of awareness or because of the authorities pressurizing them. There are very few 2002 riots cases where people have been convicted of rape," disclosed an observer who has been keeping an eye on the proceedings of different riot cases for the last two decades.
It is being pointed out that the element of fear is much more today when it comes to speaking out, particularly in the wake of the arrest of activist Teesta Setalvad. "In 2002 and for many years after that the victims would take to the streets seeking justice along with activists. But now no one is ready to come out because of fear," pointed out one of the women activists who has worked with the riot victims over all these years.
There are many brave women who were never mentioned in the media reports. For several of them, the battles for a just society continue. Many like Mehrunissa and Bibi Bano have passed away leaving their marks on the conscience of society.