Soon after the Supreme Court instructed the Gujarat government to pay her Rs 50 lakh compensation, provide a job and "accommodation in a place of her choice", Bilkis Bano, who was gangraped during the 2002 Gujarat riots, emerged from a polling booth in Devgadh Baria, a town in Dahod district, nearly 900 km from New Delhi. She was beaming - it was the first time in 17 years that she had voted.
"I could never exercise my right to vote because we were constantly on the move. Today, 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," Bilkis said, accompanied by her husband Yakub and their four-year-old daughter.
News of the Supreme Court order had reached her. "I am thankful to the Supreme Court. Now we can lead a stable life. I can settle at one place and move on in life. My children will be spared constant relocation. All these years, we have led a nomadic life, changing places, homes. Now we can think of settling down without having to answer anybody," she said, recalling how she moved from place to place to save herself and her family from threats of all sorts.
In the last 17 years, the family moved home inside and outside Gujarat - Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Delhi, Lucknow and Mumbai. Today, she lives with her family of seven, in a one-room-kitchen house in Devgadh Baria's Rahimabad relief colony. It is 32 km from her own house in Randhikpur which has been on lease to a Rajasthani Hindu family since 2002. Husband Yakub has no fixed source of income and works as and when he manages to find work.
Randhikpur was the place they were trying to flee on March 3, 2002. Mobs were on the prowl in Gujarat following the attack on the Sabarmati Express at Godhra that left 59 kar sevaks dead. Bilkis, then five-months pregnant, boarded a truck along with 17 members of her extended family. The truck was attacked by a mob, she was gangraped and 14 of the family were killed, including her two-year-old daughter, mother Halima and cousin Shamim.
Bilkis passed out and was left to die. When she regained consciousness three hours later, she found bodies around her. Scared, she headed to the nearby hills where she was sheltered by a tribal family. "I still have nightmares. For years, I have lived in constant fear, of people around me, of the male gaze, of even the slightest movement. I have four daughters and I make sure they are safe. I am thankful to the Supreme Court and the law for giving me justice, but nothing can ever remove the scars."
In New Delhi, the bench of Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi and Justices Deepak Gupta and Sanjiv Khanna, directing the Gujarat government to compensate her within two weeks, said: "It is very apparent that what should not have happened has happened and the State has to give compensation."
The Gujarat government counsel informed the bench that action had been taken against police personnel convicted in the case. There will be cut in pension of three police personnel who have already retired, while in the case of the fourth - serving IPS officer R S Bhagora - the state has recommended to the Centre to demote him two ranks.
The court took this or record and said the authorities concerned could go ahead with the disciplinary action against the officer who is set to retire May 31. During the hearing, when the state did not give satisfactory replies to its queries, the CJI remarked "consider yourself lucky that we are not observing anything against you".
Bilkis had earlier declined to accept the Rs 5-lakh compensation awarded by the state and had sought its enhancement. In May 2017, 15 years after the gangrape, the Bombay High Court upheld the conviction and life imprisonment of 12 people in the case while setting aside the acquittal of seven including policemen and doctors. The policemen were found guilty of tampering with records and evidence to try and save the accused.