Justice Restored: Triumph for Bilkis

Justice Restored: Triumph for Bilkis

On 8 January 2024, Bilkis Bano stood vindicated! Her relentless quest for truth and justice met with triumph, as the Supreme Court of India, quashed the Gujarat Government’s decision to allow premature release of convicts in the gangrape case where she was the victim; a heinous, brutal crime which took place during the Gujarat carnage of 2002!

In a landmark judgment, the bench of Justice B.V. Nagarathna and Justice Ujjal Bhuyan held that the eleven convicts (who were given remission) have to report back to the jail authorities within two weeks and have to continue to remain in jail. The bench clearly stated that the Gujarat government was not empowered to pass the remission order, since the appropriate government entitled to pass orders of remission was the government of the State where the trial had taken place; in this particular case, it was the Government of Maharashtra and not that of Gujarat, which was the competent authority, to even consider remission

The 251-pages judgment, is bound to have wide ranging repercussions; the key para states, “On competence of Gujarat government to pass remission orders, it is apparent that appropriate government had to take permission of the court before passing remission orders. This means that place of occurrence or place of imprisonment of convicts are not relevant for remission. The definition of appropriate government is otherwise. The intention of the government is that the State under whom the convict was tried and sentenced was the appropriate government. This places emphasis on the place of trial and rather than where the crime took place,” 

The judges also came down heavily on the Gujarat Government: stating that it was complicit in the crime for not filing a review plea against the May 2022 judgment and instead acting in tandem with the convicts and usurping the Maharashtra government’s jurisdiction to grant remission to convicts. “It was the State of Maharashtra who could have only passed the remission orders respondent no 3 surreptitiously filed the plea before the Supreme Court. Taking advantage of May 13, 2022 order of this Court, other convicts also filed remission applications and the Gujarat government passed remission orders…Gujarat was complicit and acted in tandem with respondent no. 3 in this case. This Court was misled by suppressing facts. Use of power by Gujarat was only a usurpation of power by the State,” 

In great detail, the judgement clearly exposed all the fraudulent tactics the convicts used, as well as how Gujarat’s government acted in tandem with them, in securing their un-merited and premature release from prison via reduction of sentences through a sham process of remission, albeit under the erroneous directions from the Supreme Court itself. The Court also came down strongly on one of the convicts, Radhyesham, for playing fraud upon the Court by suppressing material facts and getting a favourable order from the top court in May 2022 which eventually led to the release of all the eleven convicts. It unequivocally stated that the May 2022 judgment was obtained by fraud and therefore not good in law.

Flashback: Revisiting the Horror

In order to understand a bit of what Bilkis has been going through, it is important to revisit that horrendous tragedy of almost twenty -two years ago. Following the burning of the S-6 compartment and tragic death of 59 persons (mainly ‘kar sevaks’) on 27 February 2002, all hell broke loose, the next day, in several parts of Gujarat. Sensing trouble, a group of seventeen persons fled their native village of Randhikpur in Dahod district. The group consisted of Bilkis, her three-year-old daughter Saleha, her mother and fourteen others. They took refuge in another village Chhaparvad hoping they would be safe there. On 3 March, however, they were attacked by about 20-30 people armed with sickles, swords, and sticks. Among the attackers were the eleven accused men (those currently on remission). Bilkis, her mother, and three other women were raped and brutally assaulted. Of the seventeen Muslims, eight were found dead, six were missing. Only Bilkis, a man, and a three-year-old child survived the attack. Bilkis was unconscious for at least three hours; after she regained consciousness, she borrowed some clothes from an Adivasi woman made her way to the Limkheda police station to register a complaint. The Head Constable there, according to the CBI, “suppressed material facts and wrote a distorted and truncated version of Bilkis’ complaint”.

Since then, Bilkis has relived the horror of that tragedy several times, as she unwaveringly, but with great pain, narrates the brutality, that she was subject to. She says, “All the 4 men of my family were killed brutally. The women were stripped naked and raped by many men. They caught me top. My 3-year-old daughter, Saleha, was in my arms. They snatched her and threw her into the air with all their might. My heart broke as her little head shattered on the rocks. Four men caught me by the arms and legs and many others entered me one by one. When satisfying their lust, they kicked me and beat my head with a rod. Assuming that I was dead they threw me into the bushes. Four or five hours later I regained my consciousness. I searched for some rags to cover my body, but couldn’t find any. I spent a day and a half on a hilltop without food or water. I longed for death. Finally, I managed to find a tribal colony. Declaring myself as a Hindu I sought shelter there. The men who attacked us used foul language; I can’t repeat it ever. In front of me they killed my mother, sister and 12 other relatives. While raping and killing us, they were shouting sexual abuses. I could not even tell them that I was five months pregnant because their feet were on my mouth and neck. I have known the men who raped me for many years. We sold them milk. They were our customers. If they had any shame, they would not have done this to me. How can I forgive them?”

