New Delhi, India – In the spring of 2002, 19-year-old Bilkis Bano, who was five months pregnant, fled her village, Randhikpur in eastern Gujarat, with several relatives as communal riots broke out across the state.
According to witnesses, Muslims fled en masse as a mob of hardline Hindus from right-wing groups rampaged through the village, setting properties on fire and looting them.
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Bano’s family found refuge in a small village, where Shamim, her cousin, went into labour and delivered a baby girl at a local midwife’s house.
Two days later, as they passed through a dirt road bordering a field, rioters wielding swords and sickles arrived in two white vehicles and shouted at them: “These are the Muslims, kill them, cut them!”
In one of the most horrific episodes of the large-scale anti-Muslim violence that swept across Gujarat, 13 members of Bano’s family were killed including her three-year-old daughter and Shamim’s two-day-old baby. Bano was gang-raped. She survived by playing dead and then lost consciousness.
At least 2,000 people were killed in Gujarat – most of them Muslim – after a train fire in which 60 Hindu pilgrims were burned alive.
They killed my family … they killed my daughter. They didn't even let us clean our dead and give them a burial. How could I forget this?
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was then the chief minister of the state, and his political rise has since been dogged by his handling of the riots.
Last month, after a 17-year battle, the Supreme Court directed the Gujarat government to pay $71,000 to Bano as compensation, along with a job and accommodation of her choice.
It was the highest compensation on record given to a rape survivor or riot victim in India.
In 2017, a high court had upheld the conviction of 11 men found guilty of rape and murder and sentenced them to life imprisonment. Bano was one of the few survivors who came forward.
“I’m very happy with the judgment,” Bano, 36, told Al Jazeera. “There were many friends, women activists and [other] officials who helped me to get justice.”
The intervening years since the 2002 riots threw Bano’s life in jeopardy as she and her husband Yakub Rasool decided to pursue the case in court hoping to get justice.
After local officials dismissed her complaint, she went to the National Human Rights Commission, which petitioned the Supreme Court.
Witnesses were threatened and Bano received death threats as the family moved from one place to another, living on financial support from a few NGOs.
“The state used its power, authority and office to protect them [the perpetrators] at any cost. The question is why?” said Shobha Gupta, Bano’s counsel since 2003.
“It was a very difficult time for us,” Bano said. “We have suffered a lot of misery.”
But the thought of giving up never crossed her mind.
“They killed my family … they killed my daughter. They didn’t even let us clean our dead and give them a burial. How could I forget this?”
Bano grew up as an ordinary young girl in rural Gujarat – her father sold milk to sustain the family, she knew everybody.
She said she had not faced any discrimination before.
“I still don’t understand how could they have done something so horrible to us,” Bano said.
The 11 men convicted were from her neighbourhood, among them people Bano grew up with and knew by name.
Gupta said from a personal perspective, the case was monumental.
“It made me believe that man can become a dangerous animal beyond [one’s] wildest imagination [and that] communal belief can lead one unto any extreme,” she said. “It is unfortunate that such people use women to [vent] their hatred.”
On April 24, Bano stood in front of cameras in her home constituency and showed her index finger marked in ink. She had cast her vote in the general elections. When asked by reporters about her vote, Bano said that it was for the unity and democracy of the country.
“We must fight for something when it is important. Otherwise, we take freedom, unity, all this for granted,” Bano told Al Jazeera.
At her press conference in New Delhi after the judgment, Bano with her husband and daughter, who was born after the riots, announced that she would create a fund for survivors of sexual violence.
“They [the survivors] should fight for it, just like I did. They should have courage, [and if they don’t have it], I will give them,” she said.
Legal experts and activists say Bano’s case is unique, marking a rare instance of justice for a victim of sexual violence during communal riots.
“It has been a lamentable fact that the rape of women during mass violence rarely finds prosecution, let alone conviction [in India],” said Pratiksha Baxi, a legal scholar at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.
She said that there is little understanding among the judiciary of the nature of suffering caused by rape during instances of targeted mass violence.
“Rape is not understood as political violence that uses sexual and reproductive violence as a technique to obliterate the ‘enemy’, the community that has been othered.”
India has witnessed several religious riots since independence, but Bano’s case is only the second instance where survivors of sexual violence during the riots received any justice.
In 2014, a court in Odisha convicted three people for a nun’s gang rape during communal violence in 2008 when Hindu attackers killed 39 Christians.
In the last five years under Prime Minister Modi, who won an historic mandate in 2014 promising tens of millions of jobs and inclusive development, India has witnessed the rise of Hindu nationalism with increasing instances of mob lynchings and fearmongering against the Muslim community.
Against the backdrop of Bano’s traumatic past and considering the gravity of her suffering, many have called her a beacon of hope for India’s unity and constitutional plurality at a time of rising polarisation.
But Bano says that she is just an ordinary woman and an ordinary citizen who fought for her rights. “That is what my struggle was for. For equality for each of us. When we are wronged then we must seek to right it using the power of truth. When our rights as citizens are denied, we turn to our constitution.”