Herald View: We owe Bilkis Bano more than just an apology
It was appalling and barely believable that 11 convicted for rape and murder in the Bilkis Bano case should be feted and garlanded in the kind of homecoming ceremony you might associate with heroes
If it weren’t galling enough to learn that the eleven convicted for rape and murder in the Bilkis Bano case had walked free this Independence Day, it was appalling and barely believable that they should be feted and garlanded in the kind of homecoming ceremony you might associate with heroes. For the right surreal effect, this spectacle played out within hours of the Prime Minister calling upon people to “respect women”, in his Independence Day address from the Red Fort. These men had been convicted for gangraping a pregnant Bilkis in 2002 after killing seven of her family members, including her three-year-old first born. The charges against them were investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation, the trial was held outside Gujarat, and a CBI Special Court in Mumbai sentenced 11 of the 19 accused in 2008. The Bombay High Court upheld the conviction in 2018 and the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal as recently as 2019.
Indian jurisprudence has taken a very stern view of violence against women, especially after the Nirbhaya rape and murder case in 2012. The Gujarat government itself, in 2013, reversed the old remission policy, in force since 1992, and took away the relief of remission from people convicted of rape and murder. Even a guideline issued by the Union government in June 2022 made it clear that no remission could be granted to rapists as part of the 75th anniversary of Independence. Ironically, the remission granted these rapists was cued by the Supreme Court in May this year, when one of the convicts pleaded remission of sentence on grounds that he had already spent 15 years in prison. The Supreme Court ruled that the Gujarat government should decide on the remission in accordance with the 1992 policy, applicable when the crime was committed and the sentence pronounced. In doing this, the apex court has also upended a previous SC ruling (Sangeet & Anr vs State of Haryana; Nov 2012) that ‘life sentence’ will normally mean the prisoner’s ‘life time’.
The silence of the Union government on this remission also speaks volumes. It leaves little doubt in anyone’s mind that the decision was taken by the state government with the concurrence of the Centre, also incidentally required under law. The Code of Criminal Procedure lays down that for crimes investigated and prosecuted by central government agencies, remission requires consultation with the Union government; the Supreme Court clarified, in 2015, that in such cases, ‘consultation’ would mean ‘concurrence’. It’s an open secret, anyway, that nothing stirs in Gujarat without the knowledge and approval of Messrs Modi and Shah. This unexpected surge of humanist magnanimity, it is widely rumoured, was triggered not by moral or legal considerations but the coming election in the state. It is hard to miss the communal overtone in this remission, or to escape the conclusion that this is yet another communally charged pitch ahead of elections in the state. The public and media reaction has also been strangely muted. These are the same people who, in 2012, were clamouring for capital punishment for ‘Nirbhaya’s’ rapists. Nor apparently have they registered the inconvenient detail that the Gujarat government has still not honoured a Supreme Court directive, in 2017, to find a house for Bilkis Bano at a place of her choice.
Even in the face of blindingly obvious evidence of their crime, the eleven convicted—now free—of the rape and murders sought to imply that their conviction, in 2008, was a political witch-hunt. Their conviction, though, went through several layers of appeal and was upheld at every stage. The Supreme Court itself dismissed the appeals saying there was ‘clear-cut’ evidence against them. The world is watching and this remission order will no doubt be seen to be regressive, and be yet another black mark in India’s dubious human rights record. We owe Bilkis Bano more than just an apology.