Dirty Tricks Department

Any lesser mortal would have given up; but not Bilkis Bano! With her husband Yakub Rasool (who was away from home when home when violence broke out) who has stood by her side, through thick and thin, she has been able to weather all storms! At first, Bilkis could hardly open her mouth. With the help of some concerned citizens, she slowly regained her confidence and realised that she was the key witness in bringing the perpetrators of this heinous crime to book. She plucked up courage and began a painful struggle for truth and justice.  She knew who the murderers and the rapists were, and she courageously identified them. The journey all along was fraught with obstacles and hostilities; threats and intimidation. The Gujarat Government, with Narendra Modi at the helm, was obviously supportive of the criminals who raped her and killed her family members. The FIR was manipulated; the medical reports and post-mortem of the bodies omitted significant details; evidence was destroyed, since all the dead were buried by the police themselves; the body of her three-year-old disappeared. The prosecution sided with the accused; the lower court which heard her case upheld all the falsehood and the lies. The case was finally closed!

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Bilkis however, never gave up; her pursuit for truth and justice was relentless. The then National Human Rights Commission (a far cry from the NHRC of today, which is totally spineless, which blatantly supports the crimes of the regime) received her petition and conducted its own independent inquiry and totally supported her case. She then appealed to the Supreme Court. In 2004, the case was reopened and referred to the CBI. Twelve of the twenty accused were arrested in 2004 and the trial began in Ahmedabad. However, after Bilkis expressed grave apprehensions that witnesses could be harmed and the evidence collected by the CBI tampered with, the Supreme Court transferred the case to Mumbai. Bilkis was the only direct eye-witness. She was constantly under threat.  For her own safety, she had to move from one place to another. In 2008, the Special Court sentenced eleven accused (one died during the trial) to life imprisonment on the charges of conspiring to rape a pregnant woman, murder and unlawful assembly under the Indian Penal Code. The police and the doctors who were accused of being complicit in fudging reports were exonerated; but in May 2017, on an appeal from the CBI, the Mumbai High Court upheld the sentencing and also found the doctors and police guilty. One of the judges, Judge Salvi termed Bilkis’ “courageous deposition as the turning point in the case.” In 2019, the Supreme Court awarded compensation of Rs 50 lakh to Bilkis — the first such order in a case related to the 2002 riots. The bench of the then, Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, and Justices Deepak Gupta and Sanjiv Khanna stated, “It is very apparent that what should not have happened has happened and the state has to give compensation.”

Convicts set free

Sadly, on Independence Day 2022, the nation was in for a terrible shock when those who were imprisoned were set free by the Gujarat Government! The convicts set free were, Jaswant Nai, Govind Nai, Shailesh Bhatt, Radhyesham Shah, Bipin Chandra Joshi, Kesarbhai Vohania, Pradeep Mordhiya, Bakabhai Vohania, Rajubhai Soni, Mitesh Bhatt and Ramesh Chandana. The moment they came out of prison, the rapists and the murderers, were felicitated by the ‘hindutva’ brigade with ladoos and garlands. Significantly, the moment their remission order was received, they were out of the gates of the prison. (For human rights defenders and others illegally incarcerated, even after the release or bail order is received by the jail authorities, it takes hours and even several days, for them to come out of prison!) Besides, the convicts, all seemed to have enjoyed their ‘sentence’ – fatted, well-dressed and groomed. Most prisoners in India are certainly not as privileged as these henchmen of ‘hindutva’. It was back to square one for Bilkis, her kith and kin, for the many victim survivors of the Gujarat Carnage, for human rights defenders and others who have given up so much for these victim survivors) and for the many millions of others.

The world and all citizens who care for truth and justice, were outraged at the fact that the eleven criminals had their sentences remitted. For such a ghastly crime, this ‘remission’ is just not given! Officialdom tried to justify this act: with flimsy and unacceptable reasons. Social media went viral, with people from all walks of life coming together to express condemnation. Leading newspapers (nationally and internationally) had editorials and op-eds clearly taking a stand against this remission. Interestingly, even some of the ‘godified’ electronic media, named the RSS and the VHP in their reportage. Powerful statements of condemnation came in from eminent citizens, intellectuals, politicians, activists and others from across the board. The voice of all was loud and clear: this act is a blatant travesty of justice.

Back to Square One

 On 17 August 2022, Bilkis stated, “Two days ago on August 15, 2022 the trauma of the past 20 years washed over me again. When I heard that the 11 convicted men who devastated my family and my life, and took from me my 3-year-old daughter, had walked free, I was bereft of words. I am still numb. Today I can only say this- how can justice for any woman end like this? I trusted the highest courts in our land. I trusted the system, and I was learning slowly to live with my trauma. The release of these convicts has taken from me my peace and shaken my faith in justice. My sorrow and my wavering faith is not for myself alone but for every woman who is struggling for justice in courts. No one enquired about my safety and well-being, before taking such a big and unjust decision. I appeal to the Gujarat Government, please undo this harm. Give me back my right to live without fear and in peace. Please ensure that my family and I are kept safe.”

Fortunately, women stalwarts like CPI(M) leader and activist Subhashini Ali, former professor Roop Rekha Verma and journalist Revati Laul who took up cudgels on behalf of Bilkis. They jointly filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the Gujarat government’s remission and release order; others like TMC leader Mahua Moitra and former IPS officer Meeran Chadha also joined in. Besides there was a whole battery of committed and brilliant lawyers (mainly women) who were convinced that the cause of truth and justice had to triumph for Bilkis, for the women of India and ultimately, for the future of the country! For more than sixteen months, Bilkis waited patiently, till her vindication, with the pathbreaking verdict of 8 January 2024!

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The convicts have to return to jail as per the Court order! That is clear! According to media reports, most of them have ‘vanished into thin air’; if they are not back in jail in two weeks, the Apex Court may have to charge and imprison those responsible for the remission order (including key people from the Gujarat and Central Governments)! On the question of sending the convicts back to the jail, the Court held that rule of law has to prevail over the liberty of the convicts. The Court stated, “Rule of law does not mean protection to a fortunate few. In ADM Jabalpur, Justice Khanna had said rule of law is the antithesis to arbitrariness. We hold justice cannot be done without adherence to the rule of law,”. Further stating, “We hold that deprivation of liberty to the respondents is justified. They have lost their right to liberty once they were convicted and imprisoned. if they want to seek remission in accordance with law then they have to be in jail. Rule law must prevail. Thus, all respondents are directed to report to jail authorities within two weeks,” 

When the judgment was delivered, the Gujarat Government was on the eve of launching its vibrant tamasha at the expense of the tax-payer! MOUs of a mind-boggling amount were signed; the plain truth is that (and everybody knows it!) very little will actually materialise, as past evidence shows! Instead, the Gujarat Government, together with the other criminals in the Central Government, need to hang their heads down in shame! They have reached such abysmal depths that they are unable to stand up for a poor rural woman who has been gang-raped and who has witnessed the rape and murder of her kith and kin! The judgment where the Bilkis Bano case is concerned, is certainly a shot in the arm for all those who believe in truth and justice; it has delivered a body blow to criminals who are part of a fascist regime! Of course, they are certain to make every effort to look for ‘loop-holes’ in the judgment, in order to justify their criminal act and to see how best they can still keep their men out of prison!

In a powerful statement on hearing the pathbreaking verdict, Bilkis says, “today is truly the New Year for me. I have wept tears of relief. I have smiled for the first time in over a year and half. I have hugged my children. It feels like a stone the size of a mountain has been lifted from my chest, and I can breathe again. This is what justice feels like. I thank the honourable Supreme Court of India for giving me, my children and women everywhere, this vindication and hope in the promise of equal justice for all”

At this moment Bilkis Bano and all who believe in truth and justice, stand vindicated! Hopefully, it is new dawn, for we, the people of India!

THIS PIECE IS WRITTEN BY HUMAN RIGHTS AND PEACE ACTIVIST FR CEDRIC PRAKASH SJ. THE VIEWS CONTAINED IN THIS OPINION PIECE ARE ENTIRELY THOSE OF THE AUTHOR. THE EDITOR AND STAFF OF NEWSNET ONE AND DO NOT NECESSARILY ENDORSE THE VIEWS IN THIS OPINION PIECE.