Why Bilkis Bano’s rapists should be behind bars
Nineteen-year-old Bilkis Bano was five months pregnant with her second child when the 2002 Gujarat Riots broke out, following the Godhra train fire that killed 60 Hindu pilgrims. Along with her extended family, Bano had to flee her home and seek shelter in various places to escape the long arms of bloodthirsty rioters. On the morning of March 3, 2002, as Bano and her family were on their way to a nearby village, they were set upon by a gang of sword-wielding men who brutally killed 14 of her family members, including her three-year-old daughter. Bano, who was visibly pregnant by then, begged for mercy – after all, these were men from her own village, people she had grown up with. But her pleas fell on deaf ears. She was gang-raped, brutally and mercilessly; when she started bleeding profusely and fell unconscious, the criminals left her for dead.
Bano did not give in to her grief. She stood up for justice and rested her faith in the Indian constitution and justice system. When the local Gujarat officials dismissed her complaints, she reached out to the National Human Rights Commission for help, and then moved the Supreme Court of India. Despite the threats and intimidation she faced not to pursue the case, including from policemen and some state officials – which forced her to change home more than a dozen times – she kept fighting for justice.
In December 2003, the Supreme Court ordered a CBI probe. The situation was such that in August 2004, the court ordered for the trial to be held in Maharashtra. In January 2008, a special CBI court found 11 of the accused guilty of rape and murder and sentenced them to lifetime imprisonment, which was also upheld by the Bombay High Court in May 2017. Later in 2019, the Supreme Court awarded a compensation of five million Indian rupees to Bilkis Bano.
"That is what my struggle was for. For equality for each of us. When we are wronged, we must seek to right it using the power of truth. When our rights as citizens are denied, we turn to our constitution," Bano said after the verdict. But the justice was short-lived.
On August 15, 2022, a few hours after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked the nation, "Can we not pledge to get rid of everything in our behaviour, culture and everyday life that humiliates and demeans women?" from the Red Fort ramparts during his Independence Day speech, Bilkis Bano's rapists walked free from jail under the Gujarat state government's remission policy. They were received with garland and sweets by their relatives and associates. One could see in the video on social media that there were no signs of remorse or guilt on their faces; if anything, the smugness that they at times failed to hide revealed their apathy towards their crimes and the sufferings of their victims.
While remission can be granted to criminals who have served 14 years in jail, along with fulfilling other conditions, according to an amendment made in 2014 to Gujarat's policy on the matter from 1992, criminals convicted of certain crimes, including rape and murder, are not eligible for remission. However, since the verdict was given in 2008, the original policy from 1992 was applicable, and based on that the state government approved the convicts' plea for remission.
It must be noted here that two BJP MLAs and three party members were part of the 10-member board, headed by district magistrate of Panchmahal, Sujal Mayatra.
One of the MLAs on the board, CK Raulji from Godhra, said, "I don't know whether they committed any crime or not. But there has to be an intention of committing crime… They were Brahmins and Brahmins are known to have good sanskaar [manners]. It might have been someone's ill intention to corner and punish them."
Such a comment from a member of the Indian Legislative Assembly is irresponsible and reckless. Such statements not only show his apathy towards the victims, but also raise questions about his trust in the wisdom and judgement of the Indian judiciary system.
After the criminals were allowed out of the prison, questions have been raised about the legal validity of the decision, based on the legal procedural requirements to make such a decision. For instance, Section 435 of the Code of Criminal Procedure of India makes consultation with the Centre mandatory in such cases. Also, Section 432 (2) says that the opinion of the presiding officer of the concerned court should be the guiding factor in the government's decisions on remission. Did the state government follow these procedures? We do not know. And questions on many other aspects of the remission have been raised by the civil society, legal experts and journalists in India, who are baffled. Since the state government has remained notoriously silent on these, the central government must intervene and immediately clarify the procedure that has been followed in this decision, to ensure transparency.
For India, a nation that is scrambling to contain rape of young girls and women – according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 77 rape cases were recorded daily on average in India in 2020 – the premature release of the 11 convicts has set a very dangerous precedent. This incident will only add to the sense of impunity some Indian men consider themselves entitled to, as a result of which they rape, sexually assault and even kill young girls and women, especially from minority communities.
While the Indian Centre issued guidelines to release prisoners across the country to mark Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, how the remission of convicted murderers and rapists will contribute to the said mahotsav is a question India as a nation should ask itself.
Bilkis Bano was not just fighting herself – she was fighting for justice, for the triumph of the rule of law and constitution over evil; she was fighting for truth. The premature release of her rapists and the murderers of her family might undo all the years of hard work that India as a nation has done to fight for the cause of women, to eliminate violence against them. The central government and the Supreme Court should revisit and reconsider the state government's decision to prematurely release these 11 convicts of rape and murder, as the crimes committed by them fall under the broader issues of national interest, including human rights, women's safety and communal cohesion.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is: @tasneem_tayeb