In a shocking development, the 11 convicts sentenced to life imprisonment in the Bilkis Bano gangrape and murder case were set free on our 75th Independence Day. They walked out of the Godhra jail following approval of their release by the Gujarat government under its remission policy. A senior official announced that the state government allowed for their release as they had already served 14 years in jail and keeping factors such as “age, nature of the crime, behaviour in prison” in mind. Was this a reward, or a demonstration of the state’s compassion — or of its complete absence?
Justice died a thousand deaths as rapists and murderers of 14 innocent persons including a three-year-old girl were set free. Ironically, this happened as the Prime Minister gave a call for upholding Nari Shakti and the dignity of women from the ramparts of the Red Fort on the same day. He went on to urge his fellow Indians to respect and empower women and their critical role in nation-building. Alas, it seems his words were not heard in his own state.
Gujarat was engulfed in communal violence following the burning of the Sabarmati Express on February 27, 2002. Bilkis, five months pregnant, and her family fled when an armed mob attacked their neighbourhood. They were hiding in a field when 30-40 men carrying swords, sticks and sickles attacked them. Seven of her family members were killed on the spot. The key accused smashed her infant daughter with a rock. Bilkis was gang-raped and given up for dead. She survived and reached the police station with the help of some villagers. For over a year, the police tried to cover up the matter. Following public uproar, the culprits were arrested in 2004. In 2008, the special CBI court gave life imprisonment to some of the accused for gang rape, murder and also conspiracy to rape a pregnant woman while acquitting some for lack of evidence. In 2018, the Bombay High Court upheld the conviction and set aside the acquittal of others.
Bilkis Bano became the symbol of hope for all survivors of Gujarat violence. The verdict in her legal case gave hope for justice to all survivors of brutal sexual assaults countrywide. Bilkis is a real-life heroine who fought courageously for justice in the face of tremendous hardships including hostilities and threats from perpetrators and their political supporters. In 2019, the Supreme Court directed the government of Gujarat to pay Bilkis a compensation of Rs 50 lakh for her struggle.
Remission might fall well within the legal entitlements of a prisoner but can it be viewed sans any sign of the realisation of the wrong-doing, leave alone guilt or remorse? What is the message that goes out to the survivors of sexual assaults and communal violence by this remission of the guilty?
Remission may not qualify as a legal precedent but it may end up influencing the mindset of those involved in judicial machinery. It may give a message that those guilty of gang rape and murder can be free after serving a 14-year jail term. It may give a message that dastardly crimes can be washed off by merely serving a jail sentence. Meanwhile, the victim suffers the irreparable loss of the lives of loved ones. She remains traumatised for life and is unable to move on.
Let us remember that more than a thousand lives were lost and many more were injured in the communal violence in Gujarat in 2002. The National Human Rights Commission noted in its report that thousands of homes were burnt down and lakhs of innocent citizens were forced to flee and take shelter in relief camps across the state. Mob attacks and killings continued even as villages and cities remained under curfew for almost 10 months. There was a shortage of food, rations and medicines for those in the relief camps. The survivors had to run from pillar to post for registering complaints and filing FIRs. The humanitarian crisis failed to move the state machinery into action. The NHRC and the Election Commission had to intervene to get the administration to attend to the basic necessities of women, children and elderly displaced from their homes. Ultimately, the efforts to provide relief and succour to the displaced were led by civil society organisations, voluntary groups and activists. They worked tirelessly for relief, rehabilitation, legal justice, peace and harmony. There were no efforts or any talk of harmony or healing touch from those in the government.
Apart from the need to respect women, the Prime Minister also talked about the need to shed the evils of divisiveness in his Independence Day speech. It is not too late even now for the state government to pay heed to the PM. The wrongs done to innocents who suffered in 2002 must at least be acknowledged. Remission for the accused in one of the most gruesome incidents of sexual violence against a woman and an innocent family is like rubbing salt into the wounds of the hapless survivors.
As the nation celebrates Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav, a daughter who underwent unspeakable brutalities and suffering is looking on helplessly as those who badgered her walk out of prison. Several more like her who await justice are going to lose hope with this action of the state. I can only hope that those sitting at the top of the Gujarat government listen and act on the PM’s call to respect the dignity of women.
The writer is a women’s rights activist and founding member of Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan