Behind the release of Bilkis Bano’s tormentors
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As women’s groups and rights’ activists raise their voice against this arbitrary remission, the decision fits neatly into the BJP’s political paradigm

August 23, 2022 11:59 am | Updated 05:47 pm IST

Eleven convicts serving life imprisonment in the Bilkis Bano gang rape case from the 2002 Gujarat riots were freed from the Godhra sub-jail.

Eleven convicts serving life imprisonment in the Bilkis Bano gang rape case from the 2002 Gujarat riots were freed from the Godhra sub-jail. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“…the appellant was repeatedly gangraped and was a mute and helpless witness to her three-and-a-half-year-old daughter being butchered to death. This factual position is undisputed and unchallenged in light of the findings of the trial court upheld by the High Court and this Court.…[she] is without any home and lives with her daughter who was born after the incident. She has been coerced to live life of a nomad and as an orphan, and is barely sustaining herself on the charity of NGOs, having lost company of her family members. The gruesome and horrific acts of violence have left an indelible imprint on her mind which will continue to torment and cripple her.” – Supreme Court judgment of April 23, 2019, awarding ₹50 lakh in compensation to Bilkis Yaqoob Rasool aka Bilkis Bano

The facts are not in dispute here. After a long and tortuous road, following the intervention of the Supreme Court, in January 2008 a judge in Mumbai handed down life imprisonment to 11 persons for the murder of 14 innocent persons and the gang rape of Bilkis Bano herself. The verdict was upheld by the Bombay High Court in May 2017.

The case (along with several others) was transferred out of Gujarat at the behest of the Supreme Court in 2004 after many activists pointed out that there was little chance of a fair investigation in this and other cases of rioting and murder that happened after the burning of the train in Godhra, Gujarat, in February 2002.

This month, a little over three years after the Supreme Court pointed to the dire straits Bilkis Bano was in, the Gujarat government facilitated remission of sentences and freed the 11 convicts.

Both during the February-March 2002 killings and the announcement of remission, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) was in power in Gujarat. The remission came after the Supreme Court on May 13, 2022, ordered that an application for premature release of the convicts be decided on in a period of two months under a 1992 Gujarat government remission policy. A point of interest is that the May 13 order makes no reference to the grave nature of offences that the men had been convicted for.

Not enough clarity

Bilkis Bano during a press conference, in New Delhi, on April 24, 2019.

Bilkis Bano during a press conference, in New Delhi, on April 24, 2019. | Photo Credit: PTI

Details of the Gujarat government’s order allowing the premature release of the 11 convicts, in line with the Supreme Court directive, are not in the public domain. What is in the public domain is that two of the members of a government committee that permitted the premature release are BJP MLAs.

One of the two MLAs, C.K. Raulji, in an interview to Mojo, went to the extent of saying that the 11 convicts were Brahmins and Brahmins were people with “good” sanskar, or behaviour. He contended that the men had not committed any crime and that the committee had checked with the jailor about their behaviour in prison.

“Among the parameters considered [for remission] are age, nature of the crime, behaviour in prison and so on… The convicts in this particular case were also considered eligible after considering all the factors since they had completed 14 years of their life term,” Gujarat Chief Secretary Raj Kumar was reported as saying by The Indian Express newspaper.

Members of AISA, COLLECTIVE, Karnataka Janashakthi, Naveddu Nilladidare, PUCL, SCMI, Stree Jagruti Samithi, unitedly protesting against release of 11 convicts in the 2002 Bilkis Bano gang rape and murder case, in Bengaluru.

Members of AISA, COLLECTIVE, Karnataka Janashakthi, Naveddu Nilladidare, PUCL, SCMI, Stree Jagruti Samithi, unitedly protesting against release of 11 convicts in the 2002 Bilkis Bano gang rape and murder case, in Bengaluru. | Photo Credit: MURALI KUMAR K

There is nothing to suggest that all or any of the convicts expressed remorse for the horrific crimes they had committed before being released. And while it can be nobody’s argument that convicts should not be entitled to remission, the facts and circumstances of individual cases need to be kept in mind. Remissions in secret, without all the facts being placed in public domain, do no service to our executive, our judicial system or our democracy.

While ordering a decision on the premature release of convicts, the Supreme Court did not mention the special facts and circumstances of cases – such as gang rape and multiple cases of murder — that may or may not be exceptions. Given the Supreme Court’s own remarks about Bilkis Bano having had to face gruesome acts of violence and the indelible impression left on her mind, it is hoped that there will be more clarity from the court.

It is also bizarre that the 11 convicts came out of jail on this year’s Independence Day, a day on which Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose to highlight the trials and tribulations faced by women in the country, stressing on the need to "extend support to Nari Shakti."

For a party that projected an end to the practice of triple talaq as a game changer for Muslim women, the process to free Bilkis Bano’s tormentors pointed to the simple reality that the BJP has little interest in acting where it counts to protect Muslim women.

As women’s groups and rights’ activists raise their voice against this arbitrary remission, the decision fits neatly into the BJP’s political paradigm – that they don’t need Muslims to win elections, especially in Gujarat where Assembly polls are around the corner.

Muslim representation

Today, there is not a single Muslim minister at the Centre, the BJP doesn’t have a single Muslim MP in the Lok Sabha or the Rajya Sabha. According to the Census of 2011, the most recent conducted in the country, Muslims make up about 14% of India’s population.

In such a scenario, any expectation that there will be executive redressal of Bilkis Bano’s predicament will be unrealistic. Polarisation and more polarisation of Hindus and Muslims appears to be the magic wand that has worked for the BJP electorally.

Even if it comes at the cost of India’s secular character.

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