“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.” Simple words, but they acquire an aura if you look at the person who makes this plain statement. A burqa-clad person that you may mistake for one of the backward Muslim women our rulers crave to liberate from their cruel husbands. The camera has not captured her husband and her four-year-old child who accompanied her to the polling booth in Devgarh Baria in Dahod district, Gujarat.
Her name is Bilkis Bano and she is an Indian citizen. While casting her vote on April 23, she asserted her Indianness and laid claim to her citizenship rights. We need to remember that she was disenfranchised for 17 years, forced out of her state, changing places like a nomad. But all this while, she did not give up on India. Her search and fight was for justice and April 23 was, in her life and in the history of independent India, a red letter day. On this day, not only could Bilkis exercise her right as a citizen but the highest court of the land also recognised the gravity of injustice done to her and fixed the responsibility of the state in not providing safety and security to her and her family.
Bilkis Bano is the quintessential Indian our Constitution demands us to be. She may be unlettered but she understands the spirit of the Preamble. She understands the weight of the words, “We, the people of India”. To be part of this multitude, one must remember the solemn resolution of securing justice, liberty and equality for oneself and for our co-citizens.
We vote alone but citizenship is not achieved in isolation. It is formed only in togetherness. By standing with Bilkis in her struggle to hold on to her citizenship, her numerous friends in Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Lucknow and Delhi also affirmed their citizenship. They, who are neither her relatives nor co-religionists, and who also did not know her before 2002, accompanied her in the journey for justice. They remained steadfast in their support, not trying to claim any glory. By doing so, they were creating a solidarity which is modern and an essential foundation for creating a nation.
Do remember the tribal woman and her family who first saw the bloodied Bilkis Bano, gangraped on March 3, 2002, who clothed her and sheltered her. They also became witness to the crime done to her. And they did not falter, they did not fail Bilkis Bano.
The Rs 50 lakh compensation that the Supreme Court has asked the government of Gujarat to pay to Bilkis acknowledges the latter’s failure to protect her and also its reluctance to help her secure justice. Who failed to assure her that she was safe? Who refused to lend her a hand in her quest for justice?
It is important for her Gujarati compatriots to understand the meaning of this compensation and not feel jealous of it. Let us not hear once again what we have been told so often — that Muslims burn their houses, get themselves violated for money. No, the compensation arises from a principle of the responsibility of the state to secure for each of its citizens safety and dignity. When Bilkis refused to accept the Rs 5 lakh offered to her by the state of Gujarat, she was merely asserting the value of humanity, that it cannot be treated lightly.
Bilkis said she voted for the unity of the country — how right she is! For she is entitled to talk about the unity of India, she has understood it by moving from one town to another, one state to another, one family to another — all unified by a fellow citizen’s yearning for justice and dignity. In doing so, they earned her trust and she trusted them, strangers to her before the fight began.
This is how Indianness is forged. Recall the words of B R Ambedkar. He desired this Indianness to be a way of life that treats liberty, equality and justice as indivisible. Without fraternity, liberty and equalilty could not become a natural order of things. What Ambedkar emphasised was that these principles are not given to us. We have to secure them for ourselves, a struggle which all of us have to participate in as our own. The simple words of Bilkis must be heard by all of us. She was clear that she was fighting for justice and not revenge. In the election air, filled with cries for revenge, her words sound strange, as if they don’t belong to this land. And yet, they are our words, spoken for us.
A day will come when the story of the battle of Bilkis Bano will be essential reading for our children, who would understand through it the striving that this Indianness involves. A day when Bilkis will be treated as one of the heroes of independent India — a hero who kept our faith and hope in India alive.
We also need to understand the significance of Bilkis’s vote. It is definitely a vote of no-confidence against a politics which refused to stand by the people who needed its support most, which left them vulnerable and made them lonely and who broke the fraternity Ambedkar deemed essential for India. When we go to vote we have to respond to her. Are we with her or is she is alone in her hope and struggle?
This article first appeared in the print edition on April 25, 2019, under the title ‘Citizen Bilkis Bano’. The writer teaches Hindi at Delhi University.