The never-ending ordeal of Bilkis Bano: A national shame

Even before the remission of their sentence, the convicts toyed with the justice system, using their influence to secure extended parole. The dubious standards applied at various points beggars belief

Bilkis Bano (left); Muslim family fled their village in fear (right)
Bilkis Bano (left); Muslim family fled their village in fear (right)

Shalini Sahay

She survived because of divine intervention, says Bilkis Bano’s lawyer Shobha Gupta. What else can explain, she asks, her survival after members of her family and her first-born were killed before her eyes, her mother and other women were raped, she was herself gangraped and left for dead.

Pulling clothes from the dead to cover herself, living to tell the story and then fighting for justice took a toll. Bilkis Bano, now 35, has lived under medication and even now finds it difficult to face people and especially a crowd.

The only reason, Gupta recalls, why the legal team decided against seeking the ultimate punishment and challenge the life-sentence was because they decided that enough was enough. Bilkis Bano deserved to live in peace and not fight another battle and repeat the heart-rending details.

Now the remission of the life-sentence of the 11 convicts, who walked free on August 15, has put the clock back. She can challenge the ‘legal but unjust’ remission, say legal experts. Already petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court by CPI(M) member Subhashini Ali, Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra and others challenging the remission.

Writing in his book ‘Between Memory and Forgetting: Massacre and the Modi Years in Gujarat’, former IAS officer-turned activist Harsh Mander recorded the nightmare Bilkis Bano went through.

The family was moving in a truck to a village when a mob of 20-30 people attacked them. The men snatched the three-year-old from Bilkis, and smashed her head to the ground. With her daughter dead, three men, all from her village and people she knew, took turns to rape a five-months pregnant Bilkis, who tried to escape. She was 21 years old at the time.

Cedric Prakash recalled in Counterview the horrendous details in Bilkis Bano’s own words. “All the four men with us were killed brutally. The women were stripped naked and raped. 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. While 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 have known the men who raped me for many years. We sold them milk. They were our customers. How can I forgive them?”

The police initially refused to lodge her complaint. When they finally did, the FIR was manipulated; the medical reports and post-mortem of the bodies omitted significant details; evidence was destroyed as all the dead were buried by the police themselves; the bodies of the men were found decapacitated from the head to prevent recognition; the body of her three-year-old toddler was never found. The prosecution sided with the accused; the lower court which heard her case upheld the plea of the accused that they were innocent. The case was closed!

Activists in Mumbai protest against the release of men convicted of gang-raping Bilkis Bano during the 2002 Gujarat riots, Aug 23, 2022 (Photo: Getty images)
The never-ending ordeal of Bilkis Bano: A national shame

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) under the stewardship of Justice J.S. Verma received her petition in 2003 and conducted its own independent inquiry and supported her case. NHRC persuaded high-profile lawyer Harish Salve to represent Bilkis before 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. The trial was shifted to Mumbai as the Supreme Court felt a fair trial would not be possible in Ahmedabad. In 2008, eleven of the accused were convicted to life-imprisonment.

In May 2017, the Bombay High Court not only upheld the sentence but also held the doctors and policemen accused of manipulating evidence but acquitted earlier, guilty. In 2019, the Supreme Court awarded a compensation of Rs 50 lakh to Bilkis.

It remains the highest ever compensation paid to a rape victim in the history of Indian judiciary. 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.”

The court also ordered the State to give Bilkis a house at a place of her choice and a job. But five years down the line the Gujarat government has not been able to deliver either. Bilkis had pleaded that since she was unlettered, her husband be given the job. She has received no reply so far. While the money was paid, the house too is yet to be delivered.

C.K. Raulji was one of the two BJP MLAs (Sumanben Chauhan being the other one) who were part of the 11-member jail advisory committee of Godhra district that unanimously recommended remission for the eleven convicts. Raulji justified the remission by saying that the convicts “could have been framed intentionally”. He went on to add, “I don’t know whether they committed the crime or not. But their conduct was good; the activity of the family was good. They are Brahmins. Their sanskaar happen to be good.”

Remission of sentence is far from easy and is rare in cases involving sexual violence. Courts and the NHRC have consistently taken a stern view on such cases since the Nirbhaya rape and murder case in December 2012. Even Gujarat government changed its remission policy of 1992 and dropped mention of any relief to the rape accused in 2013.

In June 2022, the Union government issued guidelines for special remission of convicts to coincide with the 75th Independence Day and expressly prohibited remission of rape convicts.

Neither Prime Minister Narendra Modi—who had called upon people to respect women in his Independence Day address—nor Union Home Minister Amit Shah has broken his silence on the remission given to the 11 convicts in the Bilkis Bano case. Nor has the Union government clarified if the Gujarat state administration had sought its concurrence for remission, as required by the law in cases investigated and prosecuted by central agencies (in this case the CBI).

But in the midst of growing national and international outrage, The Indian Express reported on August 23 that many of the eleven convicts had enjoyed regular parole and furloughs on grounds ranging from house warming to son’s wedding to mother’s surgery. Most of these requests were apparently made to the district authorities who were generous in allowing them to walk out. But on several occasions when applications were filed before the courts—possibly because the incumbent district authorities were not equally obliging—the requests were turned down in several cases.

A witness in the case, Phiroz Ghanchi, filed an RTI application to the Godhra sub-jail seeking details of the parole and furlough granted to the 11 convicts. The jail’s Public Information Officer responded on August 20, 2020 that this was ‘third party information’ and could not be shared without the consent of the accused.

In 2017, the witnesses wrote to the Superintendent of Police, Dahod, complaining that family members of two convicts, Radheyshyam Shah and Keshar Vohania, were threatening to kill them. The convicts were vengeful and were issuing repeated death threats. In 2018, as many as 16 villagers from Randikpur, including eight prosecution witnesses, wrote to the Collector, Dahod, complaining that police were putting pressure on them to record statements in favour of the convicts.

A five-page letter was sent to Gujarat’s then Home Minister Pradeepsinh Jadeja in February 2021 by Abdul Razzak Mansuri from Randikpur complaining that the convicts were “using their time out of jail to attend political events, continue with their businesses and build their bungalows” besides threatening the witnesses.

Radheyshyam Shah, one of the influential convicts, sought a 28-day parole for a ‘house-warming ceremony’ in April 2022. The plea was rejected by Gujarat High Court Justice A.S. Supehia who noted that Shah had already spent 60 days on parole earlier this year between January 29 and March 30.

In May 2019, Justice Umesh Trivedi of the Gujarat High Court rejected the prayer of another convict, Keshar Vohania, who had sought parole for his son’s marriage. Justice Trivedi recorded that the convict had already enjoyed parole for 90 days in the six months between September 2018 and February 2019.

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