Strategic timeout: on the Bilkis Bano case and an outcome

The convicts in the Bilkis Bano case are using delay as an end

Updated - May 05, 2023 12:09 pm IST

Published - May 05, 2023 12:10 am IST

It is disconcerting when a judge is impelled to say that he discerns in the tactics adopted by the convicts in the Bilkis Bano case, an intent to avoid his Bench. The convicts were released last year. Justice K.M. Joseph’s remarks that it was more than obvious that there was an attempt to avoid his Bench came in response to requests for adjournments on behalf of some of the convicts claiming they had not yet been served notice of Ms. Bano’s petition challenging their release. The requests came on a day when the matter was listed for final hearing. No one can dispute the right of the convicts to be informed of hearings through proper service of notices, but it would be questionable if claims of not being served properly were made with an oblique motive. In the end, the Bench had to adjourn the hearing to July, long after Justice Joseph’s last working day later this month. The release of the 11 convicts, who were serving life terms for multiple murders and the gang-rape of women during the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, had raised questions about the remission process. It became known later that the Union government had consented to their release. Justice Joseph had, at an earlier hearing, wanted to see the relevant files to ascertain whether the decision to release them was based on relevant considerations. The files were not produced on the stipulated day, but counsel for the Centre indicated that both governments may seek a review of the order to produce the files. However, in the latest hearing, the Solicitor General has agreed to produce the records.

It is debatable whether the outcome of a case will be different if heard by another Bench, but it is difficult not to see these developments in the backdrop of the influence the convicts seem to have with the incumbent regimes. They also seem to have considerable political support from the ruling parties at the Centre and the State. Their release itself came about as a result of another Supreme Court order which ruled, somewhat intriguingly, that the Gujarat government was the “appropriate government” to consider their case for remission, and that the 1992 remission policy, applicable at the time of their conviction, may be the basis. There is considerable interest in the outcome of this challenge as the question of jurisdiction on Gujarat granting remission — the trial took place in Mumbai and the appeal was heard by the Bombay High Court — and the correctness of the decision to release them prematurely based on a report of a committee that included political nominees have become contentious issues.

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