CBI, prosecuting agency, and the Presiding Judge of the Trial Court had opposed the remission

Syyed Mansoor Agha analyses why Union Home Ministry’s approval of the premature release of convicts in the case of Bilkis Bano’s gang rape and murder of 14 persons of her family, which was opposed by all investigating agencies, is unethical and shocking, as well as against its own directions of June 2022.

It is shocking that Union Home Ministry approved of the premature release of convicts jailed for double life terms for the most heinous crime of multiple gang rape of a pregnant woman and the murder of 14 members of her family, including her three-year-old daughter. Their release on the eve of 76th Independence Day and their hero’s welcome with sweets caused global outrage.

The occasion was video-graphed to make it remarkable, showing the neatly dressed men being offered sweets and people touching their feet to show respect, as if they had come back with a heroic act to their credit. That was played on TV screens, no need to explain the intention behind the arrangement.

It happened just when the words of Prime Minister Narendra Modi from the ramparts of the Red Fort were still ringing in the ears. The same morning, he said, “A distortion has crept in our conduct and we at times insult women,” and asked, “Can we take a pledge to get rid of this from our behaviour and values?” Speaking on the significance of a united nation, Modi also said, “We should celebrate the diversity of India.” We believe he was speaking about all women without any religious discrimination. But do his followers understand him better?

The convicted people were not involved in an ordinary crime caused by lust or hostility, but the collective horrific act was driven by sheer communal abhorrence, burying deep the very concept of the “respect to women,” or “diversity” and “unity of India”. The leniency shown towards the criminals makes one wonder how to relate the spoken words with real meanings and hidden thought processes.

The attackers were all neighbours. They used to buy milk from the victim’s family. They were filled with hate against the family for no fault of theirs, but just for belonging to the “other community” which was being blamed without any proof for setting a rail coach on fire, miles away from her village.

Just see the nature of the crime. For three days they followed the family even in the forest. It shows the criminals were hell-bent to do what they did. Bilkis begged them to see in her their daughter, their sister. But they did not listen. They left the pregnant lady presumed as dead.

They were in such a grip of hatred against a community that followed search for them for three days even in the forests. When the helpless family was caught, they took turns raping the women in the open and killing all. Brutality was at its peak when one killed a girl child of three years by repeatedly smashing her head against the rock.

Can a human being do it? How can we think of granting premature release to these criminals? Shameful is the act of granting them the “certificates of good behaviour” and “people of good sanskars”. How can a normal human being do this? How can the morality of a true Hindustani digest the grant of premature release to such devilish criminals?

It is also important that UHM acted fast against its own directions of June 2022. UHM issued clear guidelines on remission, stating that “life convicts and rapists were not to be granted special remission.” Consider how quick the UHM approved of the Gujarat Government’s proposal of premature release within a few days vide a letter dated July 11, 2022. Obviously, the action looks unethical. It looks political considerations are all important and can sway the standard values. In the last 27 years of BJP rule in Gujarat, the minds of the people have been filled with communal bias. The release of convicts on the eve of assembly elections looks aimed at pleasing such minds.

The loud revelation of the State Government, in its affidavit, filed in the Supreme Court, that its decision to release the convicts early had been approved of by the Centre, is self-explanatory.

It is being argued that the government panel had approved the remission as convicts had spent more than 14 years in jail. And that their ‘good behaviour’ in prison was also considered. Earlier, C.K. Raulji, a Minister of Gujarat, had reportedly said, “Some of the convicts are ‘Brahmins’ with good ‘sanskaras’ (moral values).” Perhaps he follows the age-old rules framed by Manu for an ideal Hindu society which considers Brahmins highly pious by birth and innocent even if anyone them has committed rape.

Breaking the Centre’s silence over the premature release of the convicts, Mr. Pralhad Joshi, Union Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, defended the misstep, saying it was done “as per the legal provision”. True, due process is an inalienable part of justice. But it needs transparency and moral authority, which, in this case, are under clouds: “The due process argument was being wielded to cover up the selective exercise of executive discretion and to hollow out justice.” (Indian Express)

As pointed out earlier, it was not an ordinary case in view of its enormity. This was an extraordinary case in which the Supreme Court had intervened, citing “exceptional circumstances”.  Sensing the ill blood and impartiality-filled atmosphere in Gujarat under the BJP rule, the SC also entrusted the investigation to CBI and shifted the trial to the Maharashtra CBI court. Not only this, but SC also awarded `50 lakh as compensation to Bilkis, for her courage, and the unspeakable pain she had gone through. In releasing the convicts, both Governments naturally ignored all this. They also dumped the objections raised by the CBI, the prosecuting agency, and the Presiding Judge of the Trial Court. As reported in the media, the CBI opposed any leniency in sentences by stating that the offences are “serious, grave and heinous”.

The Presiding Judge of the trial court (Special CBI Court at Mumbai) noted:

“In this case, all convicted accused were found guilty of rape and murder of innocent people. The accused had no enmity or any relation with the victim. The crime was committed only on the ground that the victim belonged to a particular religion. In this case, even minor children and pregnant women were not spared. This is the worst form of hate crime and crime against humanity.”

The Judge further noted, “It affects the conscience of the society. The convicted prisoners were given double life imprisonment.” The judge recommended against allowing remission and opined that the convicts should serve the full life sentence (28 years for double life imprisonment).

Advocate Shobha Gupta, who represented Bilkis Bano in the court, lamented that the opinions of two important stakeholders were not given weightage. She questions: “What is the point in taking the views of the prosecuting agency and the Presiding Judge if they are to be thrown to the dustbin?”

The documents attached with the affidavit of the Gujarat Government in the SC show that the SP of Dahod had also given a negative opinion on Radheshyam Shah’s release. While seeking the approval and opinion of the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Gujarat Home Department only stated that “the State Government agrees with the recommendation of the jail advisory committee headed by the Collector… and out of 10 members, 9 members have recommended for early release and recommends premature release of Shri Radheshyam Bhagwandas Shah”.

The certificates of ‘good behaviour’, are also questionable. Every convict stayed out of jail on multiple occasions of parole or furlough totalling more than 3 years and often returned late. One of them was also booked twice on molestation charges during his parole period. But the BJP governments turned a blind eye to these facts on record and released the convicts, citing a “unanimous” recommendation of the Jail Advisory Committee, manned by its own persons or official under its thumb. Last but not the least, even if the condition of ‘good behaviour’ was satisfactory, the nature of the crime disentitles them from any leniency.

Of course, if the BJP has offloaded the baggage of morality and humanity for winning elections, there is a ray of hope which rests upon the Supreme Court. The intervention of SC was pivotal “to bring a semblance of justice for Gujarat 2002, must reprise its role again. Otherwise, all the work done to ensure justice for Bilkis Bano, by the apex court, the prosecution, the trial court, the brave witnesses, and the officers who didn’t bend, will be stained forever,” the Indian Express editorially observed.

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