Herald View: Bilkis, maybe there’s hope still

They raped a pregnant 21-year-old 22 times. They killed 14 people, raped Bilkis' mother & sisters, smashed in the head of her 3-year-old child. They were set free, garlanded like heroes come home

Bilkis Bano, 15 years after the event, holds her infant daughter. The Bombay High Court had just upheld the rapists' life sentence & convicted 5 policemen, 2 doctors for covering up the crime (photo: Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times/Getty Images)
Bilkis Bano, 15 years after the event, holds her infant daughter. The Bombay High Court had just upheld the rapists' life sentence & convicted 5 policemen, 2 doctors for covering up the crime (photo: Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times/Getty Images)

Herald View

It was Independence Day in 2022 when the 11 rapists of Bilkis Bano walked free, even as Prime Minister Modi waxed eloquent on ‘nari shakti’ in his 15 August address from the ramparts of the Red Fort.

Ironic that he should have said: “you must have witnessed the power of nari shakti in our courts”, when what we’d seen was a mockery of nari shakti and a travesty of justice.

What we saw more recently in our Supreme Court—against the tide and a little aberrantly even—was more a testament to that shakti and a sign that maybe not all is lost yet.

We are referring, of course, to the judgement delivered by the bench of Justice B.V. Nagarathna and Justice Ujjal Bhuyan, which upheld the petition of Bilkis Bano against the release of her rapists.

Few would have expected the court, in 2022, to overturn the ruling of another Supreme Court bench—the ruling that had paved the way for the release of the convicts. Fewer would have expected the court to rap the Gujarat government on the knuckles for being in cahoots with the convicts.

It is not without reason that the Supreme Court, in recent years, has come to be known as an ‘Executive court’—it almost invariably lands on the side of the State in a dispute with citizens. We make no secret of our appreciation of the judgement delivered by justices Nagarathna and Bhuyan—even if it does not quite restore our shaky faith in the Judiciary, it keeps a flicker of hope alive.

Justice Bhuyan was elevated to the Supreme Court in July 2023, while Justice Nagarathna is reportedly in line to be the first woman Chief Justice of India in 2027—albeit for a short, one-month period.

Even so, the symbolism matters: if it comes to pass, it will certainly count as a more energetic expression of nari shakti.

It will also be a happy first instance of a father and a daughter having both held the CJI’s office in their time. Justice Nagarathna is the daughter of E.S. Venkataramaiah, who served as the CJI in 1989.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Justice Nagarathna’s was the lone dissenting judgement when the Supreme Court (in early 2023) upheld the Demonetisation of 2016. To be clear, she wasn’t passing judgement on the merit of the exercise, but making a point about the ‘rule of law’.

Even in the latest Bilkis Bano judgement on 8 January, she upheld the ‘rule of law’ and held that procedures could not be changed or used selectively and arbitrarily.

In our non-juridical understanding of the Bilkis Bano case, the ‘rule of law’ restraints that Justice Nagarathna invokes are only a saving grace— something that brings the rapists back into the fold of law, something that questions their immunity and makes them answerable again for their inhuman conduct. It doesn’t seem enough, but it does alleviate the pain, the sense of injustice and helplessness Bilkis must have felt when they walked free and were garlanded like heroes come home.

They had raped a pregnant 21-year-old Bilkis 22 times.

This, for the benefit of younger readers, was 2002, the year made infamous by the Gujarat riots.

They killed 14 people, raped her mother and her sisters and smashed the head of her three-year-old child before throwing her body into a ravine.

It was left to the Supreme Court to order that the investigation be handed over to the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) and the trial shifted to Maharashtra from Gujarat, apprehending that a fair trial would not be possible in Gujarat.

The accused were sentenced to life imprisonment by a sessions court in Maharashtra. But they were sent to prison in Gujarat.

While ostensibly serving life terms, they used their considerable influence and goodwill with the ruling state establishment to spend a 1,000+ days out of jail; one of them spent over 1,500 days out of jail on parole leave and furlough.

When the Supreme Court ruling in 2022 allowed the Gujarat government to decide finally on the remission of their life sentence, Bilkis asked: “How can justice for any woman end like this? I trusted the courts, I trusted the system...”

But the ‘system’ had colluded with the rapists.

It’s hard to keep your faith in democratic institutions when they all look like a train wreck, but maybe there’s hope still, Bilkis.

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines