Syyed Mansoor Agha makes an analytical study of the order of remission of 11 convicts in the 2002 Bilkis Bano case issued by the Government of Gujarat and finds that it is in violation of an apex court ruling and the June 2022 guidelines of the Ministry of Home Affairs.

State governments usually grant remission in jail terms and release certain convicts prematurely on the occasions of our Independence Day, Republic Day, and Gandhi Ji’s birth anniversary on October 2. But this Independence Day BJP-ruled Gujarat Government’s action of releasing 11 men convicted of gang-raping a 21 years old young woman Bilkis Bano in 2002, killing her three-year-old daughter by smashing on rocks, and participating in the murdering of 13 others, including women, without any guilt of theirs, has severely shocked the conscience of humanists across the aisle. They left her presuming she was dead.

Within three days of the impugned action, around 6,000 persons of eminence on August 18 urged the Supreme Court to revoke the release order and undo the damage done. The signatories include social activists, academicians, lawyers, writers, historians, filmmakers, journalists, former bureaucrats and judges, etc. Scores of leading newspapers through Editorials and the columnists have sharply reacted against the grant of remission.

A DANGEROUS PRECEDENT

Keeping in view the heinous nature and gravity of the sexual crime, multiple murders of innocent men and women, because of their faith and then the history of the case, in which the Supreme Court had to intervene and the CBI court indicted even state police, it is cruel and communally tilted to grant remission to all eleven convicts en masse. There is genuine concern that it could set a dangerous precedent and create insecurity for women.

The legal battle Bilkis had to fight was also extremely torturous. She faced formidable obstacles and odds in securing convictions. She had to stand against death threats.

THE INCIDENT

When Bilkis was out of her village with her extended family and others, in pursuit of some secure place in the wake of communal mayhem targeting Muslims, a group of armed fanatics, including 11 convicted persons from her village chased and attacked them to kill. After the police dragged their feet to book the culprits, Bilkis, who was saved by some lady, approached the National Human Rights Commission. The Supreme Court intervened after NHRC appealed. The case was handed over to CBI and the trial shifted to Bombay from Gujarat. The CBI court convicted the eleven and also indicted the police for attempts to hush up the case. The CBI Court’s ruling was upheld by the Bombay High Court in 2017. In 2019, the State Government had to pay a compensation of `50 lakh to Bilkis on SC orders.

MURDER OF JUSTICE

The remission to the convicts in such a case is tantamount to murder of justice in the daylight. As Pratap Bhanu Mehta put it, “It is not just a travesty of justice, it is also a dangerous political dog-whistle.” Referring to Bilkis Bano’s “poignant” questions, he laments, “It pierces through the carefully constructed facades of the Indian republic.”

Bilkis Bano, in a statement issued through her lawyer Shobha Gupta, said: “Today, I can only say this – how can justice for any woman end like this? I trusted the highest courts in our land. I trusted the system and I was slowly learning to live with my trauma. The release of these convicts has taken from me my peace and shaken my faith in justice.”

Mehta felt, “The haunting force of this question has no answer. The fact that the force of this question is not even being felt widely (in political circles) is a testimony to a moral numbing of the republic and its blatant communalisation.”

DOUBLE STANDARD

It is reported that there is a stream of people visiting the released convicts to greet them. Why has morality, especially among power-hungry people, drowned so deep in the Bilkis Bano case, while their uproar and outcry in the Nirbhaya rape case was so loud? The then government was pushed to modify the law urgently and hang all convicts till death under the new provisions; while communally driven rapists of even more horrific and heinous crimes have been freed under older rules, avoiding new instructions.

NEW V/S OLD RULES

How did the Gujarat Government reach the decision? C K Raulji, the BJP MLA from Godhara, who was one of the two members panel of the government which decided on remission, reportedly said, “He does not know whether the convicts were in fact involved in the crime.” Disregarding the rulings of the CBI Court and the HC, he explained, “Some of the convicts are ‘Brahmins’ with good ‘sanskaras’ (moral values) and it is possible they may have been fixed.” Perhaps he is swayed by Manu rules regarding ‘innocence’ of Brahmin, even if a rape convict. He also pointed out, “We took the decision on the basis of a Supreme Court order.”

SC AND MHA DIRECTIONS

He referred to the May 13, 2022 order of the SC bench of Justices Ajay Rastogi and Vikram Nath which deduced, “The policy (for remission) with which the petitioner has to be governed, applicable in the State of Gujarat on the date of conviction, indeed is” the one “dated 9th July 1992”.

Many feel that it was erroneous to stick to a 30-year-old policy while the latest SC order and MHA instructions are against it. Rules are made to be effective with immediate effect or even with retrospective effect and not to wait for 14 years. It is important to note that, the SC in the case ‘Laxman Naskar vs Union of India’ has decisively ruled that the state must determine whether the offence is an individual act of crime without affecting the society at large before granting remission.

Obviously, Bilkis Bano’s case does not fall into the category of ‘individual act of crime, without affecting the society at large.’  In Bilkis’s case 14 people including several women and a 3-year-old girl were massacred without any provocation or guilt and a young woman, pregnant of 5 months, was disrobed and gang-raped publicly.

Secondly, in June 2022, days after the SC order, under which the remission was made, the Union Home Ministry issued guidelines on remission which clearly stated that “life convicts and rapists were not to be granted special remission.” The Gujrat’s order is in violation of both.

THE MALICE AND ANTIPATHY

One can easily grasp the malice and antipathy behind the remission in the light of Mr. C K Raulji’s statement, as mentioned above. The Assembly Elections in Gujarat are scheduled in December. Certainly, this is a brazen case of communalising the polity and demeaning justice. As a commentator noted, “Justice died a thousand deaths as rapists and murderers of 14 innocent persons including a three-year-old girl were set free.”

THE SPOKEN WORDS OF PM

Ironically, this happened the day, our Prime Minister said, “It hurts me to say that we have witnessed a perversion in our day-to-day speech, behaviour. We have been casually using language and words that are insulting to women.” He asked, “Can we not pledge to get rid of everything in our behaviour, culture, and everyday life that humiliates and demeans women?” Our humble query is “Sir, what about our politics?”

We appreciate his words during his Independence Day address from the historical Red Fort built by Mughal ruler Shah Jahan (born from Jahangir’s Queen Jagat Gosain d/o Raja Udai Singh of Marwar).

His words, “The pride of women will be a huge asset in fulfilling the dreams of the nation” were ringing in the ears, when the news of remission of 11 convicts in Bilkis Bano case was flashed. The “gift” given by the Gujarat government of “double engine” does not resonate with the nation celebrating Amrit Mohotsav of independence with the zeal of “Har Ghar Tiranga” (Tricolour at the top of every house) under the leadership of PM Modi.

Need not to say that the remission order is a total disrespect of the letter and spirit of what PM spoke, the SC ruling in Naskar case and UHM instructions of June 2022. We stand with thousands who have appealed to the SC to do the needful.

[The writer is Chairman, Forum for Civil Rights, mail: [email protected]]

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