The communal violence of Gujarat 2002, and its aftermath, raised disquieting questions about the ability of institutions to uphold the rule of law. On Thursday, the Bombay High Court upheld life sentences against 11 persons held guilty of rape and murder in the Bilkis Bano case, where a 19-year-old woman was gang-raped and 14 of her family, including her three-year-old child, killed. Importantly, the HC also convicted five police personnel and two doctors, who had been acquitted by a trial court of charges of protecting the criminals. The Bombay HC verdict is affirmation that the system is capable of self-correction. In the Bilkis case at least, a part of it came to the rescue of a victim whose plea for justice had gone unheard by another part. A fuller justice, hopefully, will also be delivered in the other cases that await closure.
Bilkis and her family were attacked by a mob while fleeing rioters in their village; all other persons in the group, including children, were killed. Bilkis managed to reach a police station where an FIR was recorded. However, the police refused to mention in the FIR that she had been raped and omitted the names of her attackers — most of them from her own village and known to her. It was only three days later, when she got to make another statement before the district collector, that the charges of rape and murder and the identity of the perpetrators would be recorded. Despite the collector’s initiative, the local police tried to hush up the case. Bodies of the victims had been hurriedly buried without giving relatives any opportunity to identify the deceased. The court notes that the behaviour of the Gujarat police “does not speak of negligence or inertness but apparent dishonesty and callousness” and “smacked of dishonest steps to screen the culprits”. The doctors who did the postmortem of the dead omitted information that would have confirmed rape. In the words of the HC, they “were not only casual in conducting the postmortem but suppressed material information by way of omission”. While pronouncing the verdict, the HC said, “all the acts of commission and omission of the police and the medical officers cannot be examined in isolation but they are well connected with each other in a chain of suppression of facts causing disappearance of the evidence with intent to screen the offenders and save them from punishment”.
The convictions are an indictment of the then Gujarat government, which compromised on due process. Closure was possible in this case only because the NHRC took note of it and the Supreme Court directed that sensitive riot cases be tried outside Gujarat and not by the state police, but an independent investigating agency. It took 15 long years for justice to reach Bilkis. It ought to have come quicker and with far less toil.
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