Bilkis Bano at a press conference. Image Courtesy: National Herald
The Supreme Court has asked for the Gujarat government’s response to a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) challenging the remission of eleven convicts in the Bilkis Bano case. The court has asked the petitioners, CPI(M) leader Subhashini Ali, journalist Revathy Laul and activist Roop Rekha Verma, to implead the eleven released convicts in their application. Now, the government of Gujarat has two weeks to respond to the PIL, while the court has also asked the petitioners why these eleven men stand apart from other convicts whom a state government might grant remission.
Indeed there are several reasons why remission in the Bano case is getting opposed. For one, she struggled to secure these convictions, and it is now up to the highest court to restore her faith in the justice system. This PIL is hopefully the first step in that process. Second, in his independence day speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi waxed eloquent about ‘Nari shakti—women power’. He asked from the Red Fort, “Can we not pledge to get rid of everything in our behaviour, culture and everyday life that humiliates and demeans women?”
But when the BJP government of his home state, Gujarat, released eleven murderers and rapists convicted for life on independence day itself, it contradicted his lofty utterances. For the sake of consistency in the words and deeds of the State as well, these killers and rapists must not earn a reprieve.
Thirdly, the Gujarat government seems to have applied the 1992 remission rules of the state in complete violation of procedure. As the petitioners have pointed out, a committee including BJP legislators and office-bearers announced this remission. Naturally, it outraged the nation, but the heaviest blow fell on Bano and her family. After all, these eleven men were convicted for killing fifteen members of Bano’s family, including her three-year-old daughter. Their heinous crimes, including gang rapes, occurred during the 2002 Gujarat riots.
So outrageous were the deeds during this pogrom that then President KR Narayanan had called it a “crisis of our state and society”. That is why, twenty years later, the remission intensifies the victimisation of Bilkis and her family. That is why Bano’s agonising words after the release, “How can justice for any woman end like this?” will echo for a long time. “My sorrow and wavering faith are not for myself alone but for every woman struggling for justice in courts,” she rightly said. This is another exception in this case—it occurred in a larger context of a communal conflagration, and it was directed against the most vulnerable women.
Recall again the Prime Minister’s speech, in which he said, “Can we not pledge to get rid of everything in our behaviour, culture and everyday life that humiliates and demeans women?” Going by this remark, has not Bano been deliberately humiliated and demeaned? Those who released these criminals seem to mock her. After all, the released men were garlanded and fed sweets in full public view.
Such sinister developments on the 75th anniversary of independence also affront Mahatma Gandhi’s idea of Swaraj. On 14 August 1921, writing in Navjivan, Gandhi defined his notion of Swaraj in the context of women. He said Swaraj would mean “Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Parsis, Christians and Jews should all be able to follow their faith and respect those of others.” He asserted it is a condition in which “a young girl could, without danger, move about alone even in the dead of night”.
Writing again on 20 October 1929 in Navjivan, Gandhi said Swaraj meant more than the transfer of power from British to Indian hands. “To my mind, Swaraj means regulated power in the hands of thirty crores of people. Where there is such a rule, even a young girl will feel herself safe,” he said.
Does this not strike a discordant note with Bano’s statement that the release of these convicts has “taken from me my peace and shaken my faith in justice”? Her words convey the stark insecurity of having a trauma from two decades ago replayed, reviving her fears for her life and dignity. The government of Gujarat has multiplied the threat to Bano and made her vulnerable to her perpetrators again. This amounts to mocking Gandhi’s Swaraj, defined in terms of women’s well-being and freedom from danger. Justice did not come easily or automatically to Bano; she struggled with trauma and an unjust system to gain these convictions.
It is all the more shocking that a BJP legislator member of the committee granting remission said these convicts deserve convictions because they included Brahmins who have “good sanskars”. The Supreme Court will no doubt notice that the caste of a perpetrator has no bearing on the sentence or the remission. If the identity of these men weighed on the minds of the committee that granted remission, does it not fall on the court to reverse their decision? The same legislator cast doubts on the conviction itself, saying it may have been a conspiracy hatched because of their caste and good nature! Clearly, the real intent here is to target and humiliate all victims from minority and disadvantaged communities.
During the Partition, many questions were raised about the effectiveness of some governments in the former British provinces. On 15 March 1947, someone asked Gandhi, “Should or should not those who have committed murder, rape, arson, and other heinous crimes receive appropriate punishment?” Gandhi’s response is significant today. He said, “Of course, those responsible for devilish deeds must be punished. A government which believes in the theory of crime and punishment but does not punish the criminal has no right to call itself a government.”
Applying the logic to the Gujarat government, remission of these eleven convicts negates the guilt established by the law courts. To revoke the punishment awarded to rapists and murderers by ignoring rules that deny remission for heinous crimes means the government did not care to uphold justice. The impression one gathers is that it backs the convicts and is least concerned for the dignity, safety and security of the victim, who is a Muslim, a woman, and has suffered immensely on account of the crime committed against her and her struggle for justice.
Indeed, Bano’s tenacity ensured the perpetrators of the crime were punished. But we cannot forget the Supreme Court decided to move the trial in cases related to the 2002 riots outside Gujarat (to Mumbai) to protect the witnesses and evidence from the state’s BJP government. Few would fail to notice that the remission has been granted by the same state, led by the same party’s government, once the law put the ball in its court.
Gandhi was very clear about it—women must feel safe for there to be Swaraj. It is our duty, and of the state and courts, to ensure no survivor is left to fend for herself in the seventy-fifth year of independence.
The author served as an officer on special duty to the former President of India, KR Narayanan. The views are personal.