On January 19, the Supreme Court bench of Justices BV Nagarathna and Ujjal Bhuyan sat again, this time to deal with applications filed by the eleven convicts of the Bilkis Bano gang rape and murder case seeking extension of time for surrendering to jail. Only 11 days ago, the country had rejoiced on January 8 when a Supreme Court bench comprising Justices BV Nagarathna and Ujjal Bhuyan had quashed the order of the Gujarat government that had granted remission to 11 of those convicted on several counts of murder and gang-rape of Bilkis Bano during the 2002 communal riots of Gujarat. Deeming the grant of remission to be a “violation of rule of law”, the Supreme Court bench had ordered the eleven convicts to surrender themselves to prison with a fortnight. The two-week period given for the convicts to surrender ends on this Sunday, on January 21.
Four days prior to the date of surrender, all eleven convicts of the convicts had moved the Supreme Court and filed applications seeking extension of four to six weeks to surrender before the jail authorities. The reasons cited in these applications vary from marriage of kin, harvesting winter produce, getting surgeries, taking care of old parents and ill health.
On January 19, after considering the applications one by one, the bench dismissed the said applications while holding that the reasons cited by the applicants lacked merit. In the order, the bench stated, “We have heard learned senior counsel and counsel for the applicants and the counsel for the non-applicants also. The reasons cited by applicants to seek postponement of surrender and report back to jail have no merit inasmuch as those reasons in no way prevent them from complying with our directions. Hence the MAs are dismissed. Pending applications if any also stands disposed.”
The filing of the applications:
On January 18, the said applications were filed in the Supreme Court. Pursuant to the filing of the application by the convicts, the Supreme Court bench of Justice Nagarathna agreed to take up the said petitions. As the applications were mentioned before her by Senior Advocate V Chitambaresh, she directed the Registry to get the orders of Chief Justice of India D Y Chandrachud to reconstitute the bench which had heard the case as while the judgment in the Bilkis Bano case had been delivered by bench of Justices Nagarathna and Ujjal Bhuyan, she sits with Justice Sanjay Karol on Thursday.
The aforementioned applications moved by the convicts came as no surprise. Since the pronouncement of judgement, the question whether the convicts, who had been garlanded on their release from jail, will actually surrender or not had loomed in the air. Two days post the pronouncement, multiple print media reports had reported that at least nine out of the eleven convicts in the Bilkis Bano gang rape case were ‘missing’. “You won’t find them now. All of them locked their houses and left” was stated by the local villagers and shopkeeper in regards to the convicts being missing from their houses one day after the judgment, as per a report of Financial Express. These locals also attested to seeing the convicts till the Supreme Court judgement quashing the remission was delivered.
According to a report in the Indian Express, published one day after the judgment, Akhambhai Chaturbhai Raval (aged 87), father of convict Govind Nai (aged 55), had blamed the conviction on “political vendetta of Congress” while informing that Govind had left his house “a week ago”.
A report in the Financial Express also provided that another convict, namely Radheshyam Shah, had not been home “since the last 15 months”. The father of the convict had claimed that he “doesn’t know where Radheshyam is… he went with his wife and son”, even as neighbours and shopkeepers at the village square had attest that nearly all the convicts were publicly seen until Sunday, including Radheshyam.
The reasons behind application for extension of surrender:
A total of eleven applications have been filed before the Supreme Court in view of the impending deadline. It is crucial to note here that these convicts have been out of jail since August 15, giving them a period of 5 months to have made all the necessary arrangements. Even after the pronouncement of judgment quashing the remission and ordering for the surrender, a period of two weeks had been granted to the convicts. The reasons cited behind the demand for extension is as follows:
- Medical conditions, aged parents, family responsibilities:
Medical ailments and responsibility of family and aged parents was the most common reason cited by the convicts for grant of stay. As per a report of the LiveLaw, convict Govindhbhai Nai has sought an extension of four weeks to surrender before the jail authorities, citing his responsibility as a sole caretaker of aged parents with health issues as well as his two children. He also cited his medical conditions like asthma and haemorrhoids as reasons for the grant of extension to surrender.
Convict Radheshyam Bhagwandas Shah has asked for a grant of six weeks of extension through his application based on his responsibility to look after his aged parents with health issues along with his wife and 21-year-old son and making financial arrangements before surrendering. Notably, it was convict Radheshyam who had moved the Supreme Court through a writ petition in 2022 to demand that the Gujarat government be directed to consider his application for remission of his sentence based on the government’s 1992 remission policy. Justice Nagarathna had rebuked him as well as the Gujarat government for playing “an act of fraud” and having “abused the process of law” in obtaining remission.
Similar reasons to that of convict Radheshyam were also given by convict Rajubhai Babulal Soni while demanding an extension of six weeks. As per the LiveLaw report, Rajubhai’s reasons were that he needs to look after his aged mother with health issues, wife and two sons, and has to make financial arrangements before surrendering.
Convict Bipinchand Kaniyalal Joshi also sought an extension in surrender for six weeks owing to leg surgery which had to lead to partial handicap. He also provided that he looks after his brother and his wife who is battling cancer. Lung surgery was also a reason cited by another convict, namely Pradip Ramanlal Modhiya, for demanding a stay of four weeks. In his application, he also cites the recent death of his wife.
- Marriage, harvest season:
At least three of the convicts provided their son’s marriage as the reason for request of extension of period of surrender. As per the LiveLaw report, convicts Shaileshbhai Chimanlal Bhatt, Kesharbhai Khimabhai Vohania and Ramesh Rupabhai Chandana had their son’s marriages coming up. Surprisingly, one of the common reasons cited by the convicts is the upcoming harvest season. Ramesh Rupabhai Chandana also cited heart ailment, upcoming harvest season, and looking after aged and ailing mother as his reason for demanding an extension for six weeks. Convict Jaswantbhai Chaturbhai Nai requested an additional six weeks due to the upcoming harvest season. He provided in his application that his entire family is dependent on agricultural income. Following suit, Mitesh Chimanlal Bhatt had urged for an extension by six weeks due to the upcoming harvest season and his son’s surgery.
Did these reasons warrant any extension?
Since the beginning of this case, even after having received a conviction by court in 2008, these eleven convicts have received a VIP treatment. From seamlessly receiving multiple furloughs and paroles during the 14 years of their imprisonment to being granted remission on 2022 Independence Day, these convicts have enjoyed favourable treatment from the state. The applications filed on the basis of the aforementioned reasons by convicted gang rapists and murderers were not only hilarious but also ironical in view of the current repression that the State has employed against mere under trials and political prisoners.
While the eleven convicted continue to waste the courts time, one should not forget the plight of those languishing in jail in matters where trials have not even started. One should not forget Father Stan Swamy, arrested at the age of 83 in 2020 in the Bhima Koregaon violence case while suffering from Parkinson’s disease, who died as an under trial prisoner after spending 270 days in jail. Even after more than 5 years, the trial is yet to start in this case. In the same case, activist Shoma Sen’s regular bail petition remains pending in the Bombay High Court. In December 2023, an urgent medical bail petition had been moved by Sen in the Bombay High Court, which is yet to be heard.
Under trial JNU scholar and activist Umar Khalid, languishing in jail since more than 3 years in connection with the larger conspiracy of Delhi riot 2020 case had only been granted a week’s parole in December 2022 when his sister was getting married.
Only last year, in the month of October, Delhi Police had arrested NewsClick founder and editor-in-chief Prabir Purkayastha, aged 75, and its HR head Amit Chakravarty, who is physically disabled, under its anti-terrorism law. Their regular bail petitions and medical bail petitions remain pending in the Supreme Court.
These eleven convicted, most of whom are in the 50-60 years old category, are citing their old age as the reason for extension of period for surrender while G.N. Saibaba, a 90% physically disabled man who uses a wheelchair and was infected twice with Covid-19, once with swine flu, and diagnosed with severe ailments in his eight years of incarceration in Nagpur central jail, is yet to step out of jail.
These aforementioned few examples show the contrasting situations. Thus, one can say that while their applications and reasons for extension grant no warrant for extension, as was held by Justice Nagarathna, even having their applications filed and heard within one day is a privilege that is not extended to most today.