Voices of support for Bilkis Bano are growing as more and more people, including legal luminaries, intellectuals, civil society members, and human rights groups are pointing out how the decision to release the eleven men convicted for serious charges such as her gang rape and the murder of 14 members of her family, is setting a dangerous precedent.
Justice UD Salvi, the judge who had convicted the eleven men, told Bar and Bench, “A very bad precedent has been set. This is wrong, I would say. Now, convicts in other gang rape cases would seek similar reliefs.”
Readers would recall that on August 15, the eleven convicts were freed from Godhra sub jail after a state government panel approved their application for remission of sentence. The convicts who have been freed are: Jaswant Nai, Govind Nai, Shailesh Bhatt, Radhyesham Shah, Bipin Chandra Joshi, Kesarbhai Vohania, Pradeep Mordhiya, Bakabhai Vohania, Rajubhai Soni, Mitesh Bhatt and Ramesh Chandana.
Initially stunned by the release, Bano herself broke her silence and in a statement released through her lawyer Advocate Shobha, said, “When I heard that the 11 convicted men, who devastated my family and my life, and took from me my three-year-old daughter, had walked free. I was bereft of words. I am still numb.” Her shock and trauma evident, Bano had asked, “Today, I can only say this — how can justice for any woman end like this?”
Concerns had been raised about how people convicted for serious charges such as rape and murder could be granted remission of sentence. “The guidelines issued by the Centre to states on a prisoner release policy to coincide with Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav, clearly states that among the categories of prisoners NOT to be granted special remission are ‘those convicted of rape’. And the remission of these sentences is not only immoral and unconscionable, it violates Gujarat’s existing remission policy,” pointed out a statement signed by over 6,000 citizens, including grassroot workers and women and human rights activists. They have urged the Supreme Court to revoke the remission of sentences for the eleven convicts.
The statement was put forth by activists such as Syeda Hameed, Zafarul-Islam Khan, Roop Rekha Verma, Devaki Jain, Uma Chakravarti, Subhashini Ali, Kavita Krishnan, Maimoona Mollah, Hasina Khan, Rachana Mudraboyina, Shabnam Hashmi, as well as civil rights groups including Saheli Women’s Resource Centre, Gamana Mahila Samuha, Bebaak Collective, All India Progressive Women’s Association, Uttarakhand Mahila Manch, Forum Against Oppression of Women, Pragatisheel Mahila Manch, Parcham Collective, Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan, Amoomat Society, WomComMatters, Centre for Struggling Women and Sahiyar.
They said, “We demand that women’s faith in justice be restored. We demand the remission of sentences for these 11 convicts be immediately revoked and they be sent back to prison to serve the remainder of their life terms.”
Difference in release provisions as per remission policies of 1992 and later
The main question surrounds the difference between the Gujarat Government’s remission policy of 1992 and 2014. The 1992 policy did not have restrictions on the premature release of those convicted of rape or sentenced to life imprisonment, unlike the later policies in both the state and at the Centre, reported NDTV. When the channel spoke to Panchmahal District Magistrate, Sujal Mayatra, he reiterated their recommendation was based on the Gujarat government’s 1992 remission policy and they had submitted their recommendation to the state at the end of May.
Justice Salvi too has weighed in on this and told Bar and Bench, “There is no clarity if the State has made amendments to Section 376(2)g of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and its definition. Has the State changed the definition of gravity of this offence of gangrape? If there is a modification in its definition, then the 1992 policy would be applicable. But if the definition and gravity of gangrape continues to be the same without amendment, then the policy of 2014 would be applicable, which would mean they shouldn’t be given remission.”
Advisory Committee members linked to BJP?
NDTV has also pointed out how five of the ten people in the Committee that recommended the remission of sentence have links with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Citing an official document that lists the members of the advisory committee, the channel said it included two BJP MLAs, a member of the BJP state executive committee and two others, who are also linked to the party.
BJP MLA from Godhra CK Raulji, and BJP MLA from Kalol Sumaben Chauhan, were both members of the Committee, as were “social workers” Vinita Lele, Pawanbhai Soni and Sardarsingh Patel. According to NDTV, Lele’s social media profile claims she is a BJP member. Meanwhile, BJP’s website reportedly lists Soni as member of the state executive committee of the party. The channel claims Patel is also a member of the party and that they got his contact information from the BJP office in Godhra.
Raulji infact went on to say that he wasn’t sure if the convicts were actually involved in the crime. He told the Indian Express, “It is possible that they (the convicts) might have been fixed in the case due to their past family activities. When such riots take place, it happens that those who are not involved are named. But I don’t know if they committed the crime, we decided (on remission) based on their behaviour.” He further said, “We asked the jailer and learnt that their behaviour was good in the prison…also (some of the convicts) are Brahmins. They have good ‘sanskaar’ (values).”
The United States Commission of International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has condemned the “early and unjustified release” of the eleven convicts, reported Hindustan Times. “USCIRF strongly condemns the early and unjustified release of 11 men sentenced to life in prison for raping a pregnant Muslim woman and committing murder against Muslim victims during the 2002 Gujarat Riots,” USCIRF Vice Chair Abraham Cooper said in a statement.
USCIRF Commissioner Stephen Schneck called the early release of the convicts a “travesty of justice”, and said, “The failure to hold accountable perpetrators of the 2002 Gujarat Riots who committed physical & sexual violence is a travesty of justice. It’s part of a pattern of impunity in India for those engaged in violence against religious minorities.”
Voices of support for Bilkis Bano
In wake of the shocking release of the convicts, several individuals and rights groups have come forward to demand justice for Bano. Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) has condemned the decision and said, “The release of the 11 convicts, even as many others accused of less serious offences remain in jail is an arbitrary exercise of power, having dangerous political overtones. It mocks the idea of a democracy based on rule of law when those accused of serious offences including rape and murder are arbitrarily released even as those who are falsely accused of crimes, continue to languish in jail.”
It further says, “The release of the accused sends out the chilling message that the most heinous crimes including rape and murder, when committed against the minority community, are not crimes. This has fatal repercussions for the future of Indian democracy.”
Previously, Bebaak Collective, a women’s rights group had also issued a statement condemning “the application of the remission policy of the Gujarat government”. The Collective said, “Bilkis Bano, a fearless and brave survivor of the attempted genocide of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 has had a tough 20-year journey trying to ensure justice is served against the men who wronged her,” and hailed her for carrying on “despite systemic adversities” and now giving into pressure. They asked, “Can sexual assault survivors trust the system anymore?”
Similarly, the All India Working Women Forum (AIWWF), a part of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) also released a statement saying, “The release that was recommended by the committee under the Gujarat remission policy is in violation of the Union Government’s guidelines for remission. These guidelines exclude those who are convicted for rape and murder for the benefit of remission. They, in any yardstick, do not deserve consideration for early release. AIWWF – AITUC, while condemning the release, very strongly urges upon the Union government to intervene to withdraw the release of these convicts – rapists and murderers.”