Eleven men who were sentenced to life imprisonment in the Bilkis Bano gangrape case of 2002 were released from Godhra sub-jail on Monday (August 15) after a panel set up by the Gujarat government approved their application for remission of the sentence.
Additional Chief Secretary (Home) Raj Kumar said the remission application was considered because the convicts had completed 14 years in jail, and factors such as “age, nature of the crime, behaviour in prison and so on”.
Bilkis was brutally gangraped during the communal violence that followed the Godhra train-burning incident. She was 21 years old at the time, and five months pregnant. Seven members of her family were killed by rioters.
On February 28, 2002, Bilkis fled her village, Radhikpur in Dahod district, after violence erupted in the state in the aftermath of the previous day’s incident at Godhra station, in which the Sabarmati Express was set on fire, resulting in the deaths of dozens of pilgrims and kar sewaks returning from Ayodhya.
Bilkis was accompanied by her daughter Saleha, who was three-and-a-half years old at the time, and 15 other members of her family. They fled fearing a re-run of the arson and looting that had taken place in their village on the occasion of Bakr-Id a few days previously.
On March 3, 2002, the family reached Chapparwad village. According to the chargesheet, they were attacked by about 20-30 people armed with sickles, swords, and sticks. Among the attackers were the 11 accused men.
Bilkis, her mother, and three other women were raped and brutally assaulted. Of the 17-member group of Muslims from Radhikpur village, eight were found dead, six were missing. Only Bilkis, a man, and a three-year-old survived the attack.
Bilkis remained unconscious for at least three hours after the attack. After she regained consciousness, she borrowed clothes from an Adivasi woman, and met a Home Guard who took her to the Limkheda police station. She registered a complaint with Head Constable Somabhai Gori who, according to the CBI, “suppressed material facts and wrote a distorted and truncated version” of her complaint.
Bilkis was taken to a public hospital for medical examination only after she reached the Godhra relief camp. Her case was taken up by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and Supreme Court, which ordered an investigation by the CBI.
The CBI concluded that the post mortem examination was carried out shoddily in order to protect the accused. CBI investigators exhumed the bodies of those killed in the attack, and said that none of the seven bodies had skulls.
According to the CBI, the heads of the corpses had been severed after the autopsy, so that the bodies could not be identified.
How did the trial in the case proceed?
The trial was moved out of Gujarat to Maharashtra after Bilkis Bano received death threats. In the Mumbai court, charges were filed against 19 men, including six police officers and a government doctor.
In January 2008, a special court convicted 11 accused of conspiring to rape a pregnant woman, murder, unlawful assembly, and of charges under other sections of the Indian Penal Code. The Head Constable was convicted of “making incorrect records” to save the accused.
Seven persons were acquitted by the court, citing lack of evidence. One person died during the course of the trial.
The court held that Jaswantbhai Nai, Govindbhai Nai, and Naresh Kumar Mordhiya (deceased) had raped Bilkis, while Shailesh Bhatt had killed her daughter, Saleha, by “smashing” her on the ground.
Others who were convicted are Radheshyam Shah, Bipin Chandra Joshi, Kesarbhai Vohania, Pradeep Vohania, Bakabhai Vohania, Rajubhai Soni, Nitesh Bhatt, Ramesh Chandana, and Head Constable Somabhai Gori.
Despite being bystanders to the crime (excluding Gori), these accused were convicted of rape and murder, as being part of “an unlawful assembly” distributes the liability of the crime, the court observed.
All 11 convicts were sentenced to life imprisonment by the court.
What happened after that?
In May 2017, the Bombay High Court upheld the conviction and life imprisonment of 11 people in the gangrape case, and set aside the acquittal of seven people, including the policemen and doctors.
In April 2019, the Supreme Court directed the Gujarat government to give Rs 50 lakh as compensation to Bilkis within two weeks. She had refused to accept the compensation of Rs 5 lakh, and had sought exemplary compensation from the state government in a plea before the top court.