In 2008, after a long trial full of tribulations, 11 rioters were convicted of raping Bilkis Bano during the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in the western state of Gujarat. It was an emotional victory for Bano as well for many social activists, like Teesta Setalvad, who had pursued the case against all odds.
The verdict was seen as a watershed moment. It was perhaps the only case where the rioters involved in gang rape were charged, and later convicted. Therefore, last month, when the authorities decided to grant remission to the convicts, those who had fought the case were shell-shocked.
This happened hours after Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while addressing the nation from the ramparts of Red Fort in Delhi, spoke about ‘Nari Shakti’ women empowerment.
According to an estimate, India has witnessed about 60,000 communal riots since Independence in 1947. According to the National Crime Record Bureau, during Modi’s tenure between 2014 and 2020, a total of 5,714 communal riots have been reported across several parts of India. That means two riots a day.
Be it the massacre of 10,000 Bengali Muslims at Nellie in Assam in 1983 or any other riot, the accused is hardly ever prosecuted. The only two exceptions could be the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 and the Gujarat riots in 2002, where the accused were brought to the book to a certain extent. While the pressure maintained by Sikh political parties forced the authorities to prosecute several top Congress leaders for the 1984 genocide, social activist Teesta Setalvad and a few police officers were responsible for bringing justice to the victims of the Gujarat riots, including Bilkis Bano. In the Sikh riots as well, those involved in sexual offences got off scot-free.
Author Pav Singh in his book, 1984: India’s Guilty Secret, laments the lack of attention paid to sexual violence during the riots. The intensity and horror of the massacres were such that they have largely overshadowed the sexual assaults that amount to a mass crime against humanity.
The People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) in its report included many testimonies of the 1984 riot rape victims. The report highlights that while the looting and killings continued, the police continued to look the other way. “It was a continuous spree of arson, rape and murders after that. Later enquiries conducted by a senior police official revealed that at least four women, their ages ranging from 14 to 50 were gang raped. Later seven cases of rape from Trilokpuri were officially reported by the J. P. Narayan Hospital, Delhi,” reads the report.
When Bilkis Bano’s accused were sentenced to life, many like her felt a sense of justice. But when on India’s Independence Day, the Gujarat government set all the 11 accused in the case free, it opened wounds of all those who had fought Bano’s case. Once again, Bano’s ordeal to get justice began.
The PUCL committee also provides the list of many Congress Party leaders who were involved in assaulting women. The committee lists names of Congress leaders from the grassroots to highest levels who were either directly involved in committing the heinous act of rape or had incited mob to do the same. “No one was ever charged for rape. 147 policemen were also booked for various charges, but they too were let off later,” said human rights activist and member of PUCL committee John Dayal.
Pav Singh further writes, “The gang rapes were efficiently organised and planned. Much of the sexual violence was carried out reportedly on the instructions of local Congress leaders. Sikh men were also subjected to sexualised humiliation, being forced to watch their wives, daughters and sisters raped before they were killed.”
Affidavits by women filed in various commissions had heart-wrenching stories of sexual violence, but none of the accused was ever booked or tried for the same. When Bilkis Bano’s accused were sentenced to life, many like her felt a sense of justice. But when on India’s Independence Day, the Gujarat government set all the 11 accused in the case free, it opened wounds of all those who had fought Bano’s case. Once again, Bano’s ordeal to get justice began.
When the riots broke out in Gujarat on March 3, 2002, Bano was on a truck with her family, trying to escape the mob attack. Around 25-30 people attacked them. She was 21 then and five months pregnant. The rapists snatched her three-year-old daughter and flung her in the air. The child’s head was smashed when she hit the ground. Several men raped Bilkis along with her mother, sisters and other relatives. While 12 people in her family died, she survived to narrate the ordeal and seek justice.
Bano’s journey has been long and tough. Her case was probed by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and transferred to another state to protect witnesses. The Special CBI court found 11 men guilty and sentenced them to life imprisonment in 2004. In 2007, the Bombay High Court upheld the CBI judgment. Bano had identified the men in the court. Her family sold them milk and she had known them.
“Bilkis got the support from civil society and activists like Teesta Setalvad, who fought her case and so some sense of justice prevailed. Setting the rapist free is an insult not just for Bilkis or Muslim women, but for the womenkind,” says Indian academician and human rights activist Navsharan Singh.
Now with the likes of Setalvad and IAS officer Sanjiv Bhatt languishing in jail for raising their voice against atrocities in the Gujarat riots, it appears that the government plans to wipe out the memory of the Gujarat riots. Questioning the timing of the release of 11 accused, Singh adds, “All this is an attempt to erase the gruesome Gujarat riots from history. It is a very well calculated move of the government,” she adds.
One Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lawmaker from Gujarat who was also part of the review panel that has granted remission to the 11 accused in the case, went on to call the rapist an upper caste Hindu with good moral character. “They are good people – Brahmins. And Brahmins are known to have good ‘sanskaar’. It might have been someone’s ill intention to corner and punish them,” he said.
The accused in Bilkis Bano’s case were felicitated like heroes after they were released from jail. They were welcomed with garlands and sweets as if to legitimise their crime. One Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lawmaker from Gujarat who was also part of the review panel that has granted remission to the 11 accused in the case, went on to call the rapist an upper caste Hindu with good moral character. “They are good people – Brahmins. And Brahmins are known to have good ‘sanskaar’. It might have been someone’s ill intention to corner and punish them,” he said.
The state government granted remission to the 11 men, based on the 1992 remission policy, which says that convicts serving life sentences can be granted remission and released after they have served a minimum of 14 years in jail. This policy was in force when the crime was committed against Bano. However, the Supreme Court discarded the policy in November 2012. The state government then formulated a new policy in 2014 based on the Supreme Court directions that introduced restrictions on the conditions that remission can be granted and barred rapists, human traffickers, drug peddlers and terrorists from remission.
The Gujarat government approved the remission on the pretext that they had served 14 years in prison and were eligible to be released. The remission and premature release policy allows the state to release prisoners on the pretext of health and conduct and behaviour inside the jail. The 10 members jail advisory committee set up by the Gujarat government has six BJP functionaries as its members, including two area lawmakers. The jail committee that approves the remission request had six members of the ruling BJP.
Human rights lawyer Shamshad Pathan said that the large number of convicts who have committed a less heinous crime than the rape of Bilkis Nabo, continue to languish in jails without any remission. Pathan said, “When a government takes such a decision, the victim’s hope is killed.”
The release of the convicts has given out a strong message. The assembly elections in Gujarat are due in a few months and in times like these releasing Hindus accused of assaulting Muslims during the 2002 riots is another attempt to polarise votes in Gujarat ahead of the elections. After all, Modi and the BJP got their hold over Gujarat like never before after the 2022 riots.