FOR SEVERAL MINUTES late on Monday evening, Bilkis Bano could not believe that the 11 convicts had walked free — she first broke into tears and then went silent, her husband Yakub Rasool told The Indian Express.
A day later, when contacted by The Indian Express, Bilkis said: “Please leave me alone… I have offered duas (prayers) for the soul of my daughter Saleha”.
“We have been left numb, shocked and shaken,” said Rasool after a Gujarat panel granted remission of sentence to the 11 convicts who were jailed for life in 2008 for gangraping Bilkis and killing 14 of her family members, including her three-year-old daughter, during the 2002 riots.
“The battle we fought for so many years has been wrapped up in one moment. A sentence of life imprisonment given by the court has been curtailed in such a manner… We had never even heard of the word ‘remission’. We didn’t even know that such a process exists,” Rasool told The Indian Express over phone from their home at Devgadh Baria in Dahod.
After the convicts were welcomed with garlands and sweets following their release, Rasool said that Bilkis, now 41, was “distressed and melancholic”, unable to talk to anyone.
“We have not even had the time to process this news and we know that they (the convicts) have already reached their homes…It is not that they never took parole; they did several times. But we did not expect that they would be released in such a manner,” he said.
“What happened (in 2002) was so horrific that one can imagine what must be going through her mind… She was brutalised but witnessed the murder of her own daughter… She was violated not just as a woman but also as a mother and a human being — what can be worse than that?” Rasool said.
“Now we only want to be left alone, and settle down for our five children. We do fear for our safety but we have not had the time to contemplate the next move,” he said.
Sujal Mayatra, District Magistrate and Collector of Panchmahal, who chaired the Jail Advisory Committee (JAC) that recommended the remission, told The Indian Express that “it was a unanimous decision”.
“The convicts had completed over 14 years of their life sentence. Their application had come about three months ago… Like in the case of any application for remission or premature release, this case was also considered on the basis of the behaviour of the convicts in prison as well as the tenure and other merits of the case. The recommendation was sent to the state government, and yesterday (Monday), we received the orders for their release,” Mayatra said.
According to norms, the JAC has eight members including the District Magistrate (or Chief Metropolitan Magistrate) as chairman, jail superintendent, member secretary, District Sessions Judge, Superintendent of Police (or City Commissioner), District Social Welfare officer, and two local (elected) members.
In this case, the elected members were Godhra BJP MLA C K Raulji and Kalol BJP MLA Suman Chauhan. Both were not available for comment tuesday.
Another committee member, who did not wish to be identified, said the remission applications also cited medical grounds. “The oldest of the convicts was 70 years old and had health issues. Another convict, nearing 60 years of age, had also cited medical conditions as well as a medical emergency at home as his wife is battling a critical illness,” the member said.
Gujarat Additional Chief Secretary (Home) Raj Kumar told The Indian Express that a total of 26 prisoners were released across the state on Monday.
Bilkis was gangraped and 14 members of her family, including Saleha, were killed by a mob on March 3, 2002, in Limkheda taluka of Dahod district — the bodies of six were never found. The Supreme Court had ordered a CBI investigation in the case after Bilkis approached the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).
In 2004, the Supreme Court directed the trial to be transferred from Gujarat to Maharashtra after Bilkis alleged death threats from the accused. And on January 21, 2008, a CBI special court in Mumbai convicted 13 accused, sentencing 11 to life imprisonment on charges of gangrape and murder. Three years later, the conviction was upheld by the Bombay High Court.
In 2019, the Supreme Court awarded compensation of Rs 50 lakh to Bilkis, and asked the Gujarat government to provide her with a government job and accommodation.
According to Rasool, the state government awarded the compensation and offered Bilkis the post of a peon in Devgadh Baria but she turned down the offer and sought employment for her husband instead. “The government is yet to consider the application. We are also yet to hear from the administration about the accommodation,” he said.
Newsletter | Click to get the day’s best explainers in your inbox
According to Rasool, the compensation amount of Rs 50 lakh has been placed in a fixed deposit and will be used for the higher education of their children. “Our eldest daughter is 19 and pursuing a B.Com degree. Bilkis wanted her to be a lawyer and help other people seek justice but due to Covid we could not enroll her in the law college as it is outside Devgadh Baria. We have decided that she will graduate in Commerce and pursue LL.B,” he said.
The second daughter, aged 16, is also attending college while their 15-year-old son is a Class 10 student in a private school.
In the Lok Sabha polls of 2019, Bilkis had stepped out for the first time to cast her vote. “She was beginning to live her life again because justice had lessened our pain but this (remission) has come as a bolt from the blue… we are exhausted,” Rasool said.