Bilkis Bano case: SC hearing again reduced to 'paperwork' of sending notices to convicts

Still no meaningful progress as the apex court approaches its summer break. The next hearing is on July 11, by which time Justice K.M. Joseph—who leads the bench—will have retired

Activists in Mumbai, holding up placards that combine to call for 'Justice for Bilkis', during a protest against the release of the men convicted of her gang-rape during the 2002 Gujarat riots (photo: Getty Images)
Activists in Mumbai, holding up placards that combine to call for 'Justice for Bilkis', during a protest against the release of the men convicted of her gang-rape during the 2002 Gujarat riots (photo: Getty Images)

Ashlin Mathew

The Supreme Court hearing in the Bilkis Bano case was again restricted to issuing notices to all the convicts who have not been served and a directive to publish notices in local newspapers, including in Gujarati and English. The case will now be heard on July 11.

The court directed that in order to avoid wasting time during the next hearing, notices have to be published in all Gujarati and English newspapers regarding the convicts who could not be served notices, including one whose house was found locked by the local police and his phone switched off.

Justices K.M. Joseph, B.V. Nagarathna and Ahsanuddin Amanullah were hearing a batch of petitions challenging the Gujarat government's decision to prematurely release 11 convicts who were sentenced to life for gang rapes and murders during the 2002 Gujarat riots. The apex court had issued notices on March 27 and the case had come up for hearing on April 18 and May 2.

On being asked by Justice Nagarathna the names of the papers it would appear in, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta suggested Gujarat Samachar, Sandesh, Dainik Bhaskar and Times of India. Justice Joseph directed Advocate Shobha Gupta for the petitioners to ensure the publication of the notice.

During the hearing on May 2 too, the case did not proceed beyond the issuance of notice to all parties, as the lawyers for the convicts alleged that the petitioners lied and committed "fraud on the affidavit". The court had attempted several times to get the petitioners to argue with decorum, but was repratedly interrupted. This led Justice K.M. Joseph to state that it was evident that they did not want him to hear the case.

As the counsels for the convicts kept deferring the hearing, Justice Joseph had snapped, "Don't make me say things. It is obvious, more than obvious, you do not want this bench to hear the matter. But, this is not fair to me. We had made [it] clear that the matter will be heard for disposal. You are officers of [the] court, not just counsels for clients. We will proceed with the matter."

Then both Vrinda Grover and Indira Jaising, on the petitioners' side, objected to what they termed as machinations by the respondents to delay justice.

Justice Joseph, who is heading the bench, is set to retire on June 16, with May 19 being his last working day before the Supreme Court closes for the summer. The convicts and Mehta did not want the case to be heard during the vacations. This is likely to result in a new bench hearing the case on July 11.

Case history

On April 18, the bench wanted to know why the Gujarat government granted the 11 life convicts remission. They highlighted that when remission is considered in such heinous crimes affecting the society at large, the power must be exercised keeping in mind the public interest.

“The question is whether govt applied its mind, what material formed the basis of its decision. [The law] is clear. Just because [the union government] has approved does not mean [the state] is not required to apply [its] mind. If you don't give us [a] reason, we will draw our own conclusions,” said the bench.

Justice K.M. Joseph pointed out that these 11 men were granted 1,100 days of parole, which translated into almost three years, and one convict got 1,500 days' parole. “What policy have you been following?," he asked. "Today it is this lady [Bilkis]. Tomorrow, it can be you or me. There must be objective standards. You can't compare someone who has committed murder with this crime.”

Reading the order, Joseph asked both the state and the union government to be ready with the files and allowed them time until May 1 to file their affidavits.

Then too the lawyers of the convicts sought more time to respond and urged the bench to adjourn the hearing. This had senior advocate A.M. Singhvi saying, "Every time someone seeks a new date!” This led the bench to agree that the counsel for the accused persons often engage in delaying tactics.

Godhra riots

On August 15, 2022, 11 convicts in the Bilkis Bano case walked out of jail as the Gujarat government allowed their release under its remission policy. In May 2022, a bench comprising Justice Ajay Rastogi and Vikram Nath had ruled that the Gujarat government had the jurisdiction to consider the remission request as the offence took place in Gujarat.

Bilkis Bano was 21 years old and five months pregnant when she was gang-raped while fleeing the riots that broke out in the aftermath of the Godhra train burning incident in Gujarat. Her three-year-old daughter was among seven family members killed at that time. The investigation in the case was handed over to the CBI and the trial was transferred to a Maharashtra court by the Supreme Court.

A special CBI court in Mumbai had on January 21, 2008, sentenced the 11 to life imprisonment. Their conviction was later upheld by the Bombay High Court and the Supreme Court.

